Review of A Listening Thing by William Michaelian
“Why do we muzzle our children? Why do we put away our old people? Why do we persist in the notion that we do not have time to love and care for each other? Why are there people like Uncle Leo, who wait alone, year after year, for a glimmer of hope to enter their lives? I’ll tell you why. We are selfish. On top of that, we are afraid- afraid to live, afraid to die, afraid to be hurt, afraid to appear foolish- afraid to be.“ p.124 of A Listening Thing
The above quote is one of my favorite observations about life from the thoughts of the main character, Stephen Monroe, in William Michaelian’s 10th Anniversary Edition of ‘A Listening Thing’.
It is such observations, questions, and the character’s introspection that made me love this book. Many times I found myself thinking “yes, that’s exactly it, that’s the problem, that’s the heavy loneliness so many have to bear in life, that is the way I feel also”.
The main character, Stephen Monroe, is what many would call an average man. One of those people that many in life would probably pass by and not give a second thought. There are many such real characters in society; those with hum-drum jobs and lives, struggling financially, dealing with failed marriages and relationships with children or other family grown distant. Stephen seems a pretty basic individual when you first start reading, until he delves into his own heart and mind, looking at life with so much quiet desperation and unsolved questions. He is far from basic, despite his boring job as a typesetter and his somewhat hidden existence in the world.
Stephen is a man who is world-weary and sees with a clear mind and heart the flaws in society and the lack of love, the silly titles that make some important and others invisible. He is distanced from his only son, which clearly bothers him, and is dealing with the fact of his wife’s departure and his displeasure with work and his life in general. He even deems himself a failure to some degree, but conveys in his deepest being that this is not really the case, that his unhappiness, though frustrating and depressing, is not without hope.
In actuality, Stephen is a man of much wisdom and emotion, and this is displayed repeatedly throughout the book. You basically have a man who is looking at himself straightforwardly and teetering on the edge of a society full of massive flaws and callous ways. His view of the world, though sad and rather pessimistic, is not without its observations of beauty or the possibility of change. He is also not a man blaming the world for his own flaws or failures, but takes great responsibility for much of how his life has turned out. He admits he is lost and perhaps even afraid. On page 125 he says ….“the world is a busy street, and I don’t know which way to turn. Maybe it doesn’t matter”.
Throughout the book you read of a seemingly ordinary man with much intelligence and heart, a man that is trying to listen and dreams of a world that also listens. How many of us, especially those that think and feel on a deeper level, cannot relate to such a character?
As an example of Stephen’s frustration and wisdom, one of my favorite excerpts from the book, on p. 29 is the following: “And who is the underdog? Those of us who are trampled on by society, or made to look awkward by people who, despite their wealth and influence, contribute nothing- those of us who are shoved into corners and under bridges because we were born at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, or to the wrong family- those of us who refuse to conform, and who have paid a tremendous price for our freedom, and who will never give it up- those of us who try and fail, then try again- those of us who laugh in the face of ridicule. Beyond that, the underdog is anyone who cares about what happens- to us, to the planet- and is willing to admit it, even if only to himself.”
So, it is not so much the storyline that kept my attention throughout the book, but the inner workings, thoughts and wisdom of the main character. Though the storyline is important, because eventually Stephen in all his loneliness does return to a place where he can receive love (however flawed), it is the depth of the character I find so mesmerizing, and exactly what makes this an excellent read. It says on p.27, “Uniformity may be cost effective, but it shrivels the spirit”. I think the story backs up that statement throughout, and leaves the reader with a deeper sense of self and the world, or at least a wish to achieve such.
The extensive interview with William Michaelian included in the 10th Anniversary Edition is also a great addition to the book, and gives a wonderful glimpse into the author himself.
Below is a link to purchase the book and a link to the author’s website:
‘A Listening Thing‘