Part 1 – review
This is the story of Meursault a French Algerian living in the early 1940s. He is an outsider. On paper you wouldn’t think him an outsider, he has a good job, a girlfriend, friends and a mother. He is an outsider because of how he feels. He approaches life with a neutral indifference, whether he is burying his mother, starting a new love affair or committing a crime – his approach is the same, matter of fact indifference.
I hope you aren’t thinking ‘that sounds weird and kind of boring’ because it isn’t (OK I do admit that as it is all written in the first person the first chapter reads quite strangely until you get used to his tone). There’s something about his approach to life that is uplifting and his say what you see descriptions of the world around him actually create some beautiful moments. My favourite bits are when he is describing his neighbour’s relationship with his dog, his cold observations of what he sees and hears as his neighbour comes and goes from the apartment building paint a moving portrait of the complexity and frailty of human emotion. There is also a lovely sequence where he sits on his balcony all day and describes what he sees looking down on the street, you get a real sense of the sleepy bustle of Algiers on a hot Sunday afternoon just from his basic unflowery relating of what he can see in front of him.
Meursault does enjoy life in a way too. He has moments of raw pleasure swimming in the sea, having sex with his girlfriend, eating a good meal etc. He just doesn’t imbue them with meaning or emotion, they are what they are, here and now, pleasurable and fleeting.
In terms of plot, and there is a plot even though I feel this isn’t a plot driven novel, Mersault’s mother dies in an old people’s home and he travels there to her funeral. When he returns home he goes back to daily life and also forms a new romance and makes a new friendship. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he commits a serious crime. This is a very interesting point in the novel, just when you are starting to think ‘Well what’s wrong with not having conventional emotions?’, Mersault commits this extreme act – so is he mentally ill? There are enigmatic clues that he might have suffered a trauma, he makes reference to feeling differently “before”, but doesn’t say before what, he also mentions having to abandon his studies but doesn’t say why. Why did he do it? The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of the crime…I won’t tell you if questions are answered – read it to find out!
(N.B. this novel is very short, only about 100 pages, so do give it a go even if you think it’s not for you. Even if you don’t like it it won’t be a hard slog)
Part 2 – The Outsider and mental health.
I read the outsider as it was recommended on a blog about mental health problems as a good book to read. It appealed to me as self-help books just don’t, I always worry they will tell me what to do or try to ‘cure’ me and make me ‘normal’. If reading to deal with mental health issues I much prefer something like this that explores issues without necessarily offering solutions.
I personally found the outsider extremely uplifting as someone dealing with mental health issues, it also made me think a few uncomfortable thoughts which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Meursault doesn’t think there is anything wrong with his approach to life, and I can relate to that. Sometimes it is OK not to fit in and we don’t all have to act and feel the same. The one size fits all approach you sometimes get to treating mental health can be frustrating when seeking help. For example a therapist once told me that he could tell I had serious issues because I had laughed at “inappropriate things” at a previous session, I asked him what he meant and he repeated the phrase I’d laughed at – I laughed again! I then stopped myself, did my sense of humour make me insane? I found the quip I had made relating to death and suicide funny, darkly humorous, I still do today when I’m not in a period of crisis and am sitting calmly at my desk feeling perfectly cheerful. Meursault goes through something similar, a priest wants him to repent for his sins and admit to believing in God and justice but he doesn’t so he won’t. The priest becomes increasingly frustrated and Meursault starts to get bored. It is a really good parallel with some of my experiences of therapy, the main reason I have given it up in the past has been boredom with the process, boredom with talking and boredom with listening to them tell me why I am as I am and how I should be different.
So is the conclusion live and let live, let’s all just be who we are? Unfortunately not! Meursault isn’t OK. He does something both cruel, pointless and illogical. It works out badly for everyone including himself. Even he doesn’t seem to understand his reasons for his actions, and worryingly doesn’t even really question them. So this book doesn’t provide the answer, but it provides lots of interesting questions and I found asking them of myself a positive exercise.