One day the narratives of three different people literally collide
In her earlier work Maartje Wortel proved herself a storyteller utterly unlike any other. Her first novel, Half mens (Half-Human), lives up to that promise, showing her to be one of the most original and talented voices of her generation.
The setting is Los Angeles, City of Dreams, a place where making human contact requires considerable effort. The millions of residents criss-cross in a random pattern, their lives never touching. Out of the corners of their eyes they observe each other’s stories. Then one day the narratives of three different people literally collide.
Michael Poloni is a 41-year-old Mexican who came to Los Angeles long ago with his mother and brothers. He gets on alright at his job, but beyond that his life seems empty. He smokes cigarettes, watches television and regularly visits doctors in his search for something he continually feels is missing: himself. One day, on the way to work by taxi as usual, he is involved in a traffic accident with a Dutch girl called Elsa Helena van der Molen. The results of the accident are horrific. The girl’s leg has to be amputated. Also caught up in the incident is James Dillard, called in for jury service in a lawsuit brought by Elsa’s Americanized parents.
In immaculate, sparkling prose, Wortel describes two lives entwined by fate. While the maimed Elsa tries to build a new life for herself with the money from the court case, hoping that men will still find her attractive, Michael thinks he can see in her the person who, in a Platonic way, will make him complete. He is prepared to go to any extreme to make that happen.
Half mens is suffused with a realization that all this might equally well never have happened, that history is a matter of chance. The author plays with this fact beautifully, for example by providing short biographies of random passersby.
The acknowledgment of historical contingency raises the primal question of why we are here. While we all busily and intently search for the meaning of life every day, Wortel asks a simple but troubling counter-question: Hasn’t it been right there in front of us all the time, if only we would notice? The resulting novel is inspiring, witty and wise.