Naben Ruthnum | Issue 13
A Hero of Our Time by Naben Ruthnum Penguin Random House Canada, 2022
A Hero of Our Time is a comic novel that satirizes (among other things such as corporate tech and the educational sphere) white liberals and hypocrisy of superficial diversity initiatives and exposes how these initiatives often serve as cultural and corporate capital for the benefit of the status quo or as individual power grabs as is the case of the novel’s antagonist Olivia Robinson.
Kathryn Mockler: Why did you write this novel at this point in time? Were there specific event(s) that triggered this idea?
Naben Ruthnum: The major themes of the novel were the matters I found myself thinking about or talking about every day, but that I had never really written about at length. I’d written about hypocrisy and disguises, sure, but not in a story that took in tech, education, the huge-money games of trade that underlie much of the diversity discussion in the private and public sectors. And I also wanted to write something funny, found that I would never access all the bits of language that could make for a distinct style unless I drew on humour and tested it against the ugliness of many elements of this story.
KM: Osman Shah, is both the protagonist and narrator of this story, who we learn is also a somewhat unreliable narrator — not about his white colleague’s self-interest — but in terms of his own view of himself, his relationships, and what is truth and what is fiction in his storytelling. Can you discuss how the metafictional aspects of the story came about and its relationship to Osman as an unreliable narrator?
NR: I think the reader will quickly realize that Osman doesn’t have the greatest grasp on reality, that his perception is absolutely reliable about some people and some matters, but certainly never himself. I didn’t want to be overly tricky here, and was thinking more than anything of Humbert Humbert as a fictional model — a man who doesn’t realize he’s cruel and demonically selfish as he attempts to tell a story of true love. “Hero” is a story of revenge and justice, told by a selfish person with a distorted sense of ethics — which I think parallels the moral position of many (most?) people who are committed ideologues.
Osman informing the reader that he is writing what they are reading is part of the crisis of literature that he agonizes about in the book — what happens to books once they are read, what will happen to literature as it declines in significance. And, of course, in a story where almost everyone is fabricating an identity or past for themselves, I thought it would be almost unnatural not to acknowledge that Osman is writing the overarching story.
KM: Almost every character in the novel deceives themselves or someone else at some point or multiple points. These deceptions are motivated by various reasons such as self-interest, power, denial, survival, self-sabotage, revenge, or some combination. Even the narrator deceives the reader at times. Could you comment on deception in the book and the choices that went into it?
NR: Osman’s deceptions of the reader aren’t ever deliberate, unless I’m forgetting something: he’s absolutely committed to his own distorted vision of reality, as we all are. But he sure lies a lot to other characters, while letting us know. And other characters lie for all the reasons you detail above. It’s part of the book that pushes at the bounds of realism — not everyone in a given group of characters can possibly be this deceptive — and the intent here was to point to how much of identity off the page is a conscious act of character-creation.
KM: While this is a work of satire and offers many hilarious moments, there is deep sadness in the book too — particularly in Osman’s longing for Nena, the rejections he experiences from his parents, and how Olivia screws him over. It’s this balance of comedy and tragedy that deepens the humour and the social critique. At times when reading it I felt like I was in a laugh-cry state. How were you able to strike this balance? Or what was your approach to the humour in this book?
NR: I look at the book as a comedy, not a satire, exactly — there are obviously many satirical elements, but I think the personally-driven psychological novel elements of the book win out, and the lack of a moral centre — even a suggested moral centre — make it hard for the book to work as a straight satire. But perhaps I’m just scared of how satirists are perceived to have some sort of answer for the reader, a sense of a way things could be better.
The humour was crucial in cracking through the darkness and elements of cynicism of the story. A purely cynical book is usually an immature work, often dull and hard to get through. I wanted to use humour not just as a distraction, but as a lens, a way the narrator had of perceiving and dealing with the world, which is of course because it is how I perceive and deal with the world. Making this story funny allowed me to drive deeper into my points — these punchline-like moments of connecting elements or being surprised by a perception pull a reader deeper into the book, I think. If done properly, a funny book about sad matters becomes an extremely emotional reading experience, one that can be more immersive than a book that pushes relentless tragedy at you.
KM: AAP, the “edutech” company where the characters work sets out and is succeeding to obliterate post-secondary education by automating it. What are your thoughts on the current state of post-secondary education? Or why did you choose post-secondary education to satirize?
I was specifically focused on how the administrative class has taken over the university as institution. There’s really nothing here about the classroom, other than how I deal with the disgraceful way sessional professors and anyone who didn’t manage to grab onto tenure is treated in the system. The relentless application of “tech = good = progress” logic to education, when that thinking is wielded by an administrative body who wants to maximize process, is a fruitful modern evil to write about.
KM: There seems to be no end to Olivia’s ascension as long as she confesses and apologies. What are your thoughts on contemporary “confession and apology” and how it operates both within and outside the novel?
NR: I don’t think Olivia apologizes for anything truly, truly bad that she does — her apologies are poses, or take place in scenes we don’t quite see. Knowing what to apologize for and what to ignore, and appearing to be a person who recognizes their own flaws, is a powerful tool for her.
KM: Was this novel influenced or inspired by any other writers or books in terms of its thematic content or style?
NR: I mention J.G. Farrell in the book — it’s not obvious, but he certainly was an influence here. Don DeLillo for permission to write the kind of looping, allusive dialogue that appears in many of the scenes. Philip Roth, Paul Beatty, obviously Lermontov (whose title I stole). Iris Murdoch and Kingsley Amis.
KM: How has the novel been received so far? I realize it’s just come out so maybe that’s TBD. But how are readers responding to the nuances of the novel’s humour? Are you having the discussions you want to be having?
NR: I’ve heard from many writers who’ve read it (not just my close friends) and have been extremely gratified that they like the sentences, that they found it funny, and seem to get what I was aiming at. One extremely acute reader who is a friend found that the darkness overwhelmed the humour—and in general, I think the sadness is a bit more pronounced than the laffs in reader reactions.
But I think for the book to create the kind of discussion, both with me and out in the world, that it could potentially provoke, it would have to do really, really well in being read by a mass audience. I’ll let you judge the likelihood of that happening. I’d certainly be thrilled if it did!
KM: The pandemic figures in your novel very much the way it operates in our lives now; that is, it’s part of the daily reality. Did you start this the book before the pandemic or during? Was the pandemic always going to be part of it? What was writing during this time like for you?
NR: I was close to finishing the first draft when the first lockdown occurred, and realized that one of my major plot points — the part about the innovative idea of having a completely-remote semester of education at a college in order for students to feel safer and to emphasize the value of the digital learning experience — would have to be significantly altered. Instead of a killer sales idea on the part of that character, it became an enforced part of daily reality around the world. So in that sense, it’s a novel that had to take in the realities of the pandemic and to become very grounding in a certain span of time.
But it did work psychologically for the novel: it was always going to end as it did, but the conditions of the pandemic and of lockdown added a new logic to how everything shakes out. Having said that, I was very careful to avoid making it a “pandemic novel”—I would like this book to be interesting in ten years to someone with zero interest in how we felt about the pandemic.
I wrote steadily across the pandemic. I had to form new routines and didn’t enjoy writing as much, probably, but I finished quite a bit of work — this book, a couple of novellas, and a YA horror novel. The one extremely pandemic-writing thing I did was start writing a private eye book by hand that was very immersed in the restaurant and bar and general social life of my city. I got quite a ways into it, and then started to type a draft and realized immediately that it was terrible — a real dog, writing with no value. I’d been writing it because I missed some parts of my life, and this scrawling was a form of reminiscent play. It definitely made me feel better when I was doing it, but reading it wouldn’t make anyone else feel anything.
Description from the Publisher
A wry comic novel with an acerbic wit, A Hero of Our Time is a vicious takedown of superficial diversity initiatives and tech culture, with a beating heart of broken sincerity.
Osman Shah is a pitstop on his white colleague Olivia Robinson’s quest for corporate domination at AAP, an edutech startup determined to automate higher education.
Osman, obsessed by Olivia’s ability to successfully disguise ambition and self-interest as collectivist diversity politics, is bent on exposing her. Aided by his colleague turned comrade-in-arms Nena, who loathes and tolerates him in equal measure, Osman delves into Olivia's twisted past. But at every turn, he's stymied by his unfailing gift for cruel observation, which he turns with most ferocity on himself, without ever noticing what it is that stops him from connecting to anyone in his past or present. As Osman loses his grip on his family, Nena, and everything he thought was essential to his identity, he confronts an enemy who may simply be too good at her job to be defeated.
A Hero of Our Time cracks the veneer of well-intentioned race conversations in the West, dismantles cheery narratives of progress through tech and “streamlined” education, and exposes the venomous self-congratulation and devouring lust for wealth, power, and property that lurks beneath.
Naben Ruthnum is the author of A Hero of Our Time and the upcoming horror novella Helpmeet, as well as the essay Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. As Nathan Ripley, he's the author of two thrillers.
You can pre-order Naben Ruthnum’s forthcoming novel Helpmeet:
It's 1900, and Louise Wilk is taking her dying husband home to Buffalo where he grew up. Dr. Edward Wilk is wasting away from an aggressive and debilitating malady. But it's becoming clearer that his condition isn't exactly a disease, but a phase of existence that seeks to transform and ultimately possess him.
“A sumptuous excursion into surreal body horror and an unsparing exploration of the extreme frontiers of connubial devotion. Ruthnum delivers a uniquely unsettling Gothic love story. It holds certain images so grotesque that they will linger in your dreams for weeks.”
— David Demchuk, Award-winning author of The Bone Mother, and RED X.
Issue #13 of Send My Love to Anyone
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