FEBRUARY 16, 2015
IN HIS FOURTH NOVEL, and US debut, A Pleasure and a Calling, Phil Hogan introduces us to William Heming, a man as seemingly unremarkable and ordinary as the small English town where he lives. But if we’ve learned anything from countless BBC imports, it’s never trust an ordinary man in a small English town. Residents are always hiding something and getting up to no good. Heming — a seemingly respectable, if somewhat eccentric, real estate agent — is no exception.
Heming’s story begins with a dead body. It turns up in the yard of one of his clients, not coincidentally you suspect. But before he fills us in on what happened, he gives us glimpses into his past and his lifelong pursuit of sneaking into people’s rooms when they’re not there. After causing trouble at home, he was sent away to boarding school, where, he writes, “I had more brains than I needed to succeed, but never quite the heart. Instead, I worked at my camouflage.” He develops and hones his methods, slipping in and out of dorm rooms. But the full flowering of his obsession and abilities occurs when he finds the “job from heaven” — buying and selling homes. He keeps the keys to every property he’s ever listed and uses them at his own discretion. Heming is possessed by others’ possessions. He’s most himself in the spaces that other people create, though people themselves are something of a nuisance for him. He has to wait for them to leave, to get out of the way, before he can go about his true business: immersing himself in the materiality of their private lives, carving out a small mark into wood floors or closet doors, and maybe, when there’s time, fixing himself a cup of tea.
If this doesn’t sound disturbing enough, don’t worry, it’s only the beginning. He is aware his actions are transgressions, the “pleasure” of the title, but he’s also worked his pathologies into a kind of moral mission, his “calling.” He considers himself not merely a “concerned citizen,” who rights wrongs (the dog-walker who refuses to clean up after his pet will later find the offending turd on the thick-piled white carpet in his sitting room, e.g.), but a protector of his lovely village. Keeping an eye on everyone is a kind of intelligence work and he’s performing a necessary community service, rather like a “fairy godfather,” or a “ministering angel.” Or, you come to think, a benevolent alien overlord, fascinated by his human subjects, required to intervene when they forget their subjugated place. As shadowy incidents from his childhood are revealed to be increasingly gruesome, you suspect that Heming is a dark, off-the-rails incarnation of a neighbor who conflates nosiness with civic duty, and dabbles in casual murder when he must.
It’s not immediately clear how far he’ll go, or has gone, but when it comes to his special predilection, Heming has “standards”: “No hidden cameras, wires or microphones are used in the making of my ‘art’. […] I am not a stalker, or a voyeur. I am simply sharing an experience, a life as it happens.” He insists that his habit is not a perversion, that his sexual “impulses […] are within the usual spectrum,” that an “observer — perhaps someone in my own wardrobe! — would see nothing of unconventional interest.” It’s not clear what he considers to be deviant, but he feels no kinship with peeping toms and panty sniffers, only disdain, or perhaps pity that they have no appreciation of what might lie beyond that. But if he’s not in it for the lingerie, his compulsion is certainly sexual, in that it has to do with desire, with a twisted intimacy, and convoluted power dynamics.
His descriptions of merging himself with other people’s stuff are much more sensual than his accounts of any actual sexual encounters he has. (And he does have them; he’s not that weird, he’ll have you know. He’s attractive enough and has a modest record of “success with women”: “If I smile at a woman, I am aware of a response.”) After becoming interested in a local librarian, he rolls out a sleeping bag and secretly takes up residence in her attic, in order to experience her “essence, arising from the rustle of clothes against her skin, the warmth from her bed, her spearmint breath, the brisk eruption of human dust in the simple tightening of a shoelace. Thus do we leave the signs of ourselves. Its seduction is narcotic.” When he eventually does have sex with her — challenging our suspension of disbelief but reinforcing his unreliability as a narrator — he has little to say except “the deed was duly done.” He admits, though, that it only undoes the intensity he experienced in the presence of her things — the intensity, in other words, of her absence. The reality of her being is “the flaw in face-to-face relations that demeans the mystery, reveals beauty as a sham. It is like a work of art. You walk towards it until all you can see is the paint. And when you back off again, what you had is gone forever. Nothing is the same. You know too much.” She’s thus reduced to a “principled young woman interested in poetry and cycling.”
Though Heming is apparently living the dream as a real estate agent, his eye for detail, and his ability to bring those details into focus, is, not surprisingly, like that of a detective or a writer. Through his powers of observation and talent for descriptive compression, he’s able to paint a pretty good picture of a person. Take one of his schoolteachers, Mr. Stamp — with “his tobacco-smelling wardrobe, his drawer of Argyll socks, his desk piled with exercise books, biscuits in a tin.” Heming departs Stamp’s room with a rubber-band ball, having also discovered a photograph of a classmate. But these distilled portraits, however vivid, never go much beyond the surface of things because it’s precisely the surface, of things, that does it for him. The accretion of so many details and significant objects occasionally threatens to overwhelm the propulsive force of the narrative —you might find yourself going, Wait, where did I see those opera glasses before and why do they matter? and then have to backtrack or risk missing important plot developments. But these details are the narrative for Heming.
Hogan’s work here has elicited comparisons, fairly, to that of Patricia Highsmith. Heming, like Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, is convinced of his own cool rationality, however unbalanced we know him to be. He’s also quick, clever, and engaging, drawing you to his side even as he grows more sinister, boasting, and condescending. What rescues him, and us, from his self-regard is his arch, comic voice. He’s got a gift for ironic understatement, particularly when noting how he takes a “holistic approach” toward his profession. Along with the stylistic echoes of Highsmith, Hogan also moves into the creepy-campy territory that Roman Polanski staked out, especially in The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby. Evidently, it’s a tone well suited for real estate–associated psychodramas. In an early reveal as chilling as it is ridiculous, we learn that Heming’s own apartment is a barely furnished shell of a place, except for the walls, which are covered with … gasp … hundreds of glimmering keys! — each one “a portal to pleasure and adventure.” Hogan employs humor where you don’t always expect it, sometimes subtly, sometimes outrageously, and it keeps you reading. It also makes you willing to overlook the implausibility of certain circumstances and setups. Does no one in this town change the locks or reset the code for their security system once they move in?
Without giving too much away, there is one encounter with an actual person — a former classmate Heming once tangled with — that energizes him. And the effect is a breath of fresh air since Heming’s mind, at times, can feel a little stale and claustrophobic. Hogan deftly creates situational suspense throughout the novel: Will Heming outsmart whoever is on to him? How will he tackle the obstacle course of past misdeeds, logistical snags, and unfortunate co-workers who know too much? But at the points when the novel risks feeling a bit too mechanical, Hogan delves deeper into his character’s psychology, adding dimension and raising the stakes, not necessarily for Heming, but for the reader. Certain questions quietly emerge: What do our belongings and the ways in which we display ourselves say about our lives? What is it that we want other people to discover? Why does someone like Heming hold our interest?
Heming dismisses the way the media — “so predictable” — always resort to the notion of a “double life” in order to explain the criminal behavior of individuals who outwardly abide by legal and social codes. According to Heming:
It is normal people who have a ‘double life’. On the outside is your everyday life of going out to work and going on holiday. Then there is the life you wish you had — the life that keeps you awake at night with hope, ambition, plans, frustration, resentment, envy, regret. This is a more seething life of wants, driven by thoughts of possibility and potential. It is the life you can never have. […]
There is no twoness about me. […] I brook no frustration. (Indeed, what could better define frustration than a locked door? And what simpler remedy than a key?)
Hogan writes in his acknowledgments that “in his doubletalk about the double life,” Heming “read at least the prologue of Adam Phillips’s excellent book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.” In that prologue, Phillips, the acclaimed essayist and psychoanalyst, writes:
There is always what will turn out to be the life we led, and the life that accompanied it, the parallel life (or lives) that never actually happened, the lives we lived in our minds, […] the risks untaken and the opportunities avoided or unprovided. […] We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.
But Phillips suggests that such failures and frustrations are necessary to whatever satisfactions we do enjoy. Heming, with his ingeniously circumscribed life, would like to think he hovers somewhere beyond the human condition and all of its confounding, alluring, and sustaining paradoxes. His attentive and skillful creator, Hogan, knows better.