I’ve always suffered from an irrational fear that one day I’ll wake up and the people I love most won’t recognize me. Something like this happens to the protagonist of Tom Lee’s debut novel “The Alarming Palsy of James Orr”. He wakes up one day to find he’s suffering from Bell’s palsy which causes a paralysis to the muscles on one side of his face. This is a bizarre condition which isn’t entirely understood and there isn’t a clear medical treatment to guarantee a recovery. So James is left in a limbo state where he stays home from work and can only hope that his face will recover. Unsurprisingly, this condition makes him self-conscious and it makes people react to him differently. These social issues prompt a deeper contemplation about the meaning of identity, but Tom Lee explores this obliquely through his tale of James’ increasing sense of alienation and the steady disintegration of his “normal” life.
It’s interesting the way in which this novel suggests how one little alteration on the surface can raise a lot of disturbing anxieties and unaddressed issues for an individual. James’ life is so neatly ordered and pristinely average in terms of his steady job, loving wife, two young children and a cookie cutter house set in a tight-knit purpose-built community. His condition makes him aware of how fragile this sense of civilization really is: “the image of his neighbours, the committee, squatting awkwardly around the too-low table that struck him as just some brittle veneer on reality, one that might fracture or shatter entirely at any time.” Just as James can’t control part of his face, he can no longer control the way he participates as a member of this community where his actions make him into an outcast. It suggests how easy it is for us to become estranged from the people and things closest to us if we no longer fit in with the right mould.
Tom Lee uses a straightforward, simple form of prose to tell his story, but that doesn’t mean the message of it either straightforward or simple. The meaning of it works subtly as we follow James’ journey which draws him out into the natural world where its rumoured a hermit lives in an abandoned ruins and as James begins to watch more steadily for couples who park their cars within his community to engage in illicit sex. I really appreciate novels that pursue an individual’s self-enforced isolation as a means of contemplating their place within the world. This novel made me recall books like Eugene Ionesco’s “The Hermit” or Paul Kingsnorth’s more recent novel “Beast” which depict men who strip down all the daily-ness of ordinary life to radically question their individual purpose and meaning. It’s not something that can be done when you’re caught in the progress and flow of living. “The Alarming Palsy of James Orr” has a compelling way of touching upon anxieties we find it easier to bury instead of stopping and confronting them.