The Video Watcher by Shawn Curtis Stibbards
(Published by Biblioasis, 2015)
Think of Catcher in the Rye set in the ’90s, with a dash of American Psycho thrown in. This novel of paralyzing apathy and voyeurism by Vancouver school teacher Stibbards will draw you in, disgust you, and leave you with a bit more compassion than when you started.
Nineteen-year-old Trace, our first person narrator, is a despicable yet sympathetic character, going though the painful transition from youth to adulthood, and trying to find a cure for his loneliness in a world of shallow people. The similarities between Catcher in the Rye and The Video Watcher are plainly present. John Green points out in his Crash Course episode that Holden Caulfield uses the passive voice, which gives the reader the feeling of distance and inaction; Trace never feels at ease with the people around him, and the interest he manages to have in others is often sexual. Holden is frustrated with the phoniness of society and the people around him, which we hear echoed in Trace’s comments on how nobody ever talks about anything, not really – conversations that could lead to real growth or realization are cut off by banality or gossip. Both novels also end with revelations about the main character’s experience as a victim of sexual assault.
Trace views women as either sexual objects, mother figures, or as girls who are interested in things like poetry. He fantasizes about the first two, but finds girls like the server at a bar who he recognizes from university English classes perplexing. Trace masturbates a lot in the novel, and although he is able to get off on images of his friend touching a girl he is interested in, or a friend’s mother’s breasts, he is unable to respond to the few sexual situations we see him in: uncertainty, boredom, or fear keep him from participating.
Which leads to the theme of voyeurism in the novel. It’s called The Video Watcher for good reason. Not only does the title situate the story in the 1990s, the last decade of the VHS, it situates Trace as an observer, divided from the events going on in front of him: “I thought of myself as some character out of a movie, some angst-ridden character moving from scene to scene. It was always easier when I thought of myself as someone else.” Trace witnesses some pretty messed up stuff, but this division from his own experience keeps him from acting. Watching the scenes take place in front of him also excites him – as the book summary reads: “Does he actually want to help his friends, or is he secretly hoping they’ll go off the edge?”
There is also a sense of futility in the narrative. This is emphasized near the end when Trace is talking with his cousin Emily. Although I did feel at times that the story wasn’t going anywhere, that some scenes were present only for shock value, that characters never really grew out of their self-destructive cycles, the novel doesn’t leave us with nothing. We do get to see development in Trace’s character, and, somehow in the end there is hope that life does have meaning.
So, like American Psycho, be prepared for some messed up stuff, a male-centered narrative, but also something that interrogates voyeuristic North American culture.