“I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else.”
― Albert Camus, The Stranger
I don’t remember why I had this on my TBR list. Perhaps it is because it is consistently listed as one of the great literary works of the 20th century and I thought it was time to see what all of the fuss is about.
We are introduced to Meursault as he travels from his home in Algiers to bury his mother, who was living in a home for the elderly, which was located in another town not far from Algiers. Through the first-person narrative, we learn that Meursault thinks that he should feel more upon learning of his mother’s passing – sadness, regret, something – but he appears to be going through the process of saying his goodbyes and burying her as a completely perfunctory act. Meursault knows that his lack of reaction is unsettling to those around him, but he fails to see how their discomfort or their desire for some sort of solidarity is his concern.
After returning to Algiers, we follow him as he engages with different neighbors, goes about his work and weekend routine, and begins a romance with a former colleague. Throughout all of this, we get the feeling that Meursault does not feel deeply about much, other than his own comfort. He has no ambition but also no sadness. He seems content to simply focus on his base needs, and interacts with others out of habit rather than any sort of need for human companionship aside from his attraction to Marie, his lover.
After an unexpected trip to the beach with Marie and another of Meursault’s acquaintances, we are thrown into the second half of the novel where Meursault is at the mercy of a society with which he feels no love or emotional connection. Now, the suspect of a murder, he is forced to deal with the effect his lack of connection has on others, and how he is seen in the eyes of his countrymen.
The good: This was an interesting, strange little story. I found myself identifying with Meursault in how he is asked repeatedly to display emotions or to pretend to care about things in which he does not believe. It is clear that he is not like others. He does not pretend to be something he is not. And yet, the more I as the reader can relate to him, I begin to wonder if I am a sociopath. It makes me realize how the author takes us through the story from a detached standpoint and instead how, as a reader, the only emotion we feel is regret for the narrator, even though he barely feels any regret for himself, other than the loss of company of his lover and of his simple, low-stakes life.
The bad: I’m really not sure how I feel about this book. After reading the first couple of chapters, watching how Meursault interacts with those around him, it is clear that there is nothing about this story that can be predicted. It is an unsettling feeling to want things to work out for the protagonist but, with the absence of any sort of feeling for his own self-preservation outside of the day-to-day mundanity of living, it becomes easier and easier to begin to categorize and regard life, and our reactions to it, as part of an absurd pantomime.