If there is such a thing as a quirkiness index for novels, Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? would be well towards the top. It’s a novel that will either have you scratching your head in bewilderment but nevertheless enjoying the feeling or giving up in frustration but not until you had screamed what-the-hell-is-going-on several times and maybe even thrown the book into the corner. This is therefore a book which you will either love because of its convoluted humerous narrative or loathe on the basis that the narrative is too digressive and ultimately ‘nothing much happens’.
The fact that nothing much happens is indeed central to the story. Okotie leads us a merry dance with this book, on foot and by bus through the streets of an unnamed city in a hunt for Harold Absolon, the missing transport advisor to the city’s mayor. On his trail is a detective/private investigator called Marguerite who comes up with a plan to find Harold by following his wife Isobel.
Marguerite dissects in minute detail, the implications of everything he experiences on his journey, analysing what he sees from every possible angle in an effort to ensure he will not make a mistake. Acutely aware that his handling of the situation will be judged at some future point, that he “would stand accused, in short of both fabrication … and actual indolence”, and his “thoughts cross-examined at some point by someone less kind to himself than himself” he is at pains to do things by the book. But every new situation he discovers has so many possibilities for interpretation that take him down blind alleys, that he never really makes much progress with his investigation.
His digressions become more and more absurd as the book progresses. In the first chapter seeing his quarry disappear into a lift, he meditates on why lifts simply go up and down but not sideways; minutes later as he follows Isobel through the streets, he considers the correct nomenclature for T junctions and crossroads which are not in fact shaped like a cross. Later we find him advocating standardising the conditions for the term ‘bicycle’. Every thought spurs another thought and sub thought. He gets so deep into these internal debates he completely misses what is obvious to the reader and also loses the very person who is supposed to lead him to Harold; “satisfied with this conclusion, Marguerite looked up to see that Isobel Absalon, her friend and baby, had disappeared.”
Marguerite thinks of himself as a great detective, renowned for his incisive precision. Or as he prefers to describe himself: “the golden retriever of detectives whether or not they were the same as labradors, gold signifying in his mind the best of the best, the Olympic champion investigator, and retriever indicating the retrieval of missing persons.” It’s abundantly clear to the reader however that he is a bumbler. Every time he gets near to a discovery that could help him solve the mystery, he misses the clue because his mind is too focused on the minutiae.
If this was the novel in its entirety, I wouldn’t have finished reading it on the basis that it’s humour was repetitive. But Simon Okotie does something quite clever with this narrative which is what kept me reading. Alongside his main story another darker story unfolds, told through 26 random footnotes. Someone — and its not absolutely clear who that person is for some considerable time — gives us a tale of jealousy and possible revenge, in which Marguerite becomes increasingly implicated. It’s an inventive touch that effectively destabilises the main narrative, causing us to look beyond the humour to create our own interpretation.
Okotie crams a lot into a short novel (just over 200 pages) where the action lasts for little more than 30 minutes. He does so with great panache.
Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? was published in 2013 by the UK company Salt Publishing.
Simon Okotie was born to Nigerian/English parents. He lives in London. His autobiographical first novel about growing up in rural Norfolk was a runner-up for the 1998 Saga Prize for black British fiction.