A Novel by Stona Fitch
Introduction by Megan Abbott
Critics and readers have called Senseless the most disturbing novel ever written. This literary thriller delivers an unsettling mix of torture, guilt, and moral ambiguity. Eliott Gast, a seasoned American economist, is abducted in Brussels by a shadowy anti-globalization group. He spends forty days in a white apartment, questioned and tortured by his captors, every moment broadcast on the Internet. His mind racing, Gast tries to explain why he is here, exploring sins both small and large.
Originally published in the U.S. just days after the 9/11 attacks, Senseless is a cult classic that continues to resonate. Published internationally, Senseless has not been available as an ebook—until now. Can you handle it?
“Kafka in overdrive.”
– Cincinnati Enquirer
“Startling in conception and disturbing in what it says about our times.”
– J. M. Coetzee
“Small like a stick of dynamite.”
– Publishers Weekly
“Combines the taut plotline of a made-for-TV thriller with the ruminations of a sophisticated literary novella.”
– Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer
On Senseless: The Novel as Lethal Enchantment
By Megan Abbott
First published on the fateful publication date of September 11, 2001, Stona Fitch’s Senseless is the kind of book spoken of in reverent, hushed tones among many readers of dark crime fiction. Originally a sly white volume with astigmatic cover type, it has led many lives: graphic novel, film, and more than a dozen international editions. The years and various incarnations have done nothing to smother its incendiary effect. Holding Senseless in one’s hand in this, its latest form, it feels more than ever like a grenade.
The plot—barebones—is both au courant and primitive: Eliott Gast, an American economist, is kidnapped by anti-globalization terrorists whose particular brand of torture is as appalling as it is inspired. Old Testament meets performance art.
But the plot, with its fable simplicity, is not the heart of the matter. Rather it’s the relationship between you, the reader and the object humming in your hands. Like Gast himself, you too are hostage, captive to the book’s horrors and, much more powerfully, its mysteries. It is book-as-lethal-enchantment.Holding your breath as the mayhem multiples, you cling to the spaces in between the scenes of escalating terror. And in those spaces you find lushly rendered reveries from Gast’s past, impressionistic memory fugues that provide shrewd parallels to his abject present. Recalling them, his escape is yours, and you reach for it desperately.
But, you see, that’s the trick of it. The prose is the enemy. The terrorist. Its sleekness, its lyricism. The words tug you along, beguile you. It’s so satisfying, you feel so pleased, drawn into yourself, summoning up your own past, your own keen sense of the beauties of life, which you are sure are nearly as delicate as those offered by the book in your hands.
In this way, you become as smug and self-involved as Gast, consumer and sensualist, a man whose lifestyle, prior to capture, meant business-class ease, spa treatments, gorging himself on gourmet meals, and a holy trifecta of heavy cream, Bordeaux, and Dunhills. A man who prides himself on sensual appreciations far more subtle, an interest in interesting things, architecture, fine music, history. The self-satisfied pleasures of restoring a Virginia farm with his wife, believing himself to a new pioneer, an outlier among his fellow Washington D.C. policy slaves.
But, as these pleasures—and others—are torn from him, any judgment we might wish to render for his serene, buffered lifestyle slips from us. Who are we to distance ourselves from Gast? If we are sensitive enough to be seduced by his lilting childhood memories, the book insists, then how can we not to sympathize utterly and share his terror? And while we cannot envision ourselves the victim of elaborate, spy-novel torture devices, we certainly can imagine the sharp horror over these terrorists’ homespun techniques, which we recognize, lay our hands on every day.
We cannot resist the dual seductions, lulling and forcible, and as a result the terror is fiercer, more appalling. But that’s the least of it. The push-pull of pleasure and horror is a masterfully rendered parlor trick that conceals the darker textures beneath. We want our reward for enduring. We want our allegory revealed. As we nod vigorously, we suddenly wonder what precisely we are agreeing is wrong, terrible, doomful about the world and its steep decline?
But Senseless is a book where nothing fits together cleanly, not even to please our noblest outrage, our kindest natures, our most politically sound objections. Every tunnel turns back on itself. We think we’ve cracked the code, exposed the moral to its grim fable. But we are always wrong.
At the end, we stand, the grenade sizzling in our palm. Hands, eyes, eardrum, mouth, tongue. Our own pulse under our own fingertip. Can we trust it? Is it beating?
New York City, April, 2011