Hello again and happy (?) 2022! As usual, my blog got a bit neglected towards the end of the year, and once again I’m going to try to pick things back up with a series of slightly-shorter posts. And while close reading of individual passages is always going to be a part of my writing, I also want to open up to talking about themes, tropes, structure, point of view… basically whatever strikes me about the craft of what I’m currently reading.
My end-of-year reading was a glorious streak of absolute home-run five-star reads, and one of those books that has stuck with me the most is Ada Maria Soto’s His Quiet Agent. I picked it up a while back because I was curious to read more books with ace rep, and I’d seen it recommended a few times on Twitter.
What I got was a lovely, well-crafted story of two men who find exactly what they need in each other. While they work together in a secret agency, that’s really only background to this (short) novella, and it doesn’t really play a role in the plot up until the end. Here’s the cover and blurb:
Arthur Drams works for a secret government security agency, but all he really does is spend his days in a cubical writing reports no one reads. After getting another “lateral promotion” by a supervisor who barely remembers his name, it’s suggested that Arthur try to ‘make friends’ and ‘get noticed’ in order to move up the ladder. It’s like high school all over again: his attempts to be friendly come across as awkward and creepy, and no one wants to sit at the same table with him at lunch. In a last-ditch attempt to be seen as friendly and outgoing, he decides to make friends with The Alien, aka Agent Martin Grove, known for his strange eating habits, unusual reading choices, and the fact that no one has spoken to him in three years.
Starting with a short, surprisingly interesting conversation on sociology books, Arthur slowly begins to chip away at The Alien’s walls using home-cooked meals to lure the secretive agent out of his abrasive shell. Except Martin just might be something closer to an actual secret agent than paper-pusher Arthur is, and it might be more than hearts at risk when something more than friendship begins to develop.
Two things this book does really, really well are: one, creating a balanced and nuanced interpersonal dynamic between Arthur and Martin while only letting us inside Arthur’s POV, and two, taking that interpersonal dynamic outside recognizable character archetypes (like grumpy/sunshine, order/chaos). I think there are three key moments from just the first two chapters where we can see this work taking root.
First, there’s the way Arthur’s POV is established in the very first paragraph
There was something about ficus trees Arthur found disconcerting. It was how he could never tell if they were real or plastic. It would irritate him to the point where he would break a leaf trying to work it out, usually just at the moment when someone important walked into the room. He restrained himself this time.
I love how this sets up Arthur: somewhat awkward, easily disconcerted, detail-oriented. He’s someone who struggles with a sense of timing in social situations, who seems easily overwhelmed by his interactions with people and plants.
As a romance reader, I spent the first half of the first chapter fitting Arthur into a “grumpy, buttoned-up” archetype in my head. I mean, the man is irritated by a ficus. The book opens with Arthur getting a disappointing lateral promotion at work because nobody knows who he is and his file is blank. He has exactly two items to move to his new desk: a figurine and a Rubik’s cube. “This,” my romance-fed brain told me “is a man who needs to get undone by a sunshiny social butterfly!”
Instead, just a few pages later, we meet Martin. We meet him because Arthur moves his two items into an empty cubicle, only to realize that the barren cubicle belongs to someone:
“Why are you in my cubicle?”
Arthur swiveled around. At the entrance to the cubicle was a pale, slim man in a dark gray, almost-black suit with a dark gray, almost-black tie holding a dark gray, almost-black coffee cup.
This introduction of the man we’ll eventually learn is Martin uses prose economy to extraordinary effect. We’ve already established that Arthur has only two personal belongings: we build a lot of knowledge of Martin via a quick cubicle mix-up that suggests he has even fewer. The repetition of “dark-gray, almost black” works both in the images it evokes (controlled, sober, stark) and in its style and structure (rigid, undeviating, adhering to routine). Martin is the absence of belongings, the absence of color, the absence of variety in description. While it might not seem like much to build a character on, it tells us a whole lot.
This book sets itself up a particular challenge, though, as it upends expectations about the kind of love interest Arthur needs. Rather than a “buttoned-up” mystery man needing a “gregarious” love interest to do all the narrating, this novel is working with two somewhat irritated loners brushing up against each other, often with very little dialogue. Here’s a peek at how the author pulls off making every interaction of theirs crackle, even without direct access to Martin’s thoughts. Arthur watches as Martin eats lunch alone in the agency cafeteria and reads The History of the Peloponnesian War, Volume 3:
It was a Go Away sign, but it was a very specific type of go away sign; it was the kind that said ‘Look at Me Just for A Moment. I’m Weird. If you talk to me you’re going to decide I’m weird and not like me so let’s just save both of us the public discomfort of you feeling the need to reject me.’ He’d used that same trick in high school with copies of The Prince and Art of War. There might have also been some eyeliner involved. He could also remember being desperately lonely and wanting someone else’s weirdness to match with his.
What makes Arthur work as a narrator is how much he can read into Martin’s every tilt of the head, the way he carries himself, the fleeting expression across his eyes. In some sense, it doesn’t even really matter if Arthur is “right” about the message that Martin is communicating. Because we as readers live in the world of Arthur’s POV, what matters is that an exchange has been made: Arthur has seen something, it’s made him feel known and understood and less lonely, and he’s brought that feeling back to the reader as a result of this silent exchange. He’s able to interpret it, imbue it with meaning. It makes the two men’s wordless proximity feel incredibly generative and communicative for readers, almost like a conversation.
It also only works because Arthur sees something in Martin that resonates through similar experiences of his own. Their encounters are a master class in exchange without dialogue, in legible character dynamics without the grounding of archetypal difference. And beyond that, seeing Martin through Arthur’s eyes gives the reader an exhilarating sense of understanding someone better than they think they should.
As for the rest of the novella, in some ways its seeds are right there in the opening gambit. Martin may be shuttered and vacant, but Arthur breaks him open like a ficus and moves into the empty heart of his cubicle. What happens between them is of course nowhere near as violent as I’ve just suggested – really, Arthur just sits near Martin and shows him a little patience – but you can also glimpse, just in these first chapters, how earth-shattering that’s will prove for Martin. I highly encourage you to read on and find out what that looks like.