Reviewed: Giving Up by Mike Steeves Published by BookThug, Toronto
Giving Up, Mike Steeve’s debut novel, is the story of one night in the life of a Canadian married couple. In the sequence of events that affect the husband, James, and the wife, Mary, separately and then together, the façade of niceness and pleasantries is broken, and the demons and secrets of a marriage are unearthed for the couple to see in each other, and themselves.
The novel splits itself into three parts. The first third is James’s story. He describes to the audience his work on a project he cryptically refers to as his “life’s work.” Though it is clear he has spent most of his adult life working on this project, as the novel opens he has hit a wall creatively, finds himself struggling to focus on his task at hand, and needs to take a walk to clear his head. While out, James meets a lost and harried man, stranded without his wallet or car, who desperately needs a money order cashed. James wrestles with whether or not to help this man, while attempting a way out of the conflict without appearing rude, or inviting a reason for the stranger to attack him, switching his narrative from a manifesto about creativity and work ethic to one about moral responsibility. We meet Mary in the second third, who wants nothing more than to be a mother. She shares her fertility woes—she and James are having trouble getting pregnant, which is slowly threatening to tear apart their marriage. Mary is pulled from her thoughts when a stray cat enters the apartment through an open back door. Mary feels tormented by this animal, and chases it with a broom, until she accidentally injures it and struggles with the guilt of what she has done. James reenters the apartment as the narration switches to third person. The two are independently struggling with the actions of their respective evenings, but are so lost in their own thoughts they struggle to communicate with each other, as the tension builds with no place to go.
This novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered, which seem almost MacGuffin-like (a “MacGuffin” being Alfred Hitchcock’s tried and true technique to give his audience a red herring at the beginning of a film to throw them off the scent). Steeves foregoes discussion of what James’s life’s work actually is and instead uses the project to discuss the cyclical nature of creative blocks. Mary shows herself to be an obsessive person from the start. She dwells on her and James’s inability to conceive, logs hours browsing through friends’ and acquaintances’ social media pages, and feels personally tormented by the stray cat that entered her home. Mary’s obsessive nature drives most of her actions, but no history as to how she came to be that way. But any marriage leaves a lot of unanswered questions. We’ll never know why this couple turned into the people they did, and they might not ever find out either.
This is a novel about what lies beneath—both literally in James’s basement workshop and figuratively in their crumbling marriage. Steeves examines what lurks between James’s niceness, because that niceness caused him to become entangled with the drifter to begin with. James struggles with his own niceness—did he attempt to help the man out of earnest kindness, or was he trying to prove to himself and Mary that he would do the right thing? Does he venture into the basement to work on his life’s work, or is he trying to prove his conviction and dedication to a project though he feels no passion for it anymore? Mary uncovers traits of her own she never thought she had when her maternal desire for a child gives way to a panicked sadism when the stray cat enters her home.
If these people sound unlikeable, that is because they are. They’re self-absorbed and selfish, sadistic, and phony. But unlikeable does not mean unreadable. This is a vivid and relatable portrait of a marriage coming apart at the seams. Who among us hasn’t obsessed over a creative block, or spent hours masochistically poring over a friend’s social media page, comparing (often unfairly) their life to our own? But if Jonathan Franzen can receive praise and acclaim for having his readers to spent over eight hundred pages with some of the most unlikeable characters in contemporary literature, surely we can spend two hundred pages with Mary and James.