This book by Philip Salom begins with the theft of a bike, as witnessed by Dr Sen – a psychologist who categorises people by their views on Donald Trump. Dr Sen is fastidious in nature. Practical. Precise. Her stepson, Clifton is living in active reluctance, while her husband, Bruce Leach, is in charge of a flawed and racist algorithm.
The titular character, Sweeney, is Dr Sen’s patient, whose dark-cornered past (childhood abuse and prison trauma) is being ironed out in therapy. Sweeney steals bikes, but doesn’t usually keep them. He is a walking distortion with a head injury. Throughout his life, Sweeney has experienced inescapable feelings of wrongness, and he continues to react intensely against injustice.
Sweeney disguises himself in order to fool facial recognition technologies – becoming a literal error – retreating from a technological perception of reality. Living in the house his beloved grandmother left him, Sweeney grows vegetables, loves cats and leaves too many dishes in the sink. His other home is a rooming house, where a former criminal known as The Sheriff holds affectionate sway over Sweeney’s subconscious. Sweeney meets a pair of sisters – Rose, who once married a narcissist, and Heather, who loves to garden. Salom’s characters are connected in unexpected ways, although this fact is understated throughout much of the story.
Intentionally disorienting and thematically therapeutic, the book pulls the reader from from place to place or person to person, like eyes flicking between memory and reality. Face shapes and life disguises hint at feigned respectability for those rejected by an unfair world. Subtle themes of consequence and accountability complement commentary on legal discrimination, state authorised voyeurism and problematic social credit systems.
The author asks indirect questions concerning the trajectory of technology and culture. Facial recognition functions as a metaphor for judging the misunderstood. Much of the novel feels like a metaphor for something else, although the analogy isn’t always blatantly obvious.
A stylistic absence of quotation marks for speech can – in some sections – cultivate a nice flow. In others, it blurs the boundaries between self and other, conveying Sweeney’s internal experience at the expense of reader immersion. Numberless and nameless chapters occasionally read like psychology textbooks on acid. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Meandering, original, amusing and intelligent, Sweeney and the Bicycles will capture the attention of gardeners, outcasts and autonomously driven thieves.
Sweeney and the Bicycles by Philip Salom
Publisher: Transit Lounge Publishing
Pages: 408 pp
Publication date: 1 November 2022