Review of “Deep Stuff”

Okay, so the last in my summer flurry of book reviews: “Deep Stuff” by New Zealand writer Mike Riddell.

“Deep Stuff”, as you might expect, is about just that – deep stuff.  It’s the story of five young housemates somewhere in England who gather once a week for food and discussion.  In essence it’s a thought-provoking and often moving exploration not particularly of these characters but of the big issues that affect our society today.

I was recommended “Deep Stuff” many years ago, and it was only when I went on my pre-holiday flurry of book-buying that I thought to finally get round to acquiring it.

And that links in with one problem I have with Deep Stuff – that I bought it over a decade after its publication, leaving it ever so slightly dated.  The cultural reference points of the characters’ discussions are very late ‘90s, and it’s an indicator of our fast-moving culture and society that concepts such as smartphones, Facebook, the war on terror or reality TV seem notable by their absence from what is trying to be (and probably at the time was) a cutting-edge book about today’s world.

But such is the nature of writing socially-relevant commentary, and it is only a minor quibble about what is on the whole a powerful, engaging book whose characters and issues fast get under your skin.

The house is brought to life by John, a friendly and outgoing social worker from New Zealand, whose arrival as a tenant shakes up – without upsetting – the existing dynamics in the house.  Camp and intellectual writer Quentin, gritty Irish girl Siobhan, blunt computer programmer Tanya and image-conscious daydreamer Claire all eventually respond well to John’s direct personality and attempts to get to know them, and before they know it they are taking it in turns to make Friday night dinner, the cook providing a discussion topic.

The housemates’ discussions – of everything from sex to death to fame to family – strike at the hearts of their lives, their upbringings, their beliefs and their perceptions of the world, and the conversations become more intimate as the housemates share deeper and more painful stories from their lives.

New boy John is a Christian (as is the writer), and while this occasionally comes up and John subtly steers a lot of the discussions to the really big questions about life, the universe and everything, we are nudged to no particularly Christian conclusions, and “Deep Stuff” could not accurately therefore be described as a Christian book.  I’d recommend it therefore to anyone interested in how people relate to the world they live in and the people around them.

While the characters are well-crafted and compelling, it does seem that, occasionally, their contributions are abstract: that it matters not who is making each certain point, just that the point is being made and explored.  Even the stories the housemates tell or make up to illustrate their points sometimes seem more powerful and real than they themselves, and most of the time the five young folk appear simply to be tools for dissecting the issues within each chosen topic.

In that sense, “Deep Stuff” could be put – albeit loosely – in the category of metaphor-packed pop-philosophy, alongside the likes of Paulo Coelho, Sophie’s World and so on (not that I’ve read the genre all that deeply); where the themes and dimensions of human existence are more the point of the story than the characters themselves.

That’s not a criticism, particularly, because the ‘deep stuff’ and the way it is all explored is thoroughly provoking and lingers in the mind, and we are left thinking about the ideas rather than any judgements we may reach about the characters.  Indeed, the book has a compelling feature in the form of one or two quotes in the margin of each page from famous people that relate to the particular point being discussed in the story.

Far from being distracting, these enrich the thought process and help to unpack the dialogue.  They include quotes by folk from Kurt Cobain and Douglas Coupland (told you it was very late ‘90s) to Woody Allen and Carl Jung.  Some of my favourites include…

The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win you’re still a rat. (Lily Tomlin)

Money doesn’t talk, it swears. (Bob Dylan)

When authorities warn you of the sinfulness of sex, there is an important lesson to be learned.  Do not have sex with the authorities. (Matt Groening)

The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals.  That doesn’t mean God doesn’t love heterosexuals.  It’s just that they need more supervision. (Lynne Lavner)

I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all.  I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain.  And I feel completely soaked to the skin. (Leonard Cohen)

The ending of the book isn’t wholly unpredictable, but is nevertheless powerful and moving, as eighteen months after the houseshare ends all five characters reflect on how their lives have been moulded by the other four and the deep stuff they discussed.

“Deep Stuff” is a well-written and wonderful book, and I’m glad I’ve got round to reading it.  Even several years later.

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