Book review: 'The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathan Fairfax' by Christopher Shevlin

(contains spoilers)

I’m making an exception to my ‘reviewing self-published books’ rule on this occasion, because I actually met this author in person at an event, and he was very nice and sold his book so well that I couldn’t help but buy and read it. This ended up being a pretty long review – so much so that I’ve been a goodie and even included a TLDR; for your benefit at the bottom.

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If you were to skip to the end of The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathan Fairfax (lets call it TPAOJF for short), you would find a little bio that explains that Shevlin loves a particular genre of books (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Three men in a boat etc.) which all helped him feel that he could make sense of the world, by understanding that nothing made sense. You can see this influence very clearly in the way that the book is written.

As expected in a novel that reads like Douglas Adams, the humor is on point in a very specific way. It doesn’t feel like Shevlin is trying to emulate Douglas with a few choice phrases stuck onto a different style – but that his natural writing style does contain all the wit, dark comedy and dry humor that he loved so much himself as a child. Everything feels fresh – an exposure of the curious nature of things without any kind of dressage – the way that you could imagine a child describing a scene: “The living room was empty, but in the kitchen was a large dead woman.” 

While TPAOJP does lack the larger plots that can be found in Hitchhiker’s Guide, I did still find myself tittering at various phrases from the very beginning, when Lance discovers a body: “A good, deep stab wound can take half a stone off you in a couple of minutes”.

There are occasions, too, where Shevlin’s style deliberately becomes a parody of itself, as shown in one of my favorite ridiculous paragraphs which I can’t bear to quote not in entirety: “The nasty cafe food which had sat silently inside him now dashed noisily back up, making for the dirty plates and uneaten food in the sink like a lover rushing to his betrothed. It was like that except instead of catching the betrothed in its arms and falling, laughing, upon the grass, the lover spattered all over the betrothed in foul greasy lumps. Then another lover came and did exactly the same, as did the next lover, and the next. In fact, wave after wave of lovers came spilling out of Lance’s bucking stomach, exploded over their betrothed and lay dead and dismembered in the Somme of his sink. He spewed them out until no more would come.”

One of the talents that writers like Douglas has, is in their ability to see things in people, their behaviours and actions, and then laying out the parts that were silly, ridiculous and completely contradictory for all to see. Humans in all their natural glory. Shevlin does this well too, with a particularly good example being his portrayal of social anxiety and its pitfalls: “Now that he had thought about it, his reaction couldn’t be spontaneous, which meant that he would have to pretend to feel the way he actually did feel.”

There are lots of fantastic things about this book and I absolutely loved the style of writing, but I gave it 3 stars for a reason – and those were the plot but mostly the characters.

For me, the plot, while not the biggest problem, did become less exciting over time, rather than feeling that it was ramping up in intensity to the conclusion. Enjoying his crisp style while finding the body with Lance at the start felt like the high point of this novel, and though I read the whole thing, I did find it more difficult to get through towards the end as characters became more intertwined with each other. 

More of an issue however, were Shevlin’s female characters, with which I felt there were serious issues. For context, all of the main male characters seem to be obsessed with sex and love – either their ability to get it, or not being able to get it. It is the drive that propels them all through their decision making, and what they talk and think about most frequently. Most perspectives are, as expected, through the eyes of Jonathan or Lance (excluding Jane who is female but is too old and motherly to be deemed attractive) and therefore our only experience of the young, hot female characters (of which there are many) are through the eyes of these women-obsessed men. Even with a tiny chapter from the perspective of Rachel, the crush, we learn that her autonomy is still controlled by her desire to look good for men, and worrying about how plain she is. 

The women is this book, as a result of being primarily under the male gaze, fall into a few different categories: “the hot girl crush”, “the older woman who wants to mother”, “the hot lesbian”, “the hot affair/daughter” and “the murder victim”.

Jonathan, the protagonist, is presented as a firm opposite to Lance, the womaniser. The main difference between these two men is that Lance sees young, hot women as interchangeable, for one-time use, and is handsome enough to attract a horde, whereas Jonathan sees young, hot women as other-worldly creations – completely unattainable due to his social anxiety and their shallowness. 

Of course, Jonathan can be whatever kind of character than Shevlin likes, but as a protagonist I wonder whether he was supposed to be so unlikeable. He has somewhat of a ‘nice guy’ persona, believing that beautiful women could never want him because they only go for jocks (while simultaneously admitting that he himself could never date an ugly girl while angels like his crush, Rachel, exist) and trying to convince himself, and the reader, at every turn, that he is not ‘worthy’ of such women. The blame for this is shifted onto his crushes and their stereotypes, rather than there being much admittance of Jonathan having a serious self esteem issue. 

One conversation lays out the intended dichotomy between the two quite well. After talking about his crush, Jonathan says to Lance: “If you even consider telling me to treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen then I will glass you”. Yes, it is good of Jonathan to dispel the idea of treating women badly to make them fall in love with you, but the faux-nobility feels like a more insidious kind of manipulation. Especially when you factor in Rachel’s sexuality, which is a recurring point of contention throughout the novel. Jonathan’s moral appears to be that ‘lesbians will turn for good guys if you just try hard enough’. 

Right from the start I felt uncomfortable with the portrayal of Rachel, as she is seen to be an angel who is other-worldly in her beauty, and then is revealed to be dating a(nother super hot) girl. Jonathan assumes her to be a lesbian but continues to pine for her and hope that she will fall in love with him instead. Lance chimes in with: “You know, I never met one of her type who couldn’t be turned” and Jonathan agrees that the ONLY thing standing in his way is him “having no faith in himself” and the fact that women only go “for hunks anyway”

He readdresses this on multiple occasions: “Whenever his determination began to flag, he would think again of Rachel. It never crossed his mind that she might not want a man who could lift two hundred pounds. Nor did it cross his mind that she might ever accept him as he was. The fact that she had a girlfriend also left him unperturbed.”

Rachel’s communicated sexuality as a gay woman is not a deterrant – nay, it is barely even accepted, though brought up in conversation often. However, I didn’t want to judge too harshly so as the reader, I thought – well we haven’t heard for sure that she IS gay, she may be bi and therefore open to potentially dating Jonathan if her relationship with Sam falls apart. 

But then we get to the ‘truth’ – that Rachel isn’t gay after all, she just PRETENDS to be one: “This whole thing has taught me I need to stop hiding behind lies. I just … I’m a bit scared of relationships, so I tell men that I’m a lesbian to put them off – or so I can see if they like me or I like them or something. I picked Sam because I just, you know, totally wanted to be like her, that’s all.”

This made me sad, and mad. Even her faux sexuality is a plot point to allow Jonathan to obsess over her beauty long enough to get us to the end of the book, where suddenly all romantic ‘hurdles’ are overcome. The subtext is that the good guy always gets the woman, even if she tells the world she’s a lesbian (read: is a lesbian), if you just stare at her with puppy dog eyes for long enough and think about her non-stop. 

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh here. Maybe this isn’t the subtext that everyone else reads. But as a gay woman myself who has experienced her fair share of men believing that I just need to meet the right guy, or that I’m pretending to be gay for attention, or that my sexuality exists for their delectation, there were elements that I found hard to chew through. I have no doubt that Jonathan is supposed to be a likeable, insecure guy who you want to get the girl. But he comes across, in addition to that, as shallow and obsessive, judging every woman immediately by their appearance, and doing it in an unhealthy, extreme way: “She was a sleek blonde whose beauty was precision-engineered, as though she had been designed by a committee of experts to meet all the criteria of attractiveness.”

TLDR; In conclusion, I absolutely loved the style and wittiness of this book and its myriad of conversations regarding human nature, and a lot of dialogue I found excellent and fun. There are definitely issues regarding the portrayal of women, and LGBTQ+ issues, but I have scoured pre-existing reviews of this book and it appears that no-one else has felt quite as strongly as I have about it. 


Give it a read and see if you get the same subtext as me!

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