Thomas’ life hasn’t gone the way it should, and he has certain ideas about why that is. Therefore, he decides to stop time, and ask questions to the people he thinks hold the key to explaining his own situation. His method is to kidnap them, chain them to a pole in an abandoned barracks, and convince them to talk.
All we get to witness are the dialogues taking place in the buildings of the military center where Thomas brings his captives. We have only the words and the stories that the two – always two – participants bring to the conversation; these stories struggle for dominance, they try to maintain their coherence in the face of counter-narratives and, sometimes, counter-facts.
Thomas’ first catch is an astronaut he used to go to school with, who worked very hard throughout his career, aiming in the end to go up in a space shuttle. It turns out that the space shuttle project got canceled and the astronaut, Kev, gets to go to the ISS instead – which Thomas knows must be a real disappointment because let’s face it, the ISS is just a “fuck-all stationary space kite” (205). Kev’s purpose in Thomas’ story is to illustrate that his own failure could not simply have been evaded by putting the hours in. “I have an astronaut here”, he later summarizes, “who did everything he was told to do and it got him nowhere.” (184)
In order for Kev to fulfil this purpose, he needs to be a veritable golden boy. “I know you like milk. You drank it in class. You remember? Jesus, you were so pure, like some fucking unicorn.” (27) Sometimes, we witness Thomas bending the facts to straighten this narrative: he assumes that Kev is “from some kind of solid family unit, right?” (22) In fact, Kev reminds him, his parents are divorced. Thomas agrees but later turns out to have deleted this information, asking again for confirmation that Kev’s parents were “probably perfect?” This time Kev answers in no uncertain terms: “I had eleven different bedrooms before I was in high school. I was beaten repeatedly by my father, and he once broke my arm on purpose.” (119)
Second in line is a congressman – Thomas did not have a thought-out plan for the week; the decision to kidnap the politician is a result of his conversation with Kev. Maybe, after all, Kev’s supposed disappointment and Thomas’ own predicament have a common cause: failure of the leaders of society to find the right place for everyone. “You should have found some kind of purpose for me”, Thomas says to Mr. Dickinson (37). “I’m pretty sure that I would have turned out better, and everyone I know would have turned out better, if we’d been part of some universal struggle, some cause greater than ourselves.” Thomas unfavorably contrasts his own generation with that of the wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran he abducted, but the old man is unmoved and reframes Thomas’ desire as “You wish you were part of some wonderful video game conflict with a clear moral objective.” (36)
In the following pages, the congressman completely demolishes the adolescent romanticism that Thomas tries out on him. Still, Thomas maintains that precisely the fact that he doesn’t get these things, if the world he has been thrown in is such that it is impossible for him to function in it and to find meaning in it in the way he would have desired, the world takes the blame; people like himself “shouldn’t have been left to live among the rest of society.” (45)
So what went wrong? Is there a reason why, as the congressman phrases it, Thomas’ skull has come to be “fastened one turn too tight” (32)? Third to make it to the interrogation room is Mr. Hansen, a teacher who used to invite boys over to his house for “math sleepovers”, involving something called the “tailor game” where the boys measured Mr. Hansen’s legs and vice versa. Thomas is sure this traumatized not just himself, but also one of his friends, Don Banh, easy prey for the pedophile because he came from a broken home and his mother did not speak English.
Now, society is on the side of Thomas’ narrative and he knows it: with exceptional fury, he confronts his former teacher with wave after wave of accusations that he is positive cannot be countered. But the waves crash upon the nuance the cornered man insists upon: while Mr. Hansen admits to the sleepovers and the tailor game being “inappropriate”, and admits that his feelings for young children made him unfit to be a teacher, he does not give Thomas another inch: after all, he says, he never assaulted, undressed or touched anyone, and therefore he quite simply refuses to be swept into the same category as child rapists. And with that, he refuses to confirm that Thomas’ experience ‘counts’ for as much as Thomas wants it to. While Thomas assumes that the vagueness of his own memories must be a sign that something horrific and irreparably scarring has happened to him that his interrogation of Mr. Hansen will bring to light, Mr. Hansen does not deliver. “There are limits to the blame I can assume for whatever else happened in your lives after that.” (78)
Mr. Hansen does admit to having targeted children from weak homes with absent father-figures, after all needing consent from the parents for the “math sleepovers”. This information, at least, reinforces Thomas’ intuition that his inappropriate contact with Mr. Hansen is an indication of a lacking childhood. It prompts him to confront his own mother: why did she send him to the sleepovers?
Here the book delivers the maximum potential of the dialogue form, confusing us about both the facts and their relevance. It is Thomas’ mother who knows or second-guesses best the narrative he has been forming about his own life, and who most directly confronts it, not just reframing the facts but often simply contradicting them.
Send, his mother sighs; send? Far from it, she says; Thomas begged her to go. “You begged me.” (87) This will not be the last time she, wearily and almost cruelly, tears apart the stories her son has been telling himself. Thomas denies vehemently, but his story is falling apart. Nonetheless, we get plenty of hints that he has, indeed, not enjoyed the safest possible childhood: for instance, someone his mother owed money to once took all his belongings away, including family photos. Most of Thomas’ attempts to place blame on his mother don’t stick, but some do.
His mother sees what he is doing. “Thomas, you want to attribute your behavior to a set of external factors.” (99) And she will have none of this, not just because she wants to dodge the blame but because she thinks this whole obsession with blame is a waste; it’s all too Christian for her. (Thomas thinks she brought him to church, but she reminds him he used to draw crucifixes on all his notebooks.) “The Christians, the Bible. It’s all about who’s at fault. A whole religion based on accountability. Who’s to blame? What’s the judgment? Who gets punished?” (101)
The police officer and the hospital employee
By now, we have gotten used to Thomas not getting his way in these talks; to his conversation partners refusing to let him dominate the conversation and successfully resisting the conclusions that would most satisfy him. Kev even starts manipulating him, encouraging him to make contact with other people and abduct a police officer in the clear hope that he will make a mistake and get arrested.
We quickly learn how Kev’s gamble works out when a new chapter opens with Thomas saying: “Wow, this is the greatest week of my life.” Thomas now seriously considers the possibility that some divine force is at work and that he may be invincible.
This growing delusion ties Thomas’ story once more to that of his old friend Don Banh, who had mental health problems and was killed by the police during an episode. It transpires that the officer Thomas has kidnapped was actually part of the team that shot Don.
Now it is the policeman who has some self-explaining to do. He relates how Don had vandalized some cars, was followed by the police and locked himself in his mother’s basement with a knife. At each point in the narrative, the policeman uses vocabulary that suggests danger and violence; at each point, Thomas deconstructs this. “We removed the mother from the home and fell back to the driveway.” – “You fell back? Like this is some great battle. Jesus.” (155) This was one small guy with a knife, in his own basement, is the bottom line that Thomas keeps throwing at the policeman. Yes, but “he’d done some very erratic things, including assaulting his mother.” What, assault? Was there blood? “No.” – “So we have a man who pushed his mom against a wall.” (156)
So it goes on – the defensive technical language of the policeman and Thomas’ castration of this language, his stripping it of its self-justifying potential. The story ends in a stand-off between Don and a twelve members of a SWAT-team; Don was shot by three policemen when he approached them, a fact that the officer justifies as a legal and reasonable matter of self-defense in the face of a deadly threat. But the story withers under the light, and Thomas summarizes:
“I think you shot my best friend in the neck and head because you thought there was some rule that allowed you to do it. Some rule that you were too lazy or stupid to actually look up and read. You hear that the rule says you have to shoot anyone with a knife if you’re within twenty-one feet, and so you shoot a tiny guy holding a kitchen knife who poses no threat to anyone.” (171)
In some way, Thomas plays the role to this policeman that Mr. Hanson played to him earlier this week: he points out the bare moral facts beneath the layers of suggestion and association – layers that are strong enough to uphold one side of the story in public discourse, and that therefore allow anyone to dodge questions of genuine accountability, but that a sustained and honest conversation between interested people will tear down.
“I’ll tell you why you shot him. Because you were all gathered around him, and you assumed the logical end to that situation is your guns are fired and someone is dead.” (172)
Here, finally, Thomas knows he has his fish hooked, and he immediately goes off to tell his mom – only to have her immediately add confusion and complexity to his self-righteous indignation by wondering why he is so obsessed with Don all of a sudden when after all he hadn’t seen him in years and didn’t even go to his funeral.
This twist hammers home once more the point that there is nothing that Thomas can tell himself about the world and his place in it that is immune to counter-narratives. But Thomas must have cared at least a bit at the time, since from his conversation with a hospital employee we learn both that the SWAT team successfully covered up the fact that Don was hit by seventeen bullets, and that Thomas tried to set fire to the hospital afterwards.
The girl and the congressman again
In between these conversations, Thomas meets a girl on the beach whom he fantasizes fleeing the country with, and in the end he kidnaps her. In the conversation with her, he reiterates some motifs from his conversations with Kev and especially Mr. Dickinson. “You don’t know what it’s like to be a man over thirty who’s never had anything happen to him.” (202) Like Kev, the girl’s instinct is to survive and provide the desired answers, and in the end, Thomas sees through that and despises them for it: the point of existence cannot just be existing.
Therefore, when “they” finally come to arrest him, Thomas stays with the Congressman, whom he trusts, and who indeed treats him in a fatherly manner without apparent selfish motives. He says there should have been a plan for people like himself: if not for building a moon colony, he should have been used even if just to build a bridge; anything rather than to “walk around in an already-built world” (210).
In the end, Thomas is not simply looking to blame; he is not making up his mind as to who to shoot. If the reader sometimes feels that a story with so many kidnappings has to end in bloodshed despite Thomas’ many assurances to the contrary, this is only because like the policeman we assume that the logical end to the situation is that guns are fired and someone is dead. But as ever in this book, such a simple narrative would not do justice to the complexity of the situation. Thomas is not looking for revenge or atonement, and just calling him crazy would obviously not do; he is doing what he thinks he is doing, looking for an answer as to why his life feels so miserably directionless.
And though every single attempt to decide who is accountable encounters significant and unexpected pushback, and the whole attempt to distribute accountability meets strong criticism from his conversation partners, the conversations have in the end been productive. Stopping time for a week and talking did not deliver the definitive narrative about what’s wrong with the world in the 21st century, but it certainly helped.
“You know my name isn’t Bob. No one’s name is Bob.” (11)
“They have no idea why they’re studying psychology. It’s like majoring in faces, or people. I’m majoring in multiple-choice questions about people.” (57)
“Certainly there are too many people on this planet, so we’re so anxious to throw away as many of them as possible. Given any excuse at all, we can erase them.” (70)