Simon is a young, literate journalist who is beginning to live his dreams: he gets sent to report from Kosovo during the war in the former Yugoslavia and is dating a young model, Larisa, on the brink of global fame with a fan base that gets them noticed.
The first frustrating element of the novella is that Simon’s articles are reported on rather than included in the novel so consequently other characters are forever mentioning they saw Simon’s article and thought it was noteworthy, certainly noteworthy enough to remember, which creates two problems. Firstly the reader feels excluded because they are not reading Simon’s articles. Secondly, because the contents of the articles are summarised, they read as if standard news reports and the writer misses the opportunity to show Simon’s ability and character through his articles. This leaves readers feeling that they never really get to know Simon. His assignment in Kosovo feels like a list, he did this, he did that, he went there, two other journalists were fatally shot, Simon moved on to the American base, filed a report, returned home and readers are left wondering what this story is telling them that news reports haven’t already covered.
After Kosovo, Simon gets to interview politicians for the election campaign which saw George W Bush into the White House and Hillary Clinton into the Senate. Again the interviews tend to be reported so readers don’t see any insightful observations from Simon, save that former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair sounds prepared and polished compared with George W Bush’s vague way of talking around a subject, but even this isn’t an original observation. Simon and Larisa marry and Larisa becomes pregnant. Both witness the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Larisa has a healthy baby. Simon gets sent to Iraq to cover the war there.
The second frustrating element of the novel is the lack of paternal awareness on Simon’s part. He doesn’t seem bothered by Larisa’s pregnancy, doesn’t react to her changing body or show any curiosity in the baby. Even more baffling is the absence of any reaction from Larisa. This woman makes a living from modelling, yet she doesn’t seem bothered about weight gain or how her appearance is changing and, after the birth, doesn’t seem the slightest bit anxious about losing her pregnancy weight gain.
“The Chafing of Mortals” works as a social record of the period 2000 – 2004 in American political history, but lacks in its characterisation and dramatic tension. Larisa is entirely accepting of Simon’s work and absences from home. Simon has no domestic troubles, it becomes obvious he’s going to return in one piece even when sent to a war zone, and, whilst clearly a very good reporter, is not such a brilliant husband and father.
By Emma Lee