A Model Partner by Daniel Seery
There's a constant buzz in Tom's ears. He hears this bee noise anytime things get uncomfortable. As his stress increases, the bees get louder. He has OCD, and some physical tics, but that isn't where Daniel Seery's A Model Partner gets weird. I'll get to that, but first it's worth noting that Irish author Seery's book is an endearing portrait of a hapless man in love. Tom tries to avail himself of a dating service to find the ideal woman, but the fact that he can't stop himself from reciting odd facts about animals and science doesn't help his chances with the ladies. Tom seems to be trying to work his way through something from childhood. The novel has melancholy at its heart, but the character of Tom is so sympathetic that when he finds himself in trouble with the law by the end of the novel, we're on his side.
Tom's various mental ailments rise to the surface of the story each time he encounters a social situation he can't handle, particularly those with women. "But the bees hadn't been as bad [at first]," he says when his discomfort becomes almost crippling. "Not nearly as bad as they are now." He explains,
'It's like the bee is in the air near me,' Tom said. 'Its wings are buzzing and this buzzing is accompanied by whatever idea is stuck in my head, ye know like,' Tom drags his fingers down his neck. 'Like maybe the idea to squeeze my fists tightly three times or something.'
Unfortunately, he encounters women who defraud the dating agency, including one date who is married. But Tom's odd social habits like repeating research and correcting the comments of his dates turn each encounter into a stressful situation. A trigger for his ritualistic behavior. Tom's fear keeps him stuck in a cycle of fear and disappointment.
Seery's novel works as a meditation on childhood causes for adult trauma. What makes this more than a story of an odd character with OCD is the depth Seery shows when Tom reflects on the pain of his childhood. When thinking of his teenage experience living with his grandfather in a semi truck, he remarks,
Of all the places they would stop on the journey Tom hated that place the most. There was something hopeless about those two weeks that can often catch Tom off-guard and make it seem as if all his teenage years were like that place, isolated and depressed. Those weeks, as short as they were, can sometimes infect and corrupt all other memories of that time.
The story of Tom's past runs parallel to that of his fraught present in alternating chapters; Seery slowly reveals details of his childhood that help explain the oddities of Tom's habits. This allows balance for the more absurd and humorous actions he undertakes. As the two narratives converge, we see that Tom is a product of his painful past: a drunk, abusive grandfather, and becoming the obsession of a crazy woman who thinks she is his son. He loses many family members early on, and his sense of happiness is tied to an abiding sadness. He fixates his feelings on a teenage crush, Sarah, and spends most of the novel trying to relocate her. Still, this gives him the sense that life's joys are balanced by the fact that they are fleeting. "[S]o many memories have the shadow of disappointment hanging over them," Tom says. "Even the best memories lead up to the bad. And even the darkest memories can take on a deeper tone."
When does the novel get really, deliciously weird? When Tom breaks into his neighbors' bed-sit, brings home a wax figure of William Shatner, dresses it up like a lady and tries to sculpt the ideal woman's face into the wax head. He stands in his neighbors' unit, admitting to himself that this might not work, exactly:
The figure alters as the light leaves the day. The dimness adds a realistic quality to the model. It becomes more human but with an empty quality, as if it is just the hollow shell of a human. This makes him think of taxidermy, whereby somehow removing the core of the animal makes it seem even more dead than if it was splayed open on a roadside, pink guts protruding through wiry, dark fur.
But even though he realizes his Shatner-woman is a poor approximation for any woman, let alone one who is living, Tom continues to work toward perfecting her appearance, taking digital photographs of women in the town to try to narrow down just what the perfect female has going for her. Though he continues to date, try to track down a lost watch, and search for his lost love, he returns to his model partner each night. Eventually, of course, he is found out. The two narratives converge and Seery writes the climactic scene with humor and sympathy.
Tom "feels like a shaken soda bottle. There are things bubbling inside him, pushing to get out." A Model Partner is Seery's exploration of all of those bubbling things. What makes the novel work is that it is not a neat cause-and-effect situation, nor is the story tied up too cleanly at the end. Seery strikes a balance between highlighting Tom's troubling character traits with sad and astute reflection. He writes a novel that feels so delightfully readable, we're privileged to be a part of Tom's weird world.
A Model Partner by Daniel Seery