FEBRUARY 6, 2019
IAIN REID’S Foe is hard to classify: it’s a novel about a married couple facing some unusual problems, but it expands rhizomatically, invading the spaces between literary fiction, science fiction, psychological thriller, and horror. The mix of genres and the novel’s haunting atmosphere places readers on unstable ground. This causes a sense of uncertainty that amplifies every act, suspicion, and reaction. It does the same for the philosophical explorations and weirdness Reid injects into the story. The result is an engrossing, strange, addictive read.
Junior and his wife Henrietta live on a farm in comfortable isolation. They work with other people but keep to themselves as much as possible. Their solitary existence is interrupted when a stranger from the city, a man named Terrance, shows up with disturbing news: Junior has been randomly selected and placed on a list of people who will potentially be sent to space for an indeterminate period to be part of a study. The project, called Installation, headed by a powerful corporation called OuterMore, could theoretically benefit generations to come. Junior doesn’t want to go, but he has no choice. Or he thinks he doesn’t. He is too afraid to ask.
Two years later, Terrance returns. He wants to prepare the couple for their imminent separation because Junior has been selected to enter the final stage. Terrance moves into the house with his equipment and begins to interview them. Terrance’s presence creates chaos for the couple. The interviews force Junior to think about his life and his relationship with Hen. But his memory is faulty. There is a lot Junior doesn’t remember. Paranoia ensues. What is happening? What will happen when Junior leaves? Is Terrance seriously considering replacing him with a robot? Junior tries to find answers to those questions, and what he discovers isn’t half as bad as the truth.
Foe poses an important question: what does it mean to be human? Instead of providing an answer, Reid deconstructs humanity, autonomy, and recollection to suggest we are a combination of those elements. Junior is lost, and he is losing his humanity. According to Terrance, the interviews and observations will help OuterMore create an android to replace him. The purpose of the android is to make separation easier on Henrietta, and it will resemble Junior so much that she won’t even notice it’s not really him. The idea bothers Junior. He is afraid of leaving, afraid of being replaced and forgotten. He is terrified of a soulless android taking his place, occupying his job and bed, receiving Henrietta’s attention, and maybe even sleeping with her. However, he can’t say no because he lacks autonomy, and Terrance’s discourse makes leaving sound like a great opportunity:
“Existence is achievable! Yes, Junior. You shape your existence through decisions, perceptions, and behavior. It’s our company philosophy at OuterMore. Habitual, comfortable activity is the worst kind of prison, because the bars are concealed. You can never learn anything that way. We want people to learn things, not just about new environments but about themselves. Maintaining the status quo is not what being a modern human should be about. This is bigger than the Installation. Do you see what I’m saying? This is what I’m offering you both. An awakening.”
Hen is the center of Junior’s life. The idea of leaving her behind terrifies Junior. She is his main concern. In fact, he convinces himself she is one of the reasons why he goes with whatever Terrance says. Unfortunately, their relationship is going through a rough time. Hen is silent and distant. The process is bothering her and her behavior makes it obvious. They never manage to have a conversation about the situation. She also has whispered conversations with Terrance that Junior never fully hears or understands. To make matters worse, there are huge rhinoceros beetles in the house and Hen hates them. The bugs become a physical manifestation of the discomfort they both feel and the secrets that seem to hide in the dark corners of the house.
Still, Junior keeps focusing on his wife. He tries to get her to play the piano. He starts conversations, tries to get to the core of what’s bothering her, but he never succeeds. Instead of making him angry and turn away from her, the problems make Junior hold on to her even tighter. Every time he finds a hole in his memory, he fills it with Hen. Whenever he thinks about his past and can’t conjure up much, Hen is there as his way out of that forgettable existence. She makes it easy to cope with not having a past and becomes the most crucial elements of his identity in the process. She is the now, the only thing that seems real, the reasons for everything he does, and the person who makes his life make sense: “Now is what’s important, not then. Hen is what’s important. She’s my focus, my everything. My youth was unremarkable, unmemorable. We all occupy a social district, and I had my place: middling, undistinguished, irrelevant. I was the physical embodiment of the numerical mean.”
Junior is very much in the present, but when he looks back, he feels a “heightened sense of oblivion.” He can’t think about his past. There is nothing there. If people are the result of their memories, then Junior is a very recent, limited, empty person. The vacuum leaves him with only one option: “I can only go forward.” But going forward means going against his own wishes. Going forward means abandoning Hen and going along with the plan Terrance has laid out for him. It means allowing a fake Junior to replace him and occupy every space of his life while he is gone. Junior’s lack of autonomy makes him his own worst enemy. His coping mechanism is to think about the many things we can’t control. By thinking of his current situation as something he can’t control, the guilt stemming from his inaction disappears. Terrance never spoke of the consequences that would come his way for refusing to participate. No one openly threatened Junior, so making his situation something inevitable is the only way to accept it:
There are certain moods, like tonight’s, that remind me how much is beyond my own intentions and desires, how much I can’t control, even within myself. I forget that sometimes. I can fall into the habit of believing I can regulate everything. My hope right now is to sleep, to rest, to recover. But my goal doesn’t matter. What I want is irrelevant.
The intangible thing that makes us human beats at the core of this novel. Junior struggles to find himself, to recognize the things he feels should make him human. The lack of memories creates a crack in his attempt, and nothing he comes up with can fill that void. Furthermore, knowing that he can easily be replaced by a robot that looks and acts just like him makes him doubt his authenticity and uniqueness. Meanwhile, Henrietta is a floating signifier whose reactions seem out of place. Then Reid reveals the truth: she understands the current situation as well as Terrance, and that makes her deal with Junior the way she does. Saying more would spoil the revelations at the end of the novel, but one thing is clear: Reid’s deconstruction of humanity is too close to becoming a reality, and that amplifies everything he explores here.
Reid is a master storyteller with a knack for absorbing prose. Most of the action takes place in the microcosm of the couple’s house, but Reid writes about the relationship so well that it becomes a universe full of questions and possibilities. Maybe Hen’s apprehension is affecting her more than she’s willing to admit. Maybe Terrance’s constant presence obstructs their communication. Maybe the process is more advanced than Junior thought, and his identity is already fading as the clone that will replace him starts taking on his memories, behaviors, and feelings. In that reduced space, and with increasing paranoia, every look, silence, and gesture is significant. Junior knows it, but is incapable of dealing with it:
What’s wrong with her? What was she talking about? I hate when Hen gets like this. When she’s upset, but evasive. Whatever is wrong, she always wants me to pry it out of her, which makes everything harder and worse. It’s brutal behavior. Childish. She needs to grow up. Where do these moods come from? They’ve developed over time like most bad habits.
As Foe spirals into its surprising finale, Junior cracks the mystery. He finds out enough about his situation to know he must overcome his stasis and put an end to it. But he is wrong. About everything. Reid wrote an ending that will surprise most readers. Every clue is there, but they are as elusive as the beetles that hide in the dark corners of the house. This is the type of novel that haunts you for days, hanging around in your head and whispering about things you missed and the secrets that became clear only after they’d been revealed. Endings like this are no accident, and the two punches Foe packs in its third act prove Reid is one of the most talented purveyors of weird, dark narratives in contemporary fiction.