“Some stories are to be handled, not told,” says Osman, the failed English graduate student turned rising tech industry strategist, in the front line of this densely layered satire of corporate culture and the rhetoric of the diversity.
And indeed, for the next 250 or so pages, the characters brandish anecdotes, observations and snippets of biography like stilettos in this winding, dark and sometimes comical examination of the world we make, written by Naben Ruthnum, an author mostly known for the dark thrillers he writes under his pseudonym Nathan Ripley (find you in the dark, your life is mine).
Ruthnum’s first fiction book under his own name (he also wrote a non-fiction book titled Curry: eating, reading and racing) shares its title with that of 19th-century Russian novelist Mikhail Lermontov. Like Ruthnum’s protagonist, Osman, Lermontov’s “hero of our time” was an alienated, nihilistic outsider engaged in imperial conquest. (Lermontov died in a duel in 1841 at the age of 27, a fate less likely to befall a rising figure on the Canadian literary scene.)
Where Lermontov’s hero served the expanding Russian empire, Osman serves a tech company embroiled in a Borg-like assimilation of higher education, successfully marketing its online education solutions to institutions that wish to reduce labor costs while continuing to pay tuition.
The diversity rhetoric deployed to perfection by the tech company’s young and new CEO, Olivia, who uses Osman and other employees of color to bolster her own status as good guys, serves as a cover for her rapacious takeover. education. At the start of the novel, Osman jokes about his skin color and propensity to sweat, causing airport security to dismiss him, prompting Olivia to use his story to launch into a corporate and societal mea culpa. on racism which earns him the highest position in the company.
Later, in a key scene with a college president, Olivia pays homage to “those Socratic values - that old-fashioned Greek Western toga party,” before advocating for a new online education system that eliminates language requirements. in order to remain international. students paying increasingly empty degrees.
All along, A hero of our time is jam-packed with cleverly constructed phrases and revealing, often brutally funny observations of our cultural/technological/political moment.
A billionaire techbro, observed in a bookstore, has “the lost gaze of someone who left books with chalkboards or Etch A Sketches as a viable media format.” In a pitch at a business meeting, Olivia begins with Aristotle “before making the leap to Steve Jobs, who had to be mentioned at least once in those meetings if there was a man behind the desk.” If it was a woman, we would go with Oprah, Taylor Swift, or Sheryl Sandberg, depending on the director’s age, dress, and racial and social background.
In Olivia, Ruthnum captures the subtlety and performative empathy of so much diversity advocacy. It also shows us how we turn the stories of our lives into something that will serve us, as Osman’s father seeks to do by writing a wildly fictional autobiography for fans of inspiring multicultural memoirs, and as Olivia does on many occasions.
Although he is far from heroic, Osman orchestrates an act of resistance against Olivia, and thus acquires a kind of wisdom: “I have suppressed hope, a horizon, a future, any idea of a different existence from what I have at the moment.”
It’s not the happiest of ideas, but, despite the joy to be found in Ruthnum’s cleverly deployed language, it’s not a particularly cheerful book.
Bob Armstrong’s latest novel, Prodigies, was published last year.