Book review

Take note: Seattle author Andrew Palmer is one to watch after the release of his debut, “The Bachelor.” The unassuming, sharp novel quietly questions love and the nature of perception in an overconnected world. 

“The Bachelor” starts off with an unnamed narrator beginning a stint as a housesitter for a friend of his mother’s. He has ended up in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, in an attempt to process a breakup with his almost-fiancée, Ashwini. With not much to keep him entertained — he barely knows anyone in Des Moines anymore — the narrator quickly becomes infatuated by two contrasting interests: the reality show “The Bachelor” and the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet John Berryman.

These juxtaposing preoccupations end up serving two points. One is to distract him from writing, an expectation that has filled him with anxiety and pressure ever since the release of his debut novel only a few months prior. And two, to allow the narrator to become removed from his current reality, blurring the lines of what’s fact and fiction. It is this shift of perception that becomes a significant driving theme throughout the novel. 

“He’s convinced himself he’s the role he’s playing, or else — which may amount to the same thing — he doesn’t believe he’s playing a role at all,” writes Palmer in the early stages of the narrator’s “Bachelor” obsession. “This, it struck me with the force of an epiphany, must be how what is called character is formed.”

Not much happens in the overall storyline (readers who enjoy fast-paced novels will have a hard time with this book). Most of the story takes place in Des Moines, with a short stretch at a new housesitting gig in a “Bachelor”-esque mountaintop California mansion. The driving plot of “The Bachelor” is what is happening to the main character’s mentality. “How did I spend those first few days back in Des Moines?” writes Palmer. “To an observer, it might have appeared like nothing was happening.”

The novel is a mediation on the inner workings of someone who has lost themself, and reads like a journal or stream-of-consciousness memoir. “I don’t remember most of what I said in response,” writes Palmer of his real-life breakup. “I didn’t react well, I think.” 

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In a sense, “The Bachelor” is akin to Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (minus the constant, Ambien-induced haze) and “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman. Palmer’s novel features a quirky, aimless protagonist, with smart insights, dry humor and a character-driven narrative. But it’s all anchored in poignant, amusing, relatable observations of “The Bachelor” and Berryman, many of which make excellent pulled quotes.

“Strange that the reality we’re given isn’t enough,” writes Palmer. “Continents, oceans, antelopes, skyscrapers, neutrinos, Melville, sex, the internet, our Chicago Bulls — not enough. For Berryman, in any case, nothing sufficed.” “The Bachelor” is a story of the mundane that’s a slow rumination on the self. Or selves. 

As the narrator reflects on love, “The Bachelor,” Berryman, reality and relationships, he begins to rebuild the semblance of a new sense of life via platonic and romantic relationships with a series of women, including the house’s owner. The way Palmer portrays this, however, can be seen as the book’s strength, or its weakness. The stories of these women, and a few others, are told through pages-long monologues, conversations and biography-esque writing (what makes a biography good or not is another topic of discussion in the novel) that can be either thrilling or meandering — a story of many stories.

The focus is the people in his life, and perhaps that’s why the narrator doesn’t have a name. Not that he doesn’t matter, he’s just not the novel’s focal point — contrary to the reality show. These are women who live out loud, and he’s learning to live again, through them. 

“The Bachelor” excites for what’s next from Palmer, a new literary talent. This stimulating debut is a refreshing, thoughtful foray into what defines a human. “What makes you, you?” the novel wonders — and what are we if not creatures built on a million influences from others, focusing on the reality we choose to see?

NEW FICTION

‘The Bachelor’

Andrew Palmer, Hogarth, 288 pp., $27

Andrew Palmer will appear in a virtual event hosted by Andrew Martin and Elliott Bay Book Company at 6 p.m. on Monday, July 19. Zoom registration is free, or $30 with a copy of the book. For more info, see elliottbaybook.com/events.