First Fiction Fridays: Giving Up by Mike Steeves

May 22, 2015

You will be hard pressed to find a funnier, more insightful, and heartbreaking novel this year. Giving Up is a white-knuckle ride through the precarious territory of modern coupledom.

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Giving Up (BookThug, 2015)


Mike Steeves attended University of King’s College in Halifax, where he received a BA in Political Science and English Literature. He completed an MA in English Literature at Concordia University. Steeves lives with his wife and child in Montreal, and works at Concordia University. Connect with Steeves on Twitter @SteevesMike.

Why you need to read this now:

You will be hard pressed to find a funnier, more insightful, and heartbreaking novel this year. Giving Up is a white-knuckle ride through the precarious territory of modern coupledom.

On the surface, the action of the book is simple and straightforward. Divided into three sections, the first part is narrated by James, wildly ambitious and plagued by doubt, he recounts his quest to complete his ‘life’s work’ while trying to maintain a normal middleclass life with his wife. In the second part, his wife Mary recounts her own frustrations with trying to start a family, and her increasingly fraught relationship with James. In the third and final part, the voices of these characters merge, in a suspenseful and climactic encounter within the confines of their apartment.

Each section is written in a breathless narrative style. Steeves does away with paragraphs and presents each narrative as a headlong rush through the characters’ consciousness. Rather than passing over the minutiae of the everyday reality of a middle class couple, Steeves makes these details the focus of the novel, examining with a jeweller’s eye the tiny conflicts and compromises that characterizes a couple’s shared reality. Through these negotiations Steeves unravels the desires and mores of millennial life.

Giving Up does not shy away from the more uncomfortable aspects of domestic life, providing an updated novelistic corollary to past works of devastating honesty such as Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. Like those cinematic masterworks, it interrogates a phenomenon that seems to be at the centre of our cultural imagination: the impossibility of two people sharing a life together.

The novel also draws on the tradition of modern European literature, in order to present a profound psychological portrait that North American readers may not be familiar with. The melancholic prose of W.G. Sebald, the obsessive exaggeration of Thomas Bernhard, the erudite essayistic musings of Javier Marias, the brutal excavations of Elfriede Jelinek, and the emotional exactness of Peter Handke – all of these influences have been transformed into a style and language that is both plain, familiar, and unadorned, while somehow maintaining an almost foreign quality.

Through this reinvigoration of contemporary literary style on the one hand, and fidelity to real life on the other, Steeves has created a novel that feels completely central and of the moment. It is so rare for a novel to come together in this way, hitting the exact note that will resonate with a wide readership while at the same time dialoguing with the best of international literary fiction. From the first page you can’t help but sense that this is the real thing.

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Thank you to BookThug, especially Malcolm Sutton, for sharing Giving Up with us. Want to know more about the book? Check out a recent review in the Globe & Mail by Pasha Malla and the follow-up thought piece by Emily Keeler in the National Post.


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