Playing the victim

A new book satirises the bizarre dynamics of social justice activism

Victim: A Novel, Andrew Boryga, Doubleday & Co Inc., £21.16

The tidal wave of poststructuralist discourse that crashed onto the American academic scene in the 1970s has left numerous cultural tropes that have trickled their way down into mainstream culture. Is all this talk about social justice and decolonisation really a step toward greater progress and the liberation of oppressed communities? Or is it a massive ploy to absolve ourselves from personal responsibility and perpetually play the victim? Today, the culture war between proponents of wokeness and its reactionary detractors grinds along, with few making any real headway or offering substantial alternatives to the stultifying deadlock.

Victim, the forthcoming novel by Bronx-born writer Andrew Boryga, is one of those rare outliers that manages to engage with the cliched polemic without getting trapped into it. Boryga explores the profoundly human questions and conundrums that arguments over social justice discourse raise, without offering neatly packaged answers. He’s uninterested in telling us who’s right and who’s wrong. Rather, he magnanimously places his faith in the reader’s ability to draw conclusions for themselves.

The plot features Javi, a Puerto Rican of colour who grows up in the south Bronx — a neighbourhood that he admits is no paradise, but that he insists isn’t a hellscape of decay and violence. Javi’s neighbourhood is his home, with its vibrant cast of characters — both those who mean well and those who are up to no good. The potential dangers in his neighbourhood, in his eyes, are hardly a source of misery or trauma — provided you keep your street-smarts and learn to steer clear from trouble. And while it may not be as glamorous as the campus of the elite college he gets into or the gentrified Brooklyn neighbourhood he considers but decides against moving into, his block has a charm of its own, with elements of warmth and beauty that only those who truly love it will recognise.

After his encounters with a guidance counsellor at his public school with an insufferable white saviour complex, and with a mixed race “princess” from the Upstate suburbs who sees racism nearly everywhere she looks, Javi learns that the blue collar streets of the Bronx and the white collar realm of academia, media, and publishing — despite being worlds apart — have more in common than he thought. At the end of the day, whether in the hood or yuppie bubbles, one must master a particular “hustle” in order to make it big. Though Javi didn’t go for the drug dealing hustle that others from back home (like his childhood friend Gio) often chase after to gain wealth and notoriety, he understood that he could reach the similar heights if he learned to hustle the “oppression olympics” and emerge as the last victim standing.

While Javi briefly considers that Anais, the privileged princess who eventually becomes his girlfriend, is right when she tells him that he is the victim of racism, colorism, and colonialism, he quickly sees through “the discourse” when he realises that most of his classmates harping on it grew up outside of the “real world” of the inner city. 

Certainly, residents of colour in lower income cities are subject to systemic disadvantages that are worth highlighting and correcting. But the impulse to invent a whole persona, a lifestyle around it, was, in his eyes, painfully elitist and, well, whack. His classmates’ lack of willingness to take responsibility for their actions and desperate attempt to pin the blame on a prosaic “Other” turned him off to their bourgeois worldview.

Working as a freelance writer after college, he learns to leverage his victim status

Despite his misgivings about the well-to-do SJWs he encountered, he realises that with his street-smarts, he could manage to out-victim them all and work the system to his advantage. Working as a freelance writer after college, he learns to leverage his victim status to get his largely fabricated and substanceless yet scintillatingly sensational stories published about the numerous ways he suffers from systemic oppression. While most in the literary establishment are allured by his “victim porn,” his friends and family from the Bronx see through the front, trying but failing to call him out on it.

Boryga’s liberal use of colloquial language makes for a buoyant read. And his raw, vivid, and affectionate depiction of city life is refreshingly unpretentious and down-to-earth. His style is strongly reminiscent of Junot Diaz, another raconteur of the lives of children of Latin American immigrants in the tristate area. 

That being said, though the novel surely demonstrates Boryga’s strength as a writer, it lacks subtlety and stylistic precision. And the plot sets itself up for — yet misses — several opportunities to inject humour at points that could’ve strongly benefited from it. Boryga succeeds most when building up suspense, enough so that he had me on the edge of the oppressively small coach class aeroplane seat I was already falling off while reading his book on a nine-hour flight. Its page-turning plot was enough to distract me from the agony of my Transatlantic trek.

As Christopher Lasch prophetically warned in the late 1970s, those who make a public performance out of their commitment to moral and social causes are usually compensating for a deeply narcissistic need for attention and affirmation. Many today wield Lasch’s tome The Culture of Narcissism as a weapon to debunk the standard social justice narrative. And while one can say that Victim takes up Lasch’s assumption that most SJWs are indeed self-serving narcissists, Boryga seems to be less interested in attacking the viral trend than he is in getting to the bottom of it. 

Devoid of any explicit agenda or easily digestible conclusions, his novel is more an examination of the human condition than a polemic, giving ample space to grey areas, and sincerely exploring profound and universal questions about morality and responsibility, fate and free will, social structures and the role we play in them as individuals.

Working for liberation from systemic injustices is certainly a noble cause. But Boryga wakes us up to the follies of those who look only for injustices in the system and not within an individual’s moral character. The overarching conclusion that Victim leaves us with is that while social injustices are certainly worth our attention, we ought to also be on our guard against the oppressiveness of narcissistic, deceitful individuals, and the forms of injustices they can inflict on both an interpersonal and mass scale. 

Perhaps more dangerous than someone whose views are socially “problematic” is someone who is a straight up asshole.

Victim is an important novel by a promising young voice. Despite its occasional shortcomings, it deserves our attention as it is bound to throw a wrench into “the conversation.”

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