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Book Review: Shy by Max Porter

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By Simon Demetriou

In the course of Shy, Max Porter’s fourth novel, the eponymous first-person narrator identifies the following languages: ‘night-end’, ‘badger’ and ‘heartsore’. It’s telling of a book about how one’s consciousness is necessarily polyphonic and polydiscursive, that the languages’ names span the absurd concreteness of ‘badger’ to the mind-bending piece of personification in ‘night-end’.

Shy doesn’t really know who he is, and neither does anybody else. He’s shy, after all. But he’s also an institutionalised teenager surrounded by adults whose objective is to understand him in order to help or reform or use him as an example. ‘Last Chance’ is a boarding school for troubled teens, simultaneously home to teachers and therapists who genuinely seem to be trying to help, and to video cameras for a documentary whose voiceover presents trite and woefully inadequate binaries. It’s not just the adults who need to categorise. Shy and his peers ‘each carry a private inner register of who is genuinely not OK, who is liable to go psycho, who is a pussy, who is actually alright’.

But how can anyone be pigeonholed like this, when the entire novel goes to show that in only a few hours, the human mind is able to move between past and present, between fiction and reality, between euphoria and despair? Shy’s consciousness houses the languages necessary to depict all of these, as well as to rail against all that he cannot comprehend and marshal. This inability to compute and cope seems to be why Shy is heading to the school’s pond in the middle of the night, wearing a backpack full of flints. As memories flicker in and out of focus during Shy’s walk to what he thinks will be his end, his mind returns again and again to problems of time and categorisation. The flints serve to make a mockery of the human lifespan; he recalls his criminal record and asks, ‘Is this you? The whole of you?’; the drum’n’bass that he loves leads to the revelation that ‘God is a bouncy bastard who wants his people together in the dance’ but to his peers ‘he just says Hardcore. Nice. Yeah’.

The novel blends registers and discourses as it blends voices and times, to beg the question of what makes any of us – or this – what we – or it – really is. In the end, ‘friendship seeps into the gaps of these false registers… just as hatred does, just as terrible loneliness does.’ Thankfully for Shy, in the end, there is more of the friendship than the hatred and loneliness. It saves him, and serves to both uplift the reader and make him/her peer into the gaps within their own existence, hoping to find that the same is true.


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