IIn simple terms, Nat Ogle’s first novel is the story of a young nurse named Corina. When he’s at Guy and St Thomas Hospital in London, he’s taking care of his patients. When she is not working, she is caring for her mother, who has advanced breast cancer. And in between, she tries, often unsuccessfully, to take care of herself after a devastating act of sexual violence. “The problem of surviving,” he says, “is what to do next.”
But In the Seeing Hands of Others does not want to be a simple novel. To that end, it is presented not in the kind of written literary prose where the most irregular element is a clever flashback, but rather as a set of documents. The backbone of the story is told in Corina’s 2016 blog posts, with reader comments, some supportive, some not (“Gtfo with your BS and put your face on … bum”).
Around that is a paper trail of other sources: witness statements, character references, text messages, transcribed voicemails, forum message threads, script snippets, screenshots of emails. It’s a choice that works cleverly against Ogle’s lyrical tendencies (he’s also a poet). “Show the scars, my own sloppy stitches, that’s the point, if there is a point at all,” Corina writes. “This will not be a well done and well thought out thing.”
The effect is suggestive of exhibits presented at trial, but we know from Corina’s blog that by the time she writes it, she has already been in court and seen her attacker, her ex-boyfriend, Cameron, go unpunished. So perhaps what Ogle is creating is a second bite of justice for Corina: all the material the police had and everything they didn’t, with the reader in the final juror role.
Because if the original trial had seen everything Ogle presents in this novel, it’s hard to see how Cameron could have turned out, given that he appears to be an armored psycho with no redeeming features whatsoever. Things start within the confines of standard rapist rhetoric. A Word document recounting his version of the encounter ends with the resounding and lurid statement: “From my trusted perspective, it was just a little messy.”
Perhaps that is not enough to convince you that it is an unpleasant job. After all, here is a statement from his former theater teacher who claims he is “an individual of kindness, compassion, and promise.” Ah, but here, right after, is a fragment of a play that is on Cameron’s computer. It is a dialogue between a teacher and a 15-year-old boy who have had some kind of sexual relationship. When she tries to break it, he blackmails her. So far the reference of his character.
Even Cameron’s name underscores his lack of confidence. His last name is Struth: Cameron Struth, Cameron’s Truth. Corina is an imperfect victim – we learn that she was drunk, that she destroyed the evidence by washing herself and her sheets, that she had begged Cameron to come to the party where he attacked her, that she got into bed with him – but Cameron he’s a perfect villain, a haunting 4chan jerk who lives to see fear in others.
Ogle’s editor has labeled this a “toxic masculinity” story, but the dramatic problem with stories about toxic masculinity is that they start with their already firmly established moral scheme. This feels like unhealthy criticism, equivalent to asking where fictional sexual criminal sympathizers have gone. But it is a fact that most rapists do not see themselves as evil incarnate; they think they are woefully misunderstood.
Reading this novel made me wish for the haunting subtlety of Mary Gaitskill, an author who can look self-deception squarely in the eye and draw a nauseating tension out of what he-said-she-said. The richest parts of In the Seeing Hands of Others are not in the CSI game, but in the way Ogle writes about the terror and grace of human vulnerability. “I think love is where two wounds press against each other, so that one becomes a kind of gauze for the other,” Corina writes. It’s a disgusting and beautiful image too, with a complicated truth at its sticky center.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism