What If Your Neighbor Were a Retired Government Torturer? Irony and the Sublime in Geoff Nicholson’s “The Miranda”

By Ramsey MathewsOctober 10, 2017

What If Your Neighbor Were a Retired Government Torturer? Irony and the Sublime in Geoff Nicholson’s “The Miranda”

The Miranda by Geoff Nicholson

HAVE YOU EVER laughed at something you felt you probably shouldn’t laugh at? An uncanny, unnatural, or improbable occurrence might trigger your giggle box. Your laugh, nervous in nature, could be directed at the insane possibility of what you saw, heard, or read. Irony, sarcasm, cynicism, paradox, and satire activate laughter, but most would agree there must be something intelligent and witty about dark nonsense for us to muster a subdued laugh. Even if no one is watching. Dumb, malicious sarcasm is never funny. There must be an element of the sublime or elevated thought for irony to work its magic. Such craftsmanship allows us to laugh. Asks us to laugh. Permits us to laugh. Begs us to laugh.

Geoff Nicholson’s novel fits in this category. The protagonist of The Miranda, Joe Johnson, is a former psychoanalyst turned United States government torturer who prepares agents for the possibility of capture. Joe, through a series of events, realizes he is called to the occupation of torturer in the same manner a man is called to the priesthood or to writing. There is a certain nonsense about such a calling to torture that only those blessed with this unnatural occurrence can find sensibility in, and most likely through much rationalization. Joe believes that “[a]t the risk of being prescriptive, I’d say that a man cannot — or at least should not — live a life based on regrets and resentment.” Joe is literally called to the job by Christine Vargas, the leader of The Team, after Joe successfully psychoanalyzes and provides comfort for several former agents, even though Joe doesn’t know they are agents. Vargas says Joe can become the “hands-on, benevolent, in-house torturer” preparing an agent for the inevitable day when he is captured. There are no women tortured in the novel.

In addition to torture, the other mechanism that propels the plot is walking. Long walks. Philosophical walks. Educational walks. Contemplative walks. Mindful walks. Walks for the sake of walking. Early in the novel, when Joe Johnson retires from his government job as a torturer, he decides to walk around the earth, 100 yards at a time, in a circle around the garden of his new house. Joe says, “I would walk around the world, and I would do it without ever leaving my own yard.” Twenty-five miles each day. One thousand days.

During his perambulations, Joe lists many noteworthy historical walkers to anyone who ventures near his backyard. Perhaps Joe is rationalizing the project by reminding visitors that great thinkers have managed long walks to pass the time. These notable wanderers include Aristotle, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Carl Jung, Captain Barclay, and Albert Speer, who Joe does not regard as a role model. When Speer, Hitler’s architect was imprisoned after the war, he decided to walk the distance to Berlin in the prison yard. Joe says to the reader, “I don’t claim to be any kind of philosopher, but I do sometimes think about the ‘big questions’ as I walked: god and death, free will and predestination, war and peace, crime and punishment, occasionally about love and sex.” Joe is not a prisoner like Speer, in the sense that he is free to come and go from his backyard, but the reader can decide if Joe is a prisoner of the psychological and philosophical consequences of his previous work as a hired government torturer. Coincidentally, Joe never leaves his backyard once he starts his long walk.

As a government employee, Joe is paid for the torture work meant to train agents. Would a reasonable person consider that reasonable work for a reasonable wage? During his own indoctrination, Joe underwent torture at the hands of another government employee. Joe is a victim. Joe is a survivor. The experience is meant to instill empathy for the torture victims and an awareness of what the mind and body can and cannot endure. After Joe quit his government torture job, he divorced his wife, Carole, for reasons that become apparent later in the novel; he moved to another neighborhood replete with an odd assortment of zany neighbors. This is where he begins his long walk. You thought your neighbors were weird? Wait until you meet big Paul, small Paul, Darrell the Postman, the riff raff boys, Wendy Gershwin, and the eponymous Miranda. Joe is not a mean or rude neighbor, but he knows how to say no when a neighbor asks for a favor.

I won’t specify what the title means. You’ll have to discover that yourself. Some of my friends mentioned the Miranda Act. Others thought of a ship, perhaps from the 18th or 19th century. One friend said it must be a musical or a play. Another thought Miranda referred to a biblical character or an elf in a Tolkien novel. What I will reveal is that Miranda is a character in the novel who encourages Joe Johnson to hire her as his personal assistant. Walking 25 miles each day doesn’t allow time for personal preoccupations, and Joe hates grocery shopping. During the novel, the mystery behind the title’s “the” becomes apparent.

This is a snarky novel of mystery, intrigue, and espionage fleshed out along the spine of philosophy. Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values accomplished the same task while the narrator of that narrative traveled long distances on his motorcycle, which occasionally broke down. Pirsig’s narrator also broke down. The Miranda is about how people break down, what causes us to break down, and we can manage after breaking down. Nicholson’s quirky book is about defense mechanisms, healing systems, recovery, and survival.

Although Pirsig’s book wasn’t about espionage and torture, it explored values, masculinity, and culture, which are topics of Nicholson’s novel. Both novels are about movement, our thoughts during movement, our intentions to engage in movement, and whether movement is more productive than sitting zazen, if such a question is proper. Pirsig’s narrator rode a motorcycle. Does our body want to move because our mind can’t stop moving? Nicholson’s protagonist walks.

The novel begins with serendipity and silliness and segues into torture and PTSD. How do you write about torture and PTSD? Can you be silly when writing about such subjects? The back-and-forth timeline of the novel, between the present retired Joe and the past torturer Joe, helps alleviate some of this tension. Before he is hired by the government, Joe is a psychoanalyst to men who were tortured after their capture, while usually on government missions. Is irony and dark humor a cure or a way to lessen the effects of PTSD? Nicholson never makes light of these important questions, but he does poke and jab at those who create PTSD in others. In his practice as a psychoanalyst, Joe helps these (literally) tortured men discover some small distinction between happy and unhappy and to find the pleasures in the small and quotidian bits of life. Joe knows that both his psychoanalytic patients and the victims of his torture methods might reappear at some time in the future. That’s the mystery nature of the novel and one of the driving plot tensions.

One neighbor who asks favor after favor is Renée, small Paul’s mother and big Paul’s wife. This strange and wonderful family is an assortment of odd characters you might find in a Tim Burton film. Joe refuses most of Renée’s requests. Joe speculates, “I wonder if Aristotle got along with his neighbors.” However, when small Paul is bullied at school, Renée decides to homeschool the boy and asks Joe for help. He finds no reasonable reason to refuse. Joe even has sympathy for the bullied boy, from a therapist’s point of view, and he determines that walking and talking might be good for the pudgy kid.

Small Paul’s father, big Paul, isn’t much of a father figure and certainly not an intelligent educator. Joe says about his own father, whom he accompanied on long walks, that “men are made one way or another regardless of what their fathers do for and to them.” Together, small Paul and Joe occasionally saunter around the backyard. Small Paul’s garden lessons are random, but Joe doesn’t mind. Among other topics, Joe and small Paul discuss heaven and hell, and the Bataan Death March.

Big Paul is a security guard at a mall. He’s a macho guy, or at least he performs all the stereotypical requirements to appear a macho guy. Joe isn’t troubled by big Paul’s nature, size, huge truck, or his guns. Joe is confident in his own ability to handle himself and even embraces and rewrites one masculinity stereotype involving big Paul: “Sometimes, a man who owns a big truck and a big gun may be compensating for some penile inadequacy, but some men have big guns, big trucks, and a big penis.”

Buddhism is a thread that runs throughout, especially after the appearance of Darrell the Postman. Darrell hopes that Joe walks to attain enlightenment. When Joe assures Darrell that enlightenment is not his goal, that he is walking simply to be walking, Darrell continues to write onto Joe’s strides his own Buddhist inclinations. Darrell says, “If you’re doing it absolutely right, if you’re doing it the Buddha’s way, then both of these things — walking and the awareness of walking — arise and disappear in the very same instant.” Joe is not sure that Darrell’s logic is correct, but he allows that there might be some truth in the philosophy.

Darrell brings up a Japanese Buddhist monk spiritual regimen called Kaihogyo. The monks who enlist must walk the 25 miles around the base of Mount Hiei. The monks do not have to walk every day, but there are time limits. Each time a monk steps onto the path, he must complete that circuit and keep up with all his duties at the monastery. The first goal is 100 circuits of the mountain. The greater goal is 1,000 circuits. There is an obsessive-compulsive nature to this endeavor, but whether the monks walk to rid themselves of anxiety or to experience enlightenment is a question for another book. In this story, Joe isn’t the anxious type, nor does he seek nirvana. Joe walks. He is a walker, much like a musician is a musician and a dancer is a dancer. In admiration, Darrell gives Joe a lacquered, hollow bamboo statue of the walking Buddha. One mystery the monk story poses is: Will Joe travel the distance around the earth before the novel ends?

Much of the plot of The Miranda appears unrelated and non sequitur. Stick with it. I didn’t flesh out such intriguing subplots as the riff raff boys, martial arts, the newspaper journalists, or the nosy neighbor who wants to film Joe’s walking as an art film. I like a puzzle, and the mystery nature of this novel is a good puzzle that comes together by the story’s end. I didn’t see what was coming. Darrell, the Buddha statute, and small Paul arrive at a convoluted conclusion. The philosophical questions and discussions throughout the narrative add an intelligent layer. But what about the title? You will have to amble through the story and see for yourself.


Ramsey Mathews teaches poetry, composition, and literature at Florida State University. His poetry has appeared in Boaat JournalSan Pedro River Review, and Sagebrush Review.

LARB Contributor

Ramsey Mathews was born in rural Georgia. He has undergraduate degrees from Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. While working in film and television in Los Angeles, he earned a Masters in modern American and British dramatic literature from Cal State University Northridge and a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Cal State University, Long Beach. He is a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at Florida State University where he teaches poetry, composition, and literature. For the last three years, he served as Assistant Production Editor of The Southeast Review. His poetry has appeared in Boaat Journal, San Pedro River Review, and Sagebrush Review among others. You can find his photography at ramseymathews.photography or Twitter @dramapoet.


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