ISimply put, Nat Ogle’s first novel is the story of a young nurse called Corina. While at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, she takes care of her patients. When not working, she takes care of her mother, who has advanced breast cancer. And in between, she tries – often failing – to take care of herself following a crushing act of sexual violence. “The problem with survival,” she notes, “is what to do next.”
But In the Seeing Hands of Others doesn’t want to be a simple novel. To this end, it is not presented in the genre of written literary prose where the most irregular element is a clever flashback, but as an assemblage of documents. The backbone of the story is told in posts from a blog Corina maintains in 2016, with comments from readers – some favorable, some not (“Gtfo with your BS and put your face on… bum”) .
Surrounding this is a written record of other sources: witness statements, character references, text messages, transcribed voicemail messages, discussion threads, snippets of scripts, screenshots of emails. It’s a choice that goes intelligently against the lyrical tendencies of Ogle (he is also a poet). “Showing the scars, my own sloppy stitches, that’s the stitch, if there’s a stitch,” Corina writes. “It won’t be a well done and thought out thing.”
The effect is reminiscent of the exhibits presented at trial, but we do know from Corina’s blog that by the time she writes it, she has already gone to court and seen her attacker – her ex-. boyfriend, Cameron – go unpunished. So maybe what Ogle creates is a second bite of justice for Corina: all the stuff the police had and all they didn’t, with the reader in the role of the ultimate jury.
Because if the original trial had seen everything Ogle exposes in this novel, it’s hard to see how Cameron could have gotten away with it, given that he appears to be a rock-solid psychopath without any redemptive characteristics. Things start within the confines of standard rapist rhetoric. A Word document recounting his version of the encounter ends with the chilling statement: “In my confident perspective, it was just a little messy.”
This may not be enough to convince you that this is a dirty job. After all, here is a statement from his former drama teacher that he is “an individual full of kindness, compassion and promise.” Ah, but here is a fragment of a coin found on Cameron’s computer just after. It’s a dialogue between a teacher and a 15-year-old boy who have had sex. When she tries to break up, he blackmails her. So much for his character reference.
Even Cameron’s name hammers home his lack of confidence. His last name is Struth: Cameron Struth, Cameron’s Truth. Corina is an imperfect victim – we learn that she was drunk, that she destroyed evidence by washing herself and her sheets, that she begged Cameron to come to the party where he assaulted her, that ‘she slept with him – but Cameron is a perfect villain, a haunting 4chan creep who lives to see fear in others.
Ogle’s editor called this a “toxic masculinity” story, but the dramatic problem with toxic masculinity stories is that they start with their moral schema already firmly in place. It sounds like an unhealthy critique to make, tantamount to asking where the sympathetic sex criminals in fiction have gone. But it’s a fact that most rapists don’t see themselves as wickedness embodied; they think they are unfortunately misunderstood.
Reading this novel made me want the unsettling subtlety of Mary Gaitskill, an author who can look self-delusion clearly in the eyes and draw a nauseating tension from the he-she-says. The richest parts of In the Seeing Hands of Others are not in the gameplay of CSI, but in the way Ogle writes about terror and the grace of human vulnerability. “Love, I think, is where two wounds press together, so that one wound becomes a kind of gauze for the other wound,” writes Corina. It’s a disgusting and beautiful image too, with a complicated truth in its sticky center.