Book Review : Nathan Ballingrud - The Visible Filth (2015)
*a suggestion by Max Booth III *
The major difference between now and ten years ago is the relationship people developed to their cell phones. They’re not cell phones anymore, really. But more like portable computers one uses to remain connected to people who matter and people who don’t: colleagues, people who went to high school with you and sometimes strangers who you’ve never met. Not enough people talk about that. Not enough people see the horror in that and I’m not talking about the horror of giving your personal information to soulless corporation and foreign nations here.
Author Nathan Ballingrud sees it, though. His 2015 novella The Visible Filth, recently adapted into a feature film called Wounds, deals exactly with a brand of horror no one wants to accept.
The Visible Filth tells the story of a bartender named Will, who quietly drifts through existence night after night without finding meaning or fulfillment. His relationship to his girlfriend doesn’t exist outside their apartment. His friendships doesn’t seem to exist outside the dive he works at. He’s that type of guy. But Will’s life changes the day he finds a cell phone on the bar’s floor after a heated fight between his rowdy client Eric and a newcomer. He absentmindedly brings it back home and starts receiving messages on it. Desperate pleas. Photos of horrible wounds. Will start pursuing something that’ll change him forever.
The driving theme behind The Visible Filth is connection. Of the technological sort, but also human connection and disconnection. Relationships that are raw and real, and others mediated by a cell phone screen. Will is disinterested in real-life relationships, because he doesn’t want his life to change. He’s happy with being a bystander in the lives of others. He loses this blissful equilibrium when he finds the cell phone, which he becomes both repulsed, terrified and attracted by. For the first time in Will’s life, he’s not going to weasel out of a situation by simply doing nothing. He’ll have to take risks.
Interestingly enough, the cell phone gives Will the illusion of control. If things comes mediated through a cell phone screen, it can’t hurt him. He doesn’t even have to look at it. But a cell phone that keeps buzzing with new information demands to be answered and by manufacturing urgency with notifications and unanswered message icons, creates an all-encompassing relationship the way a needy, toxic person would. And without spoiling anything, I can tell you that it swallows Will’s life whole. That’s the horror I was telling you about. The horror of realizing what you thought you controlled actually controls you.
I liked The Visible Filth. It delivers a sneaky powerful brand of psychological horror loaded with muted technological dread. Nathan Ballingrud might not be a stylist, but he’s a witty, thoughtful storyteller. Sure, it’s a little bit on the short side (66 or 68 pages depending on where you look), but it also comes in a collection if you’re not interested in bite-sized reads. Come for the blood, guts and mystery, but stay for the disqueting relationship Will entertains to a mysterious cell phone. The Visible Filth might not explode in your face with violence and unspeakable horror, but it’s more like a landmine. When you realize what you got yourself into, it’s already too late. Certainly worth a read.