The People Who Watched Her Pass By
According to reviews floating in the internet, some find this book disturbing. I picked it up because I had three minutes to spend in the library and the title was intriguing. After I finished it and looked at the reviews, I have to say that the references to pedophilia - which the author was almost comically explicit in not including in his plot - weren't the disturbing kind. Here's why.
I decided, very early on, that The People Who Watched Her Pass By was not meant to be realistic. It paints a picture of the inner crust of the so-called contemporary American society, and the picture is indeed real; but the characters, and the actions they take, are far from realistic.
First you have Salome Jensen, a very young girl who acts and thinks in a way that would make Zarathustra proud. Her words and actions are so mature, in fact, that I was actually convinced time had passed in the beginning of the novel and she was at least a young adult, until she corrected me and stayed at 3-5 years old throughout (she doesn't know for sure herself). She does things like going into the desert alone to attain higher awakening (or so it would seem) and taking care of herself backpacking on the road better than some adults, but she mostly passes people by in a most non-child-like manner, giving no real attention to these people.
And oh, what people she passes by. Daddy, who takes her from her home because she is "a perfect, beautiful little child with a fresh perspective on this sorry world of ours" and is even afraid of touching her foot. Many couples who take her in for few days and whom she leaves before they tire of her so that their meetings may be kept beautiful. Old men at laundromats who figure "universe takes things apart and puts them together again, which is perfectly fine if you're a piece of wood, but not so nice if you're a little girl trying to grow into a big one." Tim at Store 24 who wants to elope with her but similarly is too scared to even hold her hand. And where, just where to start with Mrs Mayhew.
All these characters are delightful, powerfully characteristic, and well-fleshed out - thus believable. Yet where would we see people, who actually act as these characters do? It's certainly within the realm of possibility - but not probable at all. So what does it all mean, as a story?
Salome, apparently, is meant to save society as well. Daddy starts off the first page of the novel with "it's precisely this sort of perspective [that is, hers] which may yet save us all from total eco-catastrophe and self-annihilation." Mrs Mayhew dives into belief that Sal is "a little girl who will condemn the sinners to eternal damnation and suffering." Salome comes out of the desert and back into the human world, the first person she sees tells her that means "this stupid world has one more chance." People arrive to revere her - that is, adults revere and want to keep her in a shrine. Keep her as a shrine. And why?
If I were writing a critical essay for a class, I'd be spewing words like "absurdity of modern life" in each paragraph. This time, though, I mostly enjoyed it because of the author's voice. Screw the literary/social significance. Forget about the plot for a moment. Any voice that can carry a reader through no distinctly related sequence of observations of 146 pages, has my admiration.
If you enjoyed books like Das Parfume by Suskind, this story may provide the same kind of surreal realism (yes, surreal realism) and the subtle discomforting wrongness about it all.