What is it that appeals within Hamilton’s work? Can it be simple juxtaposition of endearingly preposterous characters? Or is there a deeper ideo-exploration which intrigues the reader and draws them in? The following analysis utilises two of Hamilton’s best-known works to identify the narrative structure, tease out authorial tendencies, and speculate on Hamilton’s deeper meanings and ideas.
Before embarking upon a closer reading of these two works, it is useful to identify some of Hamilton’s common themes and techniques.
Much of Hamilton’s discovered works address the everyday commonplaces of post-modern life. His poetry and short-stories are generally set in the early 21st century, frequently in suburban or micro-local setting, usually featuring male characters of Western (most likely American or Canadian) derivation. Hamilton’s characters – especially his narrators – engage in activities which are ostensibly quite unremarkable: shopping at the local supermarket; walking through the snow on the way home from nowhere in particular; a conversation with friends, an observation of one’s living quarters. It is here that Hamilton indulges his creative flare, for the unremarkable in his hands becomes the unlikely, the preposterous, and the absurd.
What is the purpose of this savage yet unremarked twisting of the commonplace into the absurd? One of the immediate consequences is to cast into sharp relief the rehearsed and culturally-implanted responses we repeat in our everyday conduct, without always thinking about how or why we might respond in the fashion we do. Of course, very few of us always stop to think about how and why we might respond in the fashion we do. But Hamilton’s technique encourages us to at least think about our responses sometimes. There is an implication here that most of us parrot responses without consideration; that we are products of our post-modern society more than we are creators of it. And indeed, notions of modernity and traditionalism regularly appear in Hamilton’s work. There is at times a sense that Hamilton yearns to see ancient wisdom rediscovered; to set aside the superficialities of our day-to-day lives and to embrace a deeper, more profound sense of what it means to exist.
And what does it mean to exist? With such regular transformation of the commonplace into the absurd, it is easy to become distracted from this key question. Hamilton’s readers can find themselves so enchanted by the nonchalance of his characters that the ultimate purpose of his work can become obscured. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Hamilton strives to obscure his ultimate purpose. Certainly the narrative structure which Hamilton frequently employs – not just ‘a story within a story’, but rather ‘three stories within a story’ – lends itself to particularisation, as one story with three different aspects fissures into three different stories.
There is no scholarly consensus on why Hamilton employs this tri-narrative technique. Some have suggested that Hamilton prefers to communicate through implication, suggestion, and self-reflection. Presenting three micro-stories within one narrative gives the reader a sense that Hamilton is gently nudging us toward some deeper revelation – a revelation which he will not explicitly reveal, but which he suggests we will discover for ourselves should we care to take sufficient time to reflect. Again, the underlying imperative for the reader is to stop and think.
That Hamilton should guide us in this direction without delivering his revelation suggests that for him ‘thinking’ is not a formal and structured process with a clear purpose and an identifiable start and finish, but rather an organic development, a latent act, the germination of an intellectual seed which can grow into enlightenment, but not necessarily intellectual enlightenment.
The question of being (or not being) ‘intellectually enlightened’ forms one of the key premises of one of Hamilton’s best known short stories, banking trouble. The narrator in banking trouble is concerned to demonstrate his intellectual superiority over a friend who is ‘a smart guy’. This immediately presents the reader with two key questions. The first is: what is it to be ‘smart’? The second is: what is it to be a friend? Many readers would argue that the latter question is of more personal significance than the former, and indeed it proves to be the penultimate question in banking trouble. Hamilton, however, is not interested in permitting the reader to consciously consider these questions. Rather, banking trouble embarks upon the relation of three micro-stories which do not explicitly invite contemplation of much at all, yet each of which quietly speaks to notions of intelligence and friendship.
It is important to note that banking trouble relates three stories to the reader by one character via another. That is, the narrator relates stories of events which happened to a friend of theirs. This poses issues of objectivity, clarity, and truth. Hamilton is asking the reader to accept the accuracy of the narrator’s account, an act which invests a considerable degree of faith in the intelligence and judgment of the narrator. Yet it is a frequent occurrence in Hamilton’s works – and banking trouble is no different – that characters undertake activities of questionable commonsense, react to absurdities with calm but equally absurd responses, and suggest courses of action or volunteer opinions which are palpably ludicrous. Naturally, this detracts from the reader’s sense that the narrator exercises intelligence and good judgment. In this fashion, Hamilton asks the reader to reasonably consider the testimony of somebody who is blatantly unreliable.
In banking trouble, this lack of reliability is only occasionally acknowledged by the narrator. ‘He was sitting around one day, reading a book, probably, and out of the blue the phone rang,’ Hamilton’s narrator relates. This ‘probably’ is one of the few instances in banking trouble where the narrator confesses that he does not command all of the facts of the story being related. More frequently, Hamilton makes the scarcity of intelligence and judgment explicit through the outrageousness of his characters’ nonchalant expositions. For example, banking trouble’s narrator relates his friend’s opinion that the ringing of a telephone was ‘a fluke of nature’ and ‘not foreseeable in the least’. Of course, the ringing of a telephone is in no way a fluke of nature and is entirely foreseeable. This lends the reader to ask: who is being preposterous here? Has the narrator simply injected these comments into the story, or did his friend truly make these comments, and is he really relating them as if they were reasonable responses to the ringing of a telephone?
Hamilton’s authorial stance in banking trouble is consistent in its absurdity: humorous irrationalism and casual disregard for the preposterous abound, while his characters are obscurely eccentric, endearingly self-deprecating, and occasionally (but pointlessly) pedantic. The narrator’s friend’s mother has ‘the fear of animals and viruses’; the friend himself knows ‘nothing of how to care for animals’ because the sphere of his knowledge is ‘limited to politics’; he comes home to find a cat has ‘eaten everything made of material’ and consequently he spends ‘a long night’ stitching up his business suits; his mother loses her wallet and worries how to ‘convince other people she was who she said’; he gives all his money away ‘to a stranger by email’, and subsequently has his account frozen by his bank after being falsely accused of ‘suspicious activities’. This concatenation of unlikelihood is presented to the reader as if it were mere and common happenstance.
The denouement of this tri-fold story is catalysed by what Hamilton describes as being ‘in love with the modern world’. After having had his account frozen, the narrator’s friend testifies:
‘I hadn’t been able to anticipate that, it being completely unforeseeable, like every other variable in my personal life that others can’t see, and so it fairly struck me a blow to my ability to breathe in my chest’.
But it is not the act of freezing the account which so appals the narrator’s friend, it is the bank clerk’s inability to understand or appreciate that the narrator’s friend had given all his money away to a stranger by email out of his love for ‘spaceships and TVs and online banking’. Prima facie, this is the act and explanation of a village idiot. What sort of person gives away all their money to a stranger by email, justifies it through love of online banking, and is subsequently affronted when others cannot comprehend this obscure affectation? Yet it is precisely here that Hamilton suggests caution in condemning the narrator’s friend as a village idiot, that perhaps he has been culturally induced to idolise spaceships and TVs and online banking, and that this inducement, in which the friend is the victim, gives rise to absurd or idiotic behaviours such as giving money away to strangers by email. The narrator’s friend in banking trouble is trying to do ‘the right thing’ as indicated by his cultural expectations, but these cultural expectations misconstrue the values upon which a fulfilling existence is based. In this instance, it seems Hamilton is suggesting that the narrator’s friend might benefit from spending more time thinking about how and why one should ‘love the modern world’ rather than embarking upon ludicrous schemes which are only vaguely related to reality.
This sense of ‘village idiocy’ is compounded by a tendency in Hamilton’s characters to state the obvious or otherwise extrapolate for no clear reason. Above we have seen how the narrator’s friend was ‘struck a blow’ which retarded his ability to breathe ‘in his chest’, a statement which clearly but ludicrously implies that there is another place in his body where he can breathe. Similarly, the narrator’s friend is ‘snoring’ in his bed ‘for the night’ – as if there is another location other than his own bed in his own home where he might otherwise be found sleeping. This is in itself not an absurd proposition, but the point of including the comment in the story is not clear. Likewise, while snoring away, he is inexplicably ‘dreaming of all the slurpees’ his ‘modest wages’ will bring – a comment which implies some severe criticism of the superficiality if not pointlessness of working for a wage. Likewise, he describes the bank he visits to clarify his account status as a ‘money bank’, implying that there may be some other type of bank he would visit to clarify his account status. Finally, there is the absurdity of the narrator’s friend’s ultimate explanation: that three largely unconnected episodes conspired to prevent him from voting – despite the fact he made it to the polling booth anyway. The narrator himself, much like the reader presumably, is ‘unconvinced and not impressed’ by the friend’s explanation.
Yet here we come to the crucial point Hamilton is making. Despite the absurdity, despite the excessive or obscure detail, despite the lack of clear continuity in the friend’s explanation for why he did not vote, the narrator does not press him on these inconsistencies, but rather inquires about his friend’s health in the face of such trials:
‘What could I say? A victor ought to be gracious in victory, ideological or otherwise, so I merely shrugged my shoulders and tried to transmit as much sympathy as a narrow heart can to my friend, after all, that is what friends are for, perhaps.’
And so we have Hamilton’s emphatic point: that modernity might be distracting or superficial, that culturally-induced thinking and response patterns might be inadequate, that people might be inconsistent or ludicrous in their explanations, but that the value of friendship has not diminished. In this, Hamilton justifies asking the reader’s indulgence of absurd characters and explanations, for although we might be surrounded by absurdity, it is the relationships we foster which give us an anchor from which we can drift in our search for existential meaning.
This is the kind of deeper philosophical exploration which furnishes Hamilton’s work with an interest which lasts. The weaker of Hamilton’s works are those which lack this compulsion, which ask the reader to indulge absurdity and preposterousness without the reward of lasting reflection. I must to England, you know that is such a work. Although it pursues the same tri-partite story structure as banking trouble, with similarly ludicrous characters enacting similarly absurd scenarios, I must to England, you know that lacks the real creative exploration which compels banking trouble.
I must to England, you know that relates three tales of teachers living in Moscow. Like banking trouble, I must to England, you know that presents its narratives via a narrator who is friends with the teachers rather than via the teachers themselves. Although each of these teachers behaves in a fashion which most readers would describe as unusual if not bizarre, the truly absurd character in this story is in fact neither the narrator nor the teachers, but the boss, who ‘believed anything anyone told him without question’. In this, Hamilton attributes to the boss a characteristic which contradicts his own existential role, for a boss who believes in anything and everything is unlikely to remain a boss for long.
Nonetheless, it is on this basis that a teacher of highly dubious credentials and questionable identity is flown into Moscow and given a class to instruct. Very little instruction takes place, but the absurdity in this instance lies not in the unlikely explanations the teacher provides for his failings, but in the boss’s refusal to confront the reality of his teacher’s refusal to work. Consider his response when told the teacher has been caught naked in class with a female student by one of the administrators: ‘Maybe it just seemed to you they were naked?’ and ‘Maybe they were really studying?’ Similarly when told that the teacher has failed to attend his own class, the boss asks: ‘But what’s his teaching like?’ and ‘Is he a good teacher?’ When for a third time the teacher fails to attend his own class, the boss finally fires him at the behest of the office staff, who threaten to leave otherwise.
What is the purpose of this sustained absurdity? In banking trouble, the narrator acknowledges (some) inconsistencies in his friend’s tale, but chooses to overlook them for the sake of friendship. In I must to England you know that, the narrator never acknowledges the inconsistencies, and never rationalises his choice to overlook them. Rather, the inconsistencies in I must to England, you know that are more akin to banking trouble’s mother who has an inexplicable ‘fear of animals and viruses’ – that is, in the nature of non-sequiturs which serve to distract rather than clarify. ‘The year before I came to Moscow,’ Hamilton writes in the opening sentence, ‘Steve San Francisco had already been there.’ Here, Hamilton is concerned to establish not that Steve San Francisco was in Moscow before the narrator, but that he was there the year before the narrator. Yet a full reading of the story suggests no significance to this literary fact. Similarly, one of the teachers conducts his class ‘with a bottle of beer in one hand’, an affectation which contributes to him becoming ‘wildly popular with students’. Yet the salient absurdity (part of the charm of Hamilton’s work is its occasional requirement to work in oxymorons) in this particular tale is the teacher’s ardent love for the Declaration of Independence. This in itself remains an unrationalised affectation, but it is at least more compelling to the narrative than bringing beer to class.
And it is this lack of compelling absurdity which weakens I must to England, you know that. Whereas banking trouble poses questions of intelligence, friendship, and existential meaning, I must to England, you know that does not pose deeper philosophical questions. The absurdity of I must to England, you know that invites reflection, but Hamilton does not give enough clues to lead the reader to enlightenment. Why are all of the teaching staff ‘hopeful’ the new teacher will ‘justify the boss’s belief in everyone’? Why should they accept the boss’ comprehensive gullibility as just a quirk of their working lives? And given this acceptance, why then do ‘fights’ break out in the teachers room over one teacher’s attempt to ‘force’ his colleagues to kiss the American Declaration of Independence? Why is it reasonable to work for a boss who believes anything and everything, but not with a colleague who demands obeisance to a manuscript? The reasons behind this divergent valuation are far from clear, and the characters much less accessible than banking trouble.
Hamilton’s works require closer reading than first glance might suggest. Cloaked in an absurdist affability, it is easy for the reader to be tempted into considering them as nothing more than curious tales. In stopping to consider these tales more carefully, we are indulging the Hamiltonian imperative to stop and consider other, more existential aspects of our lives a little more carefully too. This is a useful suggestion, but one which can become obscured when there is no philosophical anchor for the reader to grasp.