the cover of "The Apology," a novel by Christian TeBordo, photo of female statue figure that is sitting on a stump (French artist Claude-Marie Ferrier's "A Bather")
The cover of Christian TeBordo’s new novel The Apology features A Bather, a photograph made in 1851 by Claude-Marie Ferrier and Hugh Owen. Credit: Courtesy Astrophil Press

Is satire allowed anymore? We’re living through a period which largely demands literality from art. We want to know where the author stands. Unambiguously, with no shade or contradiction. Satire, on the other hand, lives in the gray and attempts to get at larger truths. Christian TeBordo’s new novel is set unreservedly outside the bipolarity that is the new normal. I hope you read it anyway.

Mike Long, aka Mike Rider, aka Knight Rider is sorry. After a catastrophic event occurs  while Mike is in high school, he and his father are forced to flee and start over. His life has not turned out anything like what he’d hoped for. He ends up becoming an office manager, though he considers himself, despite all external evidence to the contrary, a philosopher. When a new woman is hired at his office, his carefully controlled existence is upended and there appears to be no fixing it. But what did Mike actually do and why does he keep apologizing?

There are many more questions asked than answered in this nimble and at times, laugh-out-loud funny book. It begins with a perfect setup: everybody raves about April, the new woman in the payables department, but any time Mike tries to see her she’s elsewhere. This goes on for days, until he’s basically stalking her. He begins to suspect that it’s an elaborate prank, but then she appears, and she’s even more magnificent than what his officemates claim—think Christina Hendricks in Mad Men. 

Aside from April and his shameful past, what occupies Mike most is the passive-aggressive cold war with his work nemesis, Kit Carson, whom Mike insists on calling KC, though no one else does. They hate each other but can’t leave one another alone. Their banter is all barely disguised one-upmanship. April’s appearance kicks their conflict into turbo-drive. And she fans the flames expertly.

To write a comedic novel about inappropriate male behavior right now takes some intestinal fortitude. In less capable hands, the tricky, ambiguous tale TeBordo tells could’ve come out wrongheaded, reactionary, clumsy, or poorly conceived. But by making the nature of Mike’s past and present sins open for interpretation rather than established fact, the reader is forced to consider nuance and gray areas in ways we don’t very often these days. This is not to say that we’re necessarily meant to sympathize with Mike’s plight. He’s clearly not a straight arrow and bears much of the responsibility for the situation he finds himself in. But what is that situation exactly?

A scene near the middle of the book, where April finally appears to Mike, plays out like a Penthouse Forum fantasy. He thinks that his nemesis will be vanquished and he’ll get the girl of his dreams. But, of course, it doesn’t quite turn out that way. All along, Mike’s narration, as well as everyone else’s motives, are increasingly suspect. All their about-faces will give you whiplash, but it’s done in the service of ratcheting up the stakes. TeBordo sprinkles in references to René Descartes, the French philosopher who was concerned with how to prove something true beyond a shadow of doubt, throughout the book. Mike reveals about two-thirds of the way through, “I wrote my thesis on Descartes, and the reason I left that fact out was because Descartes is always getting me into trouble.” Had Descartes spent time in Mike’s office, he’d have run out screaming. It’s not a place with any solid ground.

Christian TeBordo Credit: Duncan B. Barlow

So, if nobody’s who they appear to be and no one’s word counts for much, where does that leave us? As with much of his previous work, TeBordo juggles pop culture, philosophical inquiry, and deadpan humor in calibrated proportions to ensure that the narrative never drags. Why is Mike nicknamed after a cheesy 80s TV show featuring a talking car? Why is his nemesis named after an Old West frontiersman? Is Mike a stalker, a terrorist, or a victim of a sinister plot? Descartes would’ve been frustrated at the lack of definitive answers, but this reader, at least, was thoroughly entertained by the mess Mike and everyone around him are making. 

TeBordo runs the creative writing MFA program at Roosevelt University and has been honing a unique literary voice for the past 20 years. He balances serious philosophical inquiry with an absurdist bent, often making odd but hilarious marriages of pop and high culture references. He has published several short story collections and a couple novels through indie presses and can be called a writer’s writer (though no writer I know wants that label). For new readers, The Apology is a good place to start. Though obviously longer than some of his short stories, this novel is paradoxically less dense than some, and certainly a lot closer to a conventional narrative than many. That is not to say that it’s mindless comedy; TeBordo is far too cerebral to do that. But this is certainly the most accessible thing of his I’ve read.

The Apology is not a #MeToo book or an anti-#MeToo book. What I think TeBordo is asking of us is to wade into the murk rather than render righteous judgment. By never telling us exactly how culpable Mike is, TeBordo intentionally leaves room for interpretation. Perhaps Mike’s apology is insincere or he has nothing to be sorry for, but I seriously doubt that. Because who among us is truly blameless?

The Apology will be out 11/1 and is available for preorder from Astrophil Press