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The Absent Therapist

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The Absent Therapist is a book of soundings, a jostle of voices that variously argue, remember, explain, justify, speculate and meander . . . Sons and lovers, wanderers, wonderers, stayers, leavers, readers and believers: ‘The biggest surprise of all is frequently that things and people really are as they seem.’

112 pages, Paperback

First published February 2, 2014

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Will Eaves

21 books23 followers

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 21 of 21 reviews
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,210 followers
March 2, 2018
"Thinking while I'm thinking this that Owen is very troubled, when he stared right at me and I realised he didn't have anyone to talk to. And maybe not much sense of what he'd said. Or: he needed to be contradicted in some way, as if what he was saying was "Tell me what's wrong with what I've said. Talk to me." ... So I excused myself and went to the toilet. While I was there, it occurred to me that Owen had been addressing an ideal person, a sort of absent therapist, and I felt sorry for him. Sorry for me, too, later. The toilet was awash. My trainers got soaked and no one would sit next to me on the night bus, which stopped for ages outside the British Interplanetary Association in Vauxhall. Where do they go for their day trips? That's what I'd like to know."

The Absent Therapist was on the, very strong, shortlist for the 2014 Goldsmith's Prize which "rewards fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form...and is thus awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best." It is the fifth of the 6 shortlisted books I have read, the previous 4 all being strong https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... , https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... , https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... and
and Eaves book deserves its place alongside them.

I say "book" because The Absent Therapist stretches the novel form close to breaking point - indeed arguably it qualifies as a novel purely because the author tells us that was his intention.

The novel takes the form of a large number of individual pieces, some as short as one line, none longer than a page or so, and all in the form of a first person monologue.

There's a lot of absurd humour - the "interplanetary society" above, and one of my favourite pieces.

"You know you're among the remnants of the aristocracy when you accept an invitation to Sunday lunch in Deal and find yourself talking to a florid character who eats with his mouth open and who, when you turn your ankle on his steps, produces from his 'cold store' a compress made of frozen squirrel."

but also some powerful observations that make the reader think - this managed to make me have second thoughts more than thirty years after my own school days:

"Darren may well be right, Mrs Woollaston but the other lads are right too. It's all very well saying "football doesn't matter. It doesn't matter who wins" and as it happens I agree with him. The trouble is, he knows he's cleverer than them and they know he knows it. And it doesn't work the other way round does it. They don't have the option of saying 'maths doesn't matter'. Or rather they feel they do, when they see someone like Darren dismissing something they care about like football. It makes them feel they don't have to give a hoot about the things they're no good at, and that approach is what I'm wasting my life fighting."

What Eaves also doesn't attempt (or if he attempts doesn't achieve) is to give the different voices a distinct tone or language, except occasionally (a plumber tells his customer "They used the free mil frough the top floor and the half inch downstairs. That's why you got clanking."), the difference is instead the perspective, content and implied situation.

There are some themes that reoccur - the meaning of autonomous machines ("the question of whether or not a machine can write a sonnet or symphony is not the interesting question. The interesting question is: by whom should such a sonnet or symphony be judged, and how...we have to wean ourselves of the idea of estimating machine function as a kind of graded performance, with 'most human like' as the prize-winning category"), sex, mostly kinky (another wonderful piece starts "I went to the Spanking Club once..."), and some, but relatively few, of the voices reoccur.

But it would, I think, be wrong to examine the book too closely for links between the pieces - the reader would be better advised to simply let the difference voices flow over them. Indeed I would take issue with one of the reviews quoted on the novel's flap-jacket that proclaims "Every comma is vital for the flow to run as it does...their arrangement is precise down to the last dropped aitch" - in reality I think one could easily read the pieces in a different order or skip some entirely and the book would still work.

However, one feature in common is that the pieces are all one-sided - some are monologues to an imagined or absent interlocutor, in others we are getting one side of a conversations, some are reported/rehearsed speech "that's what I tell Darryl but he doesn't listen", "I don't have anyone to tell that to", or imagined, hypothetical conversations "the argument would have had a different tenor - a completely different meaning, in fact - if Rachel and I had been lovers, rather than friends. Or brother and sister. Or the frazzled parents of a child who has rung home, asking to be picked up." The common, theme if there is one, is the need for the voices to be heard, and need for the Absent Therapist of the title piece.

Overall, a very worthwhile attempt and a different approach to the novel. There are shades of the micro-fiction of Lydia Davis and the polyphonic voices of Pessoa's Book of Disquiet - but Eaves carves out his own distinctive approach.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,777 reviews1,261 followers
June 24, 2017
There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification: 1 Corinthians 14:10 King James Version

I read this book after the realisation that I had read (and loved) 5 of the six books on the shortlist for the 2014 Goldsmith prize.

Will Eaves has classed the book as a novel, but its only really a novel in that it isn’t a short story book – in practice it defies conventional literary categorisation with the best description being on the back cover:

A book of soundings, a jostle of voices that variously argue, remember, explain, justify, speculate and meander

The book is a series of short paragraphs written as first person monologues, from different perspectives, each giving us a brief window into a life or situation, and each (as the epigraph quoted above says) with signification.

Most of the narrators are one-offs, although a small number reoccur (the friend of an angry ranter, a man reflecting on his childhood ferrets and stoats).

Strangely for me one of the weakest and longest paragraphs seems to be set at a disco in the Norfolk town Watton where I attended comprehensive school. Others though resonated strongly.

I like [punk] music now and I’m nostalgic about it because I can afford to be, but its dishonest of me. Back then it was a different story because I was four foot ten with a bowl cut … They were terrifying. The skinheads were the real ones, they were terrifying

I’m sure my parents didn’t do that. I can’t remember having “playdates” or whatever they are called, and going round with other young families in packs. It’s new and its outrageous

Others show great humour – I particularly enjoyed this rant ..

They were a bunch of professionals. Of teachers. There was a geography teacher, a history teacher and an English teacher. They were hustlers – that’s the point. They’d organised themselves into a group and they went from pub to pub, wiping out. Cleaning up, sorry. They knew they were going to win …. And they were so smug, that’s what got me. You have to understand it was a calculated play. Nothing innocent about it ….. it was the fact they were hustlers [that got me] and the point about hustlers, the point about hustlers you have to get straight is they always win. It’s not fair. The locals didn’t stand a chance .. I could have strangled the lot of them


Neil and Ursula were both epidemiologists, which makes it sound like one of them caught it off the other, but they only work three days a week, and that rather brings them down to earth in my eyes. I suppose you have to hope that the epidemic doesn’t strike on the one day they haven’t got covered

A small number of themes occur – most noticeably some reflections on artificial intelligence, one of which goes back to some of the very core at the heart of this book

Recognition of emotion by a computer isn’t going to be enough. It must also immerse itself in the sensation of the emotion in order to understand it. (There must be a degree of empathy). But emotion is individual, discrete. Its quality depends on the individual experiencing it …. How do we reconcile the need for immersion with the recognition of a unique emotional experience? … Computers are too connective. They’re tyrannically social. The test of them as evolved entities will be when something cuts them off and still they cling on for reasons that are mysterious, not to us, but to them. When a computer turns up out of the blue, in the outback, in the back of beyond, bearing the scars of its survival, with tales to tell and a devastated look in its eyes, we’ll have to start listening

Overall an unusual but interesting variation on literature – exactly the sort of writing the Goldsmith was designed to celebrate.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews638 followers
February 10, 2017
This is the second disconcerting book I have read this year (the other being Pond). The best way I can describe this book is that it feels like a maelstrom of stories is whistling round your head and all you get are glimpses. It consists of a number of short passages, some just a sentence, some a page or so, with no narrative connection. Occasionally, a story floats by that makes you think "I've seen that one before", but then it's gone again before you've got hold of it.

There's a lot of very funny passages. One my favourites is: "...the night bus, which stopped for ages outside the British Interplanetary Association in Vauxhall. Where do they go for their day-trips? That's what I'd like to know." But there are many other laugh out loud moments. And there's quite a lot of stuff about automata and intelligence.

But, in truth, it's hard to see why it is a novel other than that it is marketed as such. That and the sneaking suspicion that there is more connectivity than you think there is. There probably isn't, but that's the clever thing about the book. It pulls you in and all the thoughts and voices wash over you. It's not a long book and, before you really know it, it is gone and you are left thinking "What was that?".

But I did enjoy reading it. I'm hovering between 3 and 4 stars. I think maybe 4 because it made me laugh out loud.
Profile Image for David.
158 reviews27 followers
July 1, 2014
I'm not entirely sure how to categorize 'The Absent Therapist' (is "defies categorization" in itself a category?) and I don't suppose it matters - the quote on the cover refers to it as a novel, the quote on the back as "narratives". It's not quite either of those, but nor is it quite short stories or flash fiction... prose poems perhaps? The nearest thing to it that I've read would be Sam Shepard's fiction. What it definitely is is borderline genius. In pieces ranging from a paragraph to a couple of pages in length, a chorus of disparate voices addresses the reader/the listener (the titular absent therapist) on a vast range of subjects, from God to sex to computers to the impracticalities of boxer shorts, with settings ranging from America to Australia to various locations in Britain. Sometimes it is hilariously funny, sometimes touching, sometimes baffling, always thought-provoking. Some voices we return to a number of times, some seem to be snatches of overheard conversation, some just meandering ruminations. The genius bit is how Eaves, like an über choirmaster, manages to pull all these voices together into some kind of harmonious whole.
Profile Image for Jim Elkins.
334 reviews347 followers
November 15, 2016
The Difference Between Fragments and Parts

"The Absent Therapist" is divided into paragraph- and page-long sections of prose, which are not connected to one another. They usually ask to be read as snatches of overheard dialogue. The book is therefore a puzzle in reading, and a reader needs to find a strategy of reading that will make sense of the whole, or of Eaves's idea of fragmentation. Here are three strategies of reading, each one of which, I think, doesn't work and has to be partly or wholly set aside as the reading progresses. In the end, I think the book raises interesting questions about what counts as a fragment, either at the scale of a page-long portion of text, or at the scale of the book itself.

1. The short sections actually tie together, and the book is an elaborate puzzle.

Nicholas Lezard, in "The Guardian," said "for a while I thought I was going to have to keep track" of the voices, "that there was an underlying order making this a very complex work indeed... but after a while I decided, as I suspect you will, to sit back and let it all wash over me instead" (Feb. 11, 2014). I did the same, but after about 30 pages (a quarter of the book) I realized I wasn't usually supposed to be identifying individual voices. But Eaves puts in several teases -- recurring contexts, recurring names -- so it takes a while before a reader can be reasonably sure this is not a puzzle on the order of Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad." It isn't clear why Eaves doesn't make it obvious whether or not this is a puzzle: some sections do connect, some speakers do repeat, so the invitation to read carefully and figure out the connections is itself repeated, until the reader finally sees that it isn't necessary. I do not understand that decision, unless he wanted simply to tease and distract his readers: an interest that does not fit well with the book's content.

2. The book proposes something about the disconnection and fragmentation of modern life.

Once it's clear that the book is not merely interwoven stories, or rather that few of them are interwoven, and that the book isn't a single plot entangled in separate sections, the question becomes the resonance or disparity between the sections. Is this, then, a book more about dissociation, about the alienation of speakers from one another? Is it an Oulipean effort to describe a single place or time? Or possibly just the remnants of other projects that might have cohered? For me, these sorts of questions began to predominate around the halfway mark, because I was thinking more of the assembly of disparate sections than of the connections between sections. The problem with this reading, for me, is that it makes the book trivial: there is no special accomplishment in demonstrating the disconnection of life by presenting disconnected pieces of it.

3. The book is a cross-section of contemporary society.

A third possibility is that the book is an ethnographic or social commentary, and that Eaves's choice of topics for his speakers is itself the central point of the book. A fair amount of "The Absent Therapist" is about the condition of modern society: it has lots of politics, and an entire chapter (one-fifth of the book) on the US; there are also ruminations on inequality, artificial intelligence, and other scientific and philosophic topics. The book's title also points that way. Yet the book can't be mainly an attempt at a snapshot of contemporary life, because many sections are about people's private lives, misunderstandings, arguments, and the stuff of everyday conversation.

4. The sections themselves.

What I'm left with is a meditation on the sections themselves, their unity or lack of it, their differences and resonances. What matters, in the end, is how Eaves thinks of the idea of the excerpt, the section, the fragment. The plurality of sections in this book -- there are on the order of 150 of them, more than one per page -- are self-contained, polished short stories, more like flash fiction or prose poems than fragments of overheard dialogue. Very few of them end unexpectedly, as overheard conversations tend to do. Most, and especially the longer ones, give the impression of being very carefully and patiently crafted so they could work as free-standing microfiction.

One example will have to do. Here is a section, in full, from p. 108:

"There were once two contestants in the final of a TV game show and the winner sportingly shared his prize with the runner-up -- a dramatic gesture the audience loved. I happened to know the winner's boyfriend, who watched events unfold at home with mounting horror. He was in debt and could have done with more of that money. He didn't dispute the winner's right to do with it as he pleased. He just couldn't imagine behaving like that himself. They had a row. It wasn't the money that split them. It was something the boyfriend let slip, in his cups, about the winner's start in life, which the winner didn't much like."

There are eight sentences here. Every one reverses or surprises. The last one has a surprise ("the winner's start in life") which is itself modified by the qualifier "much." The paragraph compresses as many nuances, changes of tack, and subtleties as it can. It is very carefully and skilfully done, and so are many, or most, of the sections in this book.

But that brings me to the point: why write a book of disconnected parts, when each one of those parts is itself a model of coherence and unity? It would have been more consistent if the sections were actually fragments, or else parts of an incomplete whole, as in Perec's "Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris." Eaves's book implies that the world is disconnected, disharmonious, and fragmentary, but that harmony and even unity exist in small units everywhere. It is, I think, too easy an idea. If the world is disconnected, either in the way it appears here, then individual moments of it can probably not be imagined as lapidary, aesthetically pleasing objects. (I prefer Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress" as a model of a world in fragments.) Another way to put this would be to say Eaves's book does not have fragments, in the Romantic sense (from Novalis), but unities.

(The opposite of this book would be an enormous novel in which the individual scenes are seldom complete or unified, things unravel, events and characters and ideas become vertiginously complex and fragmentary, and yet the prose continues uninterrupted: something like "Infinite Jest.")
Profile Image for Doug.
1,989 reviews705 followers
March 9, 2017
Impelled to read this as I am (slowly) making my way through all of the Goldsmith Prize nominees/winners, and because of the somewhat intriguing précis, I might have liked it better and rated it higher if I had not recently read Joy Williams' '99 Stories of God', which is virtually the same book. That is, it is composed of about 200 (more or less) vignettes of exactly one paragraph in length, with no through line, no continuing characters (although several names are repeated a few times - Linda, Clive, Darryl - and God help us - Haneke; although it is never clear if these are MEANT to be the same people from segment to segment because none of the characters are ever delineated by more than one rudimentary characteristic/emotion) - and very little discernible POINT!

One reviewer stated that the stories 'arrangement is precise', but I hazard to say the book would be no different if the 200 fragments were put into a hat and drawn out in any random order. It is like making a meal of 200 amuse-bouches with never an entrée, salad or dessert (or needful copious glasses of wine) to disrupt the monotony.

Here is what I wrote in my review of the Williams book and it serves as well for this: "About a third of these VERY short 'stories' ... are clever in a drolly dry way, a third of them are 'meh', and the final third are well nigh incomprehensible (I found myself wondering 'What's the point?' a LOT)". A week from now I could reread this and have no recollection of any of it.
Profile Image for Robert.
1,999 reviews195 followers
January 15, 2020
The Absent Therapist is my second Will Eaves novel and like his previous book, Murmur, It’s a bundle of mixed feelings.

On one hand I think he’s a fantastic writer. I mean there’s a lot of pleasure in reading every line he writes. TAT’s structure is a series of paragraphs so the reader is getting bite sized chunks of Eaves’ prose. In theory this means that this bit and pieces should stick in your mind.

However that’s the problem I found with this book. Nothing stuck except the paragraph about boxer shorts – which made me laugh loudly on a bus. Other than that I doubt if I could recall any other part of The Absent Therapist.

That’s all I can say about it really. If you want a memorable book read in fragments then check out Brenda Lozano’s Loop. I fared much better with that.

Profile Image for Ingrid Wassenaar.
116 reviews4 followers
July 29, 2014
This is a compendium of voices and miniature narratives, playlets, poems. Divided into five parts like a collection of poems, the micro-stories often make you think of listening to slightly bonkers people on buses, the kind you are fascinated by, but want to edge away from, and whose realities baffle you. Will Eaves has an amazingly attuned ear. This is truly experimental - a deconstructed novel made of fragments that are simultaneously complete in themselves, yet alluding to far bigger stories.
Profile Image for Emily.
65 reviews5 followers
June 1, 2014
Fucking hell, this is incredible. This was a rare uninformed purchase -completely on a whim, without reading or knowing anything about it, purely because I liked the cover design. This is so, so fucking good.

" He told me a wonderful story once about some man who came round for sex and said, 'Give me a blow job, then.' And Terry said, 'That's not very romantic,' and the man sighed and said, 'All right. Give me a blow job in the rain.' "
Profile Image for James Kinsley.
Author 2 books14 followers
July 26, 2014
Absolutely delightful. Free of narrative, just an always-engrossing stream of literary fragments - scenes, thoughts, impressions - that make you feel like you're sitting alone in a busy place, catching borrowed glimpses of the lives of the strangers around you. Anyone who enjoys people watching will love this book. Just charming.
Profile Image for Stuart Piper.
78 reviews9 followers
October 10, 2022
Musings and passing short stories like trains of varying lengths whizzing past me on the platform. Just as I would think I might be too bored to persevere and finish it it would make me laugh, or surprise me. So finish it I did. Would be a good loo book and I don’t mean that disparagingly. Just good literature in bitesize morsels.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
281 reviews7 followers
May 17, 2018
Experimental fiction arranged as a collection of short, overheard pieces of conversations in five sections, the first being The Absent Therapist. All of these are absolutely brilliant. There are some very funny ones as well.
Profile Image for Ian Mond.
504 reviews78 followers
November 30, 2014
Because not every review can be 1,000 words long, I’m going to keep my remarks about The Absent Therapist nice and short. Just like the novel.

Except it’s not really a novel, but a collection of disparate voices, a series of vignettes that jump from person to person. It’s a bit like walking through a crowd of people, picking up fragments of what’s being discussed. Sometimes you’ll circle back and pick up another snippet of the same conversation, but for the most part, all you’ll ever get is that one moment.

What’s remarkable about The Absent Therapist is how accessible it is. While it’s obviously very experimental, and while there’s no story to take hold of, there’s a human and emotional quality to most of the vignettes that makes them immediately engaging, even if we only stay with them for a few minutes. Take this as an example:

"I don’t see the point of boxer shorts. No support. And the gap for your sticky wicket, why bother? Too fiddly. You end up groping about for the opening while your fellow man casts suspicious sideways glances. And as my beloved put it, why poke your head out of the window when you can jump over the wall?"

or this

"Samuel and I heard this morning that the refugee camp in Tanzania containing our two sons, Amos and Zizwe, is to be closed. The government is closing it and sending everyone in it back to Burundi, where we know that Amos and Zizwe will face great danger. We think of them at this time, and we would ask that you say a silent prayer for them, too."

or this

"If the vacuum were not so complete, the sound of every culture speeding by, from bacteria to late macro-sentient galactic entities, would be that of a cistern filling in the ears of the creator, the soft flare of emptiness nixed and life’s brief quelling of the silent storm, which rages on and on."

While these tonal shifts can, at times, be sudden and jarring, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his review, after awhile the prose just washes over you. This doesn’t mean that The Absent Therapist is either disposable or just a blur of words. Instead, as a glimpse into the human condition it’s a book best enjoyed as a meditative experience rather than picked apart.
Profile Image for Simon Bate.
256 reviews2 followers
October 6, 2015
Reading this short book of stories reminded me of something Bob Dylan said when asked the meaning of the seemingly disconnected lines of his song 'A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall'....he said they were each songs that he wouldn't have time to get written before The Bomb fell.In a similar way these stories as novel(la) seem to me more like snatches of incidents that have made Will Eaves, the man.
"Writing is...looking with borrowed eyes, that's all.'I could have done that,'people cry, especially relatives.'You've taken my story and written it down verbatim.How dare you?'To them I say:'Well, you weren't doing anything with it.You didn't see it was a story worth telling."
And each of these stories could be the germ seed of a longer piece or novel(la).
I enjoyed it and the story of the little boy on p84/85 made me roar with laughter; an unusual occurrence!
Profile Image for Shelley Day Sclater.
59 reviews10 followers
November 13, 2015
This is a sparkling little gem of a book, I couldn't recommend it more highly. I can see it's a book i will return to again and again. The pieces are short so you can dip in and out as you please, read them at random if you like, savour them in bus queues or when you only have a couple of minutes. The writing is impeccable, deceptively simple, but i can imagine the enormous work and crafting that's gone into making it so perfect. It's intriguing to wonder why the author calls it 'a novel.' It's certainly novel, but it's not A novel in the conventional sense, with a beginning, a middle and an end, etc. It doesn't have a unifying story or character or voice or theme. It just is. And it's lovely.
Profile Image for Fiona.
242 reviews4 followers
January 13, 2016
This book made me feel more like a listener than a reader. It's like channel surfing or eavesdropping on conversations on the train, but it's so more than that. Whole stories are told in a single paragraph; others are left tantalisingly unfinished. Characters leap off the page fully formed.
As I read, there was a fascinating push-pull between the feeling that I was trespassing on other people's lives and the deep sense that these voices needed to be heard - that we aren't fully human if no-one hears our stories. Any book that contains the line "A little poison goes a long way, as my widowed aunt used to say" has got to be worth a look. This is poetry and short fiction woven into a marvellous whole that is so much more than the sum of its 112 pages.
Profile Image for Gretel.
490 reviews8 followers
November 11, 2014
Will Eaves is not a bad author at all, but I just didn't like this book. He does write well and has some interesting ideas, but they are in such small bites that they are immediately forgettable. There was nothing in this book to latch onto or stay in my mind. Most of the ideas in this book could be written to be a bit longer and it would make a badass collection of short stories, but at this length they are too short and too fleeting.
Profile Image for Jeni Brown.
225 reviews1 follower
March 12, 2016
Interesting structure, some moments of lovely humour, I'm sure there would have been much to say about this in any of my Modern Literature courses at University. But as an entertaining bit of casual reading, it didn't soar to any great heights.
Profile Image for Simon Sweetman.
Author 9 books47 followers
March 31, 2014
Haven't ever read anything quite like this, and the best bits were funny and genuinely surprising and the voice, always, so sure. So spot on. Amazing writer. A real talent. Loved this.
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