The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair by Niall Stewart

The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair by author Niall Stewart is a stunning and shrewd debut novel about the limitations of personal reinvention, and the many ways life can collapse on us. 

By Timothy Arden

Everyone wants to be happy, but chasing happiness as an end in itself—as opposed to an outcome of a worthwhile act—can lead to psychological devastation, as The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair lays bare.

The stunning debut of author Niall Stewart, it is a highly original and memorable novel about male selfhood and reinvention.

An engrossing work of literary and psychological fiction with an intricate narrative and a deceptively simple plot grounded in philosophy, in its purest form it could almost be billed as a homily to today’s ‘lost generation’ (i.e. most men in their twenties and early thirties).

Fundamentally, it asks if chasing the thrills of sex, travel and financially lucrative career progression ultimately brings you anything real in life, and does it make you happy? 

Armed with a brilliant and timely premise then, The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair follows four disparate male friends as they struggle to find love, meaning and purpose in their lives. 

Yet, of course, nothing is easy—and each is plagued by their own inner demons, insecurities and worries, and frustrations and denials. 

The story begins in San Francisco, in 2014, where we meet one of the four, Tristan, at a meditation retreat, seeking something new to keep him entertained.

It’s the perfect location to kick off this story, serving as a juxtaposition between the pursuit of real meaning and the desire for intellectual props to shore us up in the short-term.

Here, Tristan, a reserved, emotional legal professional, becomes enchanted with Seb, a West Coast socialite. They meet up following the retreat, eventually entering into a relationship.

It is this troubled relationship between Tristan and Seb which takes up much of the narrative, though the novel’s shifting timeline means we come to learn of this after it has already ended, throwing Tristan into utter despair. 

The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair by Niall Stewart offers a penetrating and intelligent examination of the dangers in pursuing happiness as an end goal. 

Deprived of his partner, he becomes obsessional, depressive, ‘terminally sad’, searching for answers and for anything to fill the void left by the absence of Seb.

Through a letter penned by Tristan to his former lover, we follow his utter dejection and disgust at Seb’s infidelity, appreciating that, as with life, there are no easy solutions to agonising heartbreak.

But we also follow Tristan’s (very slow) progress of coming to terms, not only with the situation, but also with himself and the events surrounding him.

“His mind alternated between the need for action, to do something, anything, and to do it quickly, and the realisation that what he actually needed was whole days to sit and think, for weeks to pass without doing anything very much at all.” 

We also get the other side of the story through extracts from Seb’s diary so we understand his inner thoughts.

We see Seb attempting to understand his new life without Tristan, how he also searches for something to fill the emptiness, and how—despite seemingly okay on the outside—he feels like all he wants to do is “vanish”. 

The book is packed with powerful scenes charged with the force of darker emotions; those we would usually prefer to sweep under the carpet if at all possible.

Yet it is this inability to face those niggling doubts and to communicate honestly that leads to the despair that the main characters face. Too wrapped up in their own illusions, they slowly suffocate rather than seek help.

Another of the leads, City worker Toby, is a perfect emblem for this. He’s well-presented and active in the social scene but, in his own company, he is filled with self-disgust and misery at his perceived shortcomings.

And that is, perhaps, what is so compelling about this bleak yet inspirational novel: how relatable it is. Moreover, it’s saying that it’s OK to feel down or unsatisfied—that’s part of life—but that these reflections shouldn’t be dismissed; they are things to learn by and grow.

These characters, and others too such as the aging party-boy Igor, are interwoven with a craftsman’s precision as the tapestries of their lives are spun. In the process, we see some unravel as the realities of the world kick in along with the crow’s feet.

Author Niall Stewart does a brilliant job of infusing the story with deep reflections on life, and the hunger for meaning, articulating them in concise form and through the prism of experience.

For me, one of the most memorable passages is when Toby is exploring the true state of his emotions:

“Toby was filling in a form which asked him to specify whether he felt suicidal, yes or no. He didn’t want to admit to it in writing; once you started down that path, who knew where you would end up. He contemplated declining to answer but feared the negative inference. 

He placed a large cross in the no box, then realised it was much too big. It was far bigger than any of the other crosses. Its lack of proportion drew attention to itself; it would give him away. He ripped up the form and asked for another, binning his first attempt as he made his way back to the sofa.” 

Author Niall Stewart has made an impressive literary debut with The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair, taking a bleak theme and crafting it into something inspirational and liberating.

The writing then is so crisp and perceptive, so connected to the real, and unafraid to serve readers with the unpalatable in its unflinching social critique: grief, loneliness and melancholia.

In this sense, there is a close affinity to the writing of celebrated author Hanya Yanagihara, especially her novel A Little Life, as well as the writings of author Benjamin Markovits and Jonathan Safran Foer. 

All told then, this is a very clever, shrewd and observational book, deeply relevant to today’s post-religious, individualistic Western society.

An odyssey through the scars of memory and the disappointments which spring from hope, at its essence The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair dissects the inner workings of modern life, putting flawed and often unlikeable characters under the microscope to uncover salient truths, just as Seb does when writing about a former infatuation, Igor:

“Igor is starting to tire of me, and I of him. To be honest, he’s not as good-looking as I thought he was. He’s thirty-two, and it’s starting to show. Crow’s feet around the eyes, breath which smells of stale smoke, some other stuff I noticed earlier but can’t now remember. To think I was nervous around him when I arrived. I could have made him beg.”

We are presented with characters who are selfish and self-absorbed but who come to learn bitterly that keeping a focus on surface-only concerns will merely allow the rot beneath to spread.

And as time keeps pushing them forwards, they eventually have no choice but to engage with the questions that may yet lead them to become better, more robust and content individuals, such as if it’s OK to pretend to be someone else just for the sake of fitting in.

These pertinent questions keep cropping up, constantly circling the notion of just how much we manipulate life to make us happy when, instead, we need to be modifying ourselves to become more rounded.

As the novel puts it early on in the story …

“At what point is it acceptable to admit we are tiring of the hunt, and losing sight of what we wanted to achieve in the first place, searching in the wrong place for the wrong thing, devoted to the wrong cause, lost but thinking we are found?” 

The hard-won philosophical insights, tackling the contrasting takes of great minds such as Aristotle and the Epicureans, are integral to the novel, enhancing the plot, illuminating the characters, and bringing cathartic meaning to their story.  

To sum things up I would say that Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy has found its spiritual successor in this literary dissection of misguided pursuits.

And while it can, at times, be an uncomfortable read, for its grace of language and vividly recounted narrative I cannot recommend The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair enough.

The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair by Niall Stewart (Austin Macauley Publishers) is out now on Amazon, in paperback, hardcover and eBook, priced at £8.99, £12.99 and £3.50 respectively. For more information, visit www.niallstewart.co.uk or follow him on Twitter or Instagram @nialltfstewart.



Q&A INTERVIEW WITH NIALL STEWART

Author Niall Stewart has single-handedly broken through the pretence of modern life to expose the trembling inner core with his masterful debut novel The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair. We asked him to tell us more about the work, as well about his own writing journey to date.

Q. Your book is a trenchant social/psychological commentary on false ideals and the perils of pursuing them. Why did you think it important to explore this theme?

A. We live in a ‘want’ culture, and it shapes our understanding of what will make us happy. We’re told we can be whatever we want to be, but what if we’ve been tricked into craving the wrong things? What if the very act of wanting something—or thinking we’re entitled to it—puts happiness ever further out of reach? I wanted The Beautiful Anatomy of Despair to explore a refashioning of sorts, sharing with the reader the journey of each of my characters as they struggle to break free from cultural conditioning and reset their lives.

Q. Where did the idea for the novel come from?

A. My starting point was the ‘living your best life’ mantra, which still now underpins so much of our public discourse. It sounds like an empowering statement of intent but what if it’s actually a cruel expectation? What if this new goal we’ve set ourselves just makes us miserable?

Q. You are both an author and an editor. How did wearing two hats marry in writing your novel?

A. A large part of my editing consultancy involves working with other writers. There is so much good-quality writing out there—and so much variety. It connects me to a wider writing community, and it help galvanise my own writing.

Q. Which of the male protagonists do you most identify with and why?

A. Tristan, if only because his name is the one I wish my parents had given to me. But part of me will always pine to be an Igor—the self-absorbed party boy.

Q. Some readers are put off from approaching literary fiction because they think it too intellectual and dense. How would you respond to that?

A. If the writing is impenetrable and opaque, it’s a bad novel, period. But literary fiction done well—it’s the best of everything. One minute you’re asking important ethical questions about cultural relativity, like, ‘Will future generations condemn everything we did and thought?’ Turn the page, and the same character has popped out to the shops for frozen peas.

Q. What’s the most important writing lesson you live by?

A. Don’t write simply for personal validation by playing it safe. You can’t be creative if you’re just skating on the surface—people want you to take risks.

Q. When not writing, or editing, how do you like to unwind?

A. I find driving very therapeutic, and it’s a good forum for audiobooks.

Q. Who’s your favourite under-appreciated writer, and why?

A. Richard Yates. He lived during the mid-twentieth century “Age of Anxiety” and wrote about the quietly endured traumas of everyday lives. What he has to say is as relevant now as it was then.

Q. What personal trait do you think has helped your writing the most?

A. My work ethic. I don’t think it’s possible to achieve anything worthwhile without it. You have to earn it.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. Wedding bells, and—on the immediate horizon—revisiting some of the vast range of literature about marriage. Walker Percy said of the institution, “It is something like Churchill’s description of democracy: vicissitudinous yes, but look at the alternatives.”

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