One of my favourite films of the last decade is the Coen Brothers comedy Burn After Reading in which nothing really happens. The characters are all foolish self-obsessed people who collide with catastrophic results, while the CIA just sit and watch. There is a moment at the end of the film where two members of the CIA are in a room discussing the events of the narrative and one asks ‘What did we learn here?’. The other goes ‘Well, nothing.’ The film is entirely inconsequential. The things that happen in it are swept under the rug and forgot about. There is a very similar scene at the end of The Distance and although things do ‘happen’ in the book, I find it rather hard to care about any of it. I feel like the CIA at the end of Burn After Reading. Just watching stuff happen and not gleaming much from it at all.
The fundamental issues present in The Distance don’t show themselves straight away and at the outset, teh premise is enticing. The Distance is set in a near-future England where a prison community has been set up called The Program. Think of a town but with a fence around it and that is essentially what The Program is, a place for prisoners to still function as members of a society but still be caged off from everyone else. By day, the prisoners in The Program go about their daily business. There are shops and jobs to be done. There are few guards. But by night, after the gates have been locked, The Program becomes a more deadly place where people can exact torture on others without any intervention at all. It’s a cool idea, although I can’t really see it ever actually happening in the real world. That’s not an issue in itself, but the core rules and regulations of just what this place is and why it exists are glossed over.
We follow Karla, a woman with contacts everywhere, a woman who can get stuff done, if you catch my drift. Get deadly stuff done. She has been out of the game for a while but a familiar face pops up in her life and she is offered a new job – a hit on a woman who is in The Program. The Program is impossible to get in to, it’s insanely high risk…so of course she takes the job. We meet Simon, the second protagonist, who wants to enter The Program and carry out the task with Karla’s help. He has a chequered past, previously having to disappear when he crossed a powerful man, a man called Quillan, who just so happens to be the unofficial leader of The Program.
Things move at a brisk pace – so much so that it is pretty hard to get your bearings at first. But when you are in the story, you rarely get time to sit back and think. Which is good, because when you start to think, the issues arise. As Simon enters The Program (actually really easily) and meets the woman he is supposed to kill, it is easy to mistake situational context for characterisation. To be fair though, Simon is really the only character that you feel like you slightly know by the end. You get to find out about his past, you get to know what he’s done and his many regrets. He is the closest thing to an established character here.
Karla is another case entirely. When all is said and done, I can tell you one thing about Karla. She is a woman. Literally, that is it. I can’t even say, with any degree of certainty, that her name is Karla. Sometimes she’s called Charlotte. Sometimes she’s called Laura. I don’t know anything else about her. The two main characters have questionable morals, having killed many people, or at least having organised it, and we’re supposed to care about them. Because plot. When a significant amount of the emotional weight in the story is based on the moralities of right and wrong, a pair of cold protagonists probably isn’t the best way to explore it. This could have easily been resolved with some more backstory, telling us why Karla got into the business and how she came to be so cold. But no, there is literally no time.
And that’s the main problem with The Distance. Every single element need more room to breathe. The characterisation, the scene-setting, even the action is as bare bones as it can be. The prose is barren, with ultra short sentences and little to no description. You would be forgiven for getting lost a few times, because I did. And that’s before even mentioning a tacked on third protagonist who really isn’t needed. At all.
The Distance is a book I feel I could have loved, if it had been written entirely differently. The cold prose left me wondering why I had any stake in the story at all. The characters were bland and lacking detail, leading us through an exciting story with no consequence whatsoever. The Distance feels like a book skim-read and skim-written.
THE DISTANCE by HELEN GILTROW