Appropriately titled, the common denominator across nearly all of the stories in Toronto-based author Derek Hayes’ first collection is a character who is so wrapped up in themselves, has internalized their neuroses to such a degree, that they have become unable to see the reality of their position in the world and the truth of their relationships to others. Many are merely oblivious (see Steven W. Beattie’s recent blog post on “Green Jerseys” for an excellent in-depth look at a particular example), while others have deeper issues. Anxiety is a constant companion to nearly all of Hayes’ characters.
In “Maybe You Should Get Back There,” Max lives with his girlfriend Nadia, and Chris, an old friend from school, and can’t stop imagining that they are having, or want to have, an affair. He obsesses over the dynamics of their relationship, giving undue weight to casual conversations and comments, leading to circular reasoning and a trap of jealousy and paranoia that should look familiar to anyone with trust issues (whether their source is from a real betrayal, or something more internal). As the reader becomes more invested in Max’s voice, he stops coming off as quite so unreasonable, and one starts to wonder—what if there really is something going on between Nadia and Chris? We’re snapped out of it when Max takes significant action on little more than suspicion, but by then we’ve gone through a whole spectrum of emotions with him, and the story takes on extra shades of complexity. It’s no longer just about Max’s jealousy and selfishness, and the isolation they cause, but also about his inability to address his fears directly, and Chris and Nadia’s complete unawareness of his deteriorating emotional state.
Some of the pieces in The Maladjusted are not so sophisticated; “Inertia” feels like something I’ve read a dozen times before, ripped straight from the CanLit Book of Themes for Urban Writers, while “A Feel For America,” seems disjointed and unfinished.
I’m going to agree with Steven in his National Post review and say that the end of “That’s Very Observant of You,” one of my favourite stories in the collection, is unconvincing, but otherwise it’s an astounding exploration of how anxiety can be crippling, not through big events and responsibilities, but rather the minutiae of daily life, and how liberating that can make small achievements feel. Despite the two stories being entirely different, I couldn’t help but link it in my mind to Rebecca Rosenblum‘s wonderful “Route 99,” from her debut collection, Once.
If I had one complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that there were times I felt like I was reading the same story over and over again. Hayes is so invested in his core themes of alienation and disorder that there is often little room for anything else, and by the end of the sixteenth story, I was definitely ready to see something else from him.