Probably the most obvious things that set Jeff Somers’ novel Chum apart from more conventional fiction are its narrative voice and its narrative structure. First, Somers story is told in the first person by a variety of different characters. Second, the narrative doesn’t follow chronological order, and some of the events are described more than once from different points of view. This, of course, is not the first time this kind of thing has been done.
There are certainly other examples of multiple first person points of view used to describe either the same set of events or individual links of a longer chain. What Somers is doing has been compared to the Japanese classic Rashomon, but even more appropriate, given the number of voices, might be Robert Browning’s narrative tour de force The Ring and the Book.
In a sense, what Chum and these, its ancestors, are dealing with is the subjective nature of truth. There is rarely such thing as objective truth. A narrator can only explain what he or she thinks happened, whether that narrative is actually what happened is another question. Different voices offer different perspectives. Truth may emerge from the sum of the parts.
There are certainly other examples of fractured chronology: stories that begin at the end and move to the beginning; stories that begin in the middle, and spread in both directions. As a narrative mode, these deviations from the norm allow the author the freedom to organize narrative events in a sequence that makes the most sense thematically, rather than tying him to the calendar. Aristotle said a narrative needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end; he didn’t say they have to follow that order.
That Somers chooses to play games with voice and structure may bother some readers who find it disorienting, but the real question should be are they used effectively. Do they add anything to the novel? When it comes to Chum, the answer is absolutely. Tell this story conventionally, and it would be little more than soap opera. A circle of friends, 30-somethings, who have hung together for years, begin to see their relationships fall apart. The different points of view allow readers to get each individual’s perspective on the other members of the group. The fractured time sequencing gives the reader an ironic perspective on earlier events and perspectives.
Beginning with the wedding of Mary and Bickerman, Somers goes back and forth to events both before and after to describe the group’s deterioration. There is a lot of drinking, a lot of sexual tension, and a good bit of bad-natured back-biting. This group is clearly an example of the old saw, with friends like these who needs enemies. We are shown their jealousies and insecurities. We see their failures and betrayals. As often as not, the men behave boorishly, and the women put up with them.
Tommy is always eyeing the ladies’ chests and bottoms. Denise is giving Henry, her boyfriend, grief about what she suspects he may be thinking about other women. Henry is often thinking the kind of thoughts that ought to get him grief. Bickerman thinks he has open season on women even after his wedding and Mary spends a lot of time in bathroom stalls crying and vomiting. Miriam, Mary’s sister, is a young tease behaving like a slut. They all have secrets; they are all not the buddies they pretend to be.
Slowly over the course of about a year the darkness in their relations is revealed. The more we learn about them, the less we respect them. They lead what seems like a completely purposeless existence. To the extent that they represent a segment of American society, the novel is a significant critique of that segment, a critique bound carefully in a truly compelling story.