Much fiction lately has focused on the smudged lines between reality and narrative, the ways our identities are constructed by the stories of those around us. This theme sits at the cool center of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. It’s refracted through social media in this year’s twin “extremely online” novels, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This. Now The Bachelor, the first novel from Seattle author Andrew Palmer, out July 20, bounces the theme off the reality TV screen, where life imitates TV imitating life.
The book’s narrator, a bachelor, is indeed fixated on the reality TV show The Bachelor. After publishing a novel and abandoning a second, he has split up with his sort-of fiancee, Ashwini, another writer who he worries will make her first novel about him. So he’s left the East Coast to house sit for a friend of his mother’s in Des Moines, Iowa.
What he does there may ring eerily familiar to everyone who spent much of the pandemic sequestered in our homes. “To an observer it might have appeared that nothing was happening. And yet so much is always happening! I ate a lot of packaged pastries… I ate a lot of Hot Pockets. Presumably I spent a lot of time on the Internet, though I have no specific memory of this.”
Ultimately, he’s attracted to the stories of others. He watches and ruminates on The Bachelor (season 15, from 2011, so far as I can tell). He also develops an obsession with the life and work of poet John Berryman, who led an eventful and raucously unhappy life, drifting between drink and women. In a way that brings to mind Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, much of Palmer's novel is given over to explications of both these topics in agile, genially ironic writing: “The voice is the Bachelor’s but his lips don’t move: he is narrating his own experience again. The Bachelor is always narrating his own experience.” Then later: “Before long, story becomes inextricable from commentary, and the two Bachelors, one acting, the other struggling to make sense of action, merge almost imperceptibly into one.”
Slowly, the narrator’s own life begins to mirror the Bachelor’s and Berryman’s—in form, if not exactly in intensity. He develops relationships, platonic and not, with the women around him, whose stories and discussions with the narrator comprise much of the book. There’s Laura (ex he talks with on the phone), Maria (a poet in Detroit he emails with), Jess (a recent college grad he meets at the dry cleaners), and Sadie (the woman for whom he’s house sitting).
Palmer has woven in a playful meta-commentary about what reality TV might look like transposed to the actually real. “The pressures they’re feeling to find a romantic partner—aren’t those only magnified versions of the pressures we all feel?” the narrator asks Sadie as he defends his passion for the show. Coupled with this is Palmer’s smart, funny analysis on love, identity, narrative, and what it means to package our own pain in stories to appear real to each other. “If you want to make it past the first few episodes,” the narrator writes of The Bachelor early on, “sooner or later you’re going to have to tell the saddest story you know about yourself.”
Book Release: Andrew Palmer and Andrew Martin
July 19, Elliott Bay Book Company (virtual), free