For some of us, the world can occasionally be an ill-fitting place, which is what the painfully introspective Ben Yoskin finds. He becomes aware of cracks in the raison d’être of many things, and to cope has a “secret witness” he carries with him wherever he goes who fills in these shortcomings (and who becomes more familiar as the various adventures of each chapter unfolds).
Ben’s default setting is to find life out of kilter, with a need for solutions everywhere, even in his own thoughts and imaginings. But he “deals” with various situations — an older person dies at a shopping centre, he peels off old wallpaper and imagines the people who lived there, the radio in a ute leads him to recall his childhood dog, the year on a coin brings back conflicted memories of a friend’s suicide…..
The narrative takes the viewpoints of both an external protagonist and internal self (who knows the external as Benny, his pre-grown-up name). The concept of having an internal witness to one’s goings-on is central, based on the idea of an outside you, who walks around in this world being ‘normal’, and an inside you, who actually knows better — with the internal person being both critical and supportive of that ‘outside’ self. (The ‘outside’ Benny text is in quote marks, the internal ruminations are not.)
The book could be viewed as a collection of 60 short stories. Each chapter deals with one of the varied situations (or internal struggles), and Benny finds his way to not always an answer, but an approach, or attitude, that covers the issue at hand. The chapters are both interlinked but distinct stories, which provides a growing depth to the character of Benny.
His sometimes conceptually challenging assessments come from everyday situations that ordinary (or perhaps not-so-ordinary, you may decide) people like Benny come across. The conundrums, and their solutions, are inspired by a text written in Tibet sometime before the year 1175 (look up the “slogans of Atisha”).
The experiences do not follow a chronological order, nor are they consequential (although already described moments are referred to), but range over a lifetime (well, the first half of one). The attempt made is to elucidate the conceptual thrust of each ‘problem’ (some couldn’t be described as actual problems), and try to coerce them into relative understandability via the experiences of this (subjectively) real person in this real world.