Competent novels that represent the value system of Objectivism are pretty rare on the vine. The Philosophical Practioner is one, and it is one that is both a pleasure to read and thought-provoking, too.
“Eric” (no last name) narrates the tale. He is a philosophical practioner, a kind of counselor or therapist to people with value problems and confused world-views. Eric is an Objectivist hero in a mellow key. He values his independence and lives at first hand, buoyed by a strong sense of himself and his own values. In fact, he is an exemplar of what I call the “Roarkian” attitude in my commentary in this issue ("What Really Matters"): he isn’t unaware of society or alienated from others, but what others think or do just isn’t the bottom line for him.
The plot of the novel centers on two broad questions: Will a planned murder take place? And will Eric get back together with Sheila, the world-famous movie star? (Sheila was his former college girlfriend. She hit it big in Hollywood while Eric was elsewhere earning a PhD in philosophy. Eric seems to be a bur she hasn’t been able to shake off, an island of authenticity in a world of fakery.) But many sub-plots wind through the tale, because we spend time with Eric in his counseling sessions; each of his clients is involved in his own life drama.
There is a pattern to many of the counseling sessions: the clients come in offering abstract philosophical arguments that don’t really make sense, such as the myth of self (i.e., Nothing really matters. I don’t really exist.). Eric deflates their pretensions with zingers like: “Tell me something. When I talk to you, to whom am I talking?” He tries nudge his clients into getting down to the important issues in their lives, like what or who they really value or what is really possible for them. They tend to be chasing money for no reason, or not appreciating themselves, or not connecting clearly with what they want to do in life.
The sessions are charming: the characters are rounded and interesting, and the lively discussions where objective philosophy takes on a world of trouble are really delightful if you share Eric’s premises, as I do. Abrams gives Eric a direct, economical, friendly but combative style in which philosophical set-downs carry a real punch. It’s how I imagine my conversations ought to go, but they rarely do. It’s sweet to see Eric deal out the truth sensitively and suavely.
The narrative is snappy and clear. Abrams is economical both with verbiage and sentiment. Whenever he scoots close to a cliché, as he does even on the very first page, he makes the scene brisk and new with a smart turn of phrase and his own authentic way of seeing the scene.
“I always enjoyed watching her walk, but watching her walk away was a mixed bag.” That’s Eric describing Sheila, his on-again-off-again lover, as she heads back to L.A. after a brief visit to him in New York. Here we have the unsentimental tone, a typically witty twist of phrase, and the pervasive low-key sexualization that runs through the novel. Abrams’s narrator sees women in a way that’s typical for single men: they are all assessed for fashion and beauty. It’s not that there aren’t female characters who are independent in their own right: there are. But their encounters with Eric all carry a low-grade attractivity charge. Whether that makes the novel an agreeable read, or will grate a bit, will probably depend on how much the reader sympathizes with Eric in the first place.
Larry Abrams has given us a portrait of the life of a new individualist. The tone of the novel owes more to detective fiction than to the arch-romanticism for which Ayn Rand was known. And Eric wrestles with some common issues that we all face: an ailing parent, and a decision about whether and how much to compromise his set ways for the sake of love. Abrams perhaps doesn’t dig as deeply into his characters’ minds and feelings as he might. Still, the plot carries one along, and scene after scene provided me, at least, with a feeling of “ah, that’s just how to do it.”
Eric lives a classy, independent life, and Abrams has brought a classy, independent tone to portraying it. I very much hope this is not the last fiction we see from Larry Abrams, because in this novel, he has shown real talent.