Bystander by Mike Steeves

Unattached and in his mid-thirties, Peter Simons works in client services for a multi-national corporation and is regularly dispatched to far-flung exotic locations, staying in luxury hotels for lengthy periods. His latest assignment has kept him away from home for nine months, and, as Mike Steeves’ unsettling novel Bystander opens, Peter has returned to his shabby apartment with a mix of relief and bemusement.  

Despite a job that pays him an obscene amount of money, Peter has lived for more than a decade in the same apartment he rented when he graduated from college, located in a run-down urban neighbourhood on the cusp of gentrification. Why? The answer probably has to do with his fear of and loathing for the personal upheaval that moving would entail and the social exchanges to which it would leave him exposed. Pathologically narcissistic and emotionally immature, Peter Simons finds himself in an unenviable position: he lives surrounded by humans but is profoundly averse to human interaction, which, more often than not, leaves him confused and frustrated.  

After returning home he notices an unpleasant smell emanating from his neighbour’s apartment. Most people, compelled to act out of simple neighbourliness, would check that all was well. But Peter, who lacks a moral compass and accepts no responsibility for the welfare of those around him, vacillates for weeks, doing nothing until the situation becomes untenable. The discovery of the body pushes him out of his comfort zone to a place where he is repeatedly being asked to account for himself. But the story he tells is only a version of reality: the one he thinks people want to hear, the one that makes him seem heroic. Later on, after the apartment has been cleaned and repainted and new people have moved in, he is again ensnared in a socially awkward situation, an escalating contest of wills that disrupts his solitary lifestyle and reinforces his disdain for the human race.  

The book is structured as a relentless interior monologue with Peter incessantly doubting himself, second-guessing his every move, and endlessly dissecting other people’s motives and intentions. Since social responses do not come naturally to him, he expends inordinate mental effort trying to figure out how he should respond to whatever situation faces him at the moment, his chief aim: to avoid embarrassment and ridicule.  

In some respects, Bystander, in its stark truthfulness, is depressing. But it is also brazenly entertaining and can be wildly funny—Peter’s phone conversations with his parents work as hilarious set-pieces that read like they could have been lifted straight from a Seinfeld script.  

The narrative that Mike Steeves has conjured in Bystander offers a bleak assessment of human society and comments in unflattering terms on the failures of modern urban life. It may not be uplifting, but anyone who reads this novel will not soon forget it, and it might even make you a more conscientious and caring neighbour.  

Mike Steeves was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and lives in Montreal, Quebec. His first novel, Giving Up, was published by Book*hug Press in 2015 and was a finalist for the Concordia University First Book Award. His work has appeared in The Globe & MailMatrix MagazineThe Shore and others.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Book*hug Press (April 19 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 256 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771667109
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771667104

Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in Grain, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead and other literary publications. His books are Evidence, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, Perfect World and A Dark House and Other Stories. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Journey Prize, and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. A new collection of linked stories, Witness, will be published by Porcupine's Quill in spring 2023.