by Dinesh Raghavendra
Free Lunch in New York City is at its heart about a raconteur who is drifting through life and trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle of an increasingly fragmented modern day existence. The protagonist Hardy von Hachenstein is likeable enough but is also disconcertingly close to being an asshole especially in a sequence where he sleeps with Kristen. Hardy walks and talks like an existentialist wrangling with the big questions of life but I have encountered far too many wiseacres like him. He does grow on you eventually and he is a breath of fresh air because his concerns are sincere and his idiosyncrasies are genuine and not just tacked on for the sake of quirkiness.
I haven’t read anything else by Matthias Drawe. I can intuit that the writer is still in search of his voice and is yet to hit his stride thematically. Bits of his writing work wonderfully and I love certain phrases he uses which are strikingly vividly in contrast to most of the “literary” novels coming out of the New York intelligentsia. I have rolled my eyes enough times at MFA fueled writing especially when they are set in New York. Drawe is humane and we can sense his empathy for the characters and I dislike writers who portray their characters in a coldly clinical manner. His vision is bounded though but even when he fails at certain sections of the book, his failures are interesting in their own right. For example, in the aforementioned sequence with Kristen, one can simplistically read it as a portrayal of casual misogyny although the scene is far more complex and has all sorts of social dynamics compressed in a few minutes of intimacy. Whether Drawe can sustain this sense of subtlety through longer narratives is what remains to be seen.
The book reminded me a lot of the work of the Swiss stylist Peter Stamm especially the novel “On a day like this”. A lot of the story’s strengths lies in the choices the author makes about his characters. Instead of a Houllebecqian misanthropy we get characters who are more Flaubertian. Towards the end I was a bit tired of the modern day flaneur act and wished the editing had been a bit crisper in the second half. In conclusion, a book that has moments of illumination but lacks direction with a protagonist who keeps the readers engaged. I am interested to read more from Matthias Drawe.