The Slow Bloom of Bountiful Ideas With Steve Himmer

The taste of something new is almost always disorienting. It may inspire wonder or exhilaration, or it may be alienating, off-putting or even maddening.

I experienced many of these responses, and in unpredictable combinations, after I happened upon the fascinating and original book “The Bee-Loud Glade”, the first novel by writer Steve Himmer.

The book is about a solitary and feckless man named Finch, who, after being laid off from his job posing as various online aliases to promote plastic plants, is hired by The Man — a Master of the Universe called Mr. Crane — to sign a contractual vow of silence and live as an ornamental beck-and-call hermit in his extensive private garden.

Though such an absurd premise could easily be mishandled, this author’s taste for extreme situations is tempered by his patient and considerate hand. Like his garden-dwelling protagonist, Himmer is in no rush — though we may long for explanations and exhortations, like Finch, we must wait for their eventual ripening.

Needless to say, Finch is a kind of existential stranger in a strange land. When we meet him he works in an office building, but he knows no one. He has no family or friends, not even in memory, and seems to possess almost no curiosity about others or strong emotions of any kind. His most personally meaningful references appear to be derived from TV. Yet, through the skill of this writer, Finch remains intriguing. Even within this barren and artificial landscape the spark of Finch’s intelligence and creativity remains, and his reactions to the strangeness of his environment are a compelling draw.

After Finch is laid off and retreats into an even more passive funk to await inevitable eviction from his solitary apartment, he comes to the attention of a rich, bored man in want of a garden hermit, who offers him a job. Finch, according to his new employment agreement, will take a vow of silence, live in a carefully sculpted, authentic-looking stone cave and its surrounding garden, have his meals and various written directives delivered to him by unseen staff, and will be viewed on spy cameras by his master and employer. After his term of several years he is to be well remunerated.

Finch is a thankful and earnest employee, and tries to fulfill whatever whim is directed at him, whether it be to meditate or practice t'ai chi, though he has no experience, personal connection or understanding of either.

What is interesting is the extent to which Finch wonders about what he’s doing, engages in the world around him, and even creates imaginary worlds for himself, whereas the central absurdity and, I would say, obscenity of his situation, utterly eludes him. It is not so much that he agrees to his degrading confinement — but that he never thinks to question it at all except to wonder if he is satisfying his end of the bargain.

The underlying sense of absurdity is skillfully evoked by surrounding characters, especially The Man’s actress wife, who sees herself as another of his playthings, and clearly understands and even manipulates her position. She is not satisfied to play by his rules, and tries to co-opt the unwitting garden-dweller Finch.

This is just one theme in the book, and Himmer seems especially skilled at framing relevant and pointed questions without forcing obvious answers. “The Bee-Loud Glade” is about technology and disconnectedness, power differentials and what is, or should be, commoditized. But it is also about the complexities of man’s interaction with nature, and the power of time and experience to work on even a confined and relatively un-seeking soul. It is about becoming aware of larger questions, even if this awareness doesn’t lead to more satisfying results. I would say it is also about the role of sensuality and of emotions, and how they both play a role in a healthy interiority.

And, of course, since it’s the story of a hermit, it is also about what what sorts of internal experiences broaden perspectives, as opposed to what limits or diminishes them.

It is impossible to get a complete sense of a writer of this quality from one book, and parts of it left me wondering if his next work may be more overtly political. Himmer’s keen and biting cultural observations, his sense of the absurd, combined with his ability to evoke a sympathetic character and tell a fresh and compelling story, might lead him more deeply into this camp. But, then again, as in the case with all good writers, such decisions are personal and he may easily travel in another direction.

I will certainly be curious to see which way he goes, because I don’t remember coming across such a skillfully rendered, theme-packed book in... I don’t know when. Lots of books are supposed to be about ideas, or are billed to be culturally relevant, but they often lack this startling sense of freshness, originality or punch.

It is certainly a strange, surreal, sometimes beautiful, and often disturbing labyrinth of a garden Himmer invites us into. And, like Finch, after entering “The Bee-Loud Glade”, we find ourselves weathered, disoriented. Changed.