Book Review: Supermarket by Bobby Hall

TL;DR – A psychological dark comedy that puts you in the mind of a struggling writer looking to succeed at all costs. Even if it costs his sanity.

Summary

Flynn has dreams of being a successful author, but he can never finish a story he starts. When his girlfriend dumps him, it triggers a depression that almost drowns him, but he catches a break when a publisher offers a potential book deal on condition that he finishes his manuscript. He decides the only way to complete the story is if he goes method by working in a supermarket for which his story is set. The pressure to write causing his mind to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.

Review

Bobby Hall’s debut novel has been described as Naked Lunch meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – if they met at Fight Club.

If you are aware of these references then this does sum up Supermarket succinctly. It’s a trippy journey that is primarily fuelled by emotional napalm rather than narcotics or alcohol, and demonstrates the darkness that can consume a person that suffers from depression, stress and anxiety.

The human mind is a wondrous thing, but it can also be a prison. The book examines themes of schizophrenia, mental illness, treatment and therapy as we follow Flynn on a journey that keeps you turning the pages even if you can dissect what is real and not and can predict where the story is heading.

When Flynn decides to use the supermarket and his fellow workers as inspiration for his novel, it all makes sense. Writers often draw from their own experiences in order to tell a story, and what better way to tell a story set in a supermarket than actually working in one?

Flynn bases the main protagonist of his novel on Frank, an employee that Flynn admires for his rage-against-the-establishment attitude and laissez-faire outlook on life. Frank has his flaws: he’s chauvinistic, a womaniser, steals from the cash register, and has a gun in his locker for the day some maniac goes nuts in the supermarket. But these flaws are nuggets of writing gold for Flynn to create a more realistic character and are traits that, in their own strange way, Flynn gravitates towards.

There is enough banter, comedic moments, and flashes of hope (e.g. love interest Mia) interspersed amongst the madness that prevented me from putting this book in the DFA (did not finish) basket. It could have been too mind-bending for me to get to the last page, but Flynn’s interactions with different staff at the supermarket carried me along.

However, where I struggled wasn’t in the passages of darkness where Flynn battles his mental demons and his own sanity. Nor was it an inability to empathise with Flynn as Hall does a great job of capturing the challenges of being a writer whether it’s self-doubt, writers block, or procrastination.

What grated me was that Hall does the whole edginess and “see how clever I am?” a little too much like throwing a meat pie at my face and telling me to enjoy it even though I’m vegetarian. For example, when you’re a writer (Hall) writing a story about a writer (Flynn) who is trying to write a story and decides to break the fourth wall by having Flynn talk directly to the reader (me) and then admitting he’s taking you out of the story by telling you something directly… then it’s like what’s the point?

Then there’s a section in the second act where Flynn is describing an interaction at a library. He breaks the fourth wall by telling the reader that he’s not sure he should be describing this interaction. He purposefully diverts the discussion from the upcoming events at the library by telling the reader that this is what you do in novels… you describe stuff. And then goes on to say that he could have told his entire story in five minutes AND then he starts trying to actually summarise the two hundred pages I’ve read previously in a separate narrative to me (the reader) as if doing me a favour.

Is this meant to be edgy? Is it meant to be reflective of the mental instability of Flynn the character? Maybe both, but I don’t think Hall really pulls it off. Other readers may find these passages refreshing or original, but it took away for me what was a pretty engrossing story.

Still, Hall delivers in many other ways. In the acknowledgements, he talks briefly of how he wrote part one in the “darkest of times” and it was only two years later that he awakened to write part two. Clearly, this has been a work of passion (and catharsis) drawn from his own personal experiences and that resonates in the story of Flynn.

3 out of 5.

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