The set-up for Gavin Extence’s The Empathy Problem is as bleak as they come: Gabriel Vaughn, a hotshot hedge fund executive with a heart of stone, is given only months to live when he learns that he has an inoperable brain tumour. The tumour happens to be located in the part of his brain that controls his emotions, unleashing long-dormant and unfamiliar feelings that begin to effect a change in his personality. The result is that this character, who is introduced to us as a douche in every way possible, gradually uncovers his inner mensch, his more decent self. Of course, in a poignant irony, the kinder and gentler Gabriel becomes, the closer he comes to his inevitable demise.

It was the book’s premise that reeled me in. With its reliance on a very physical, neurological phenomenon to explain a change in a character’s behaviour, I opened The Empathy Problem expecting it to read like an Oliver Sacks case study. I was more than a bit surprised at the healthy dose of Dickens that Extence had poured into the opening. We meet Gabriel in the back of his chauffeured car, trying to get through a traffic jam into the City of London in October of 2011. The cause of the jam: the obstruction created by the camp that the Occupy London movement has set up next to St Paul’s Cathedral. Feeling that sense of urgency of a man who knows his time is limited, Gabriel gets out and wades between cars to reach his office, which overlooks the camp. It’s in these early office scenes that we come to know the hedge fund culture of Gabriel’s peers as a world of cartoonish selfishness and self-indulgence. Gabriel’s boss Mr Mason observes the camp from his window and jokes:

“I’ve been thinking.” Mason jabbed his finger against the triple glazing. “We need to hire a hitman. Just one Russian with an AK-47, that’s all it would take.” He stepped back and, squinting through an imaginary sight, performed the universal mime for death by machine gun. “What do you think? Have a quick whip-round after the morning meeting?”

Gabriel pretended to weigh the proposition. “How much would we need?”

As per the classics, here are privileged dolts looking down on the rabble, unable to comprehend them, unwilling to see them as anything more than unwashed subhumans. Gabriel and Mr Mason could be descendants of the Marquis St Evrémonde from A Tale of Two Cities. There is also in Gabriel a note of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who cannot see value in anything other than the pursuit of wealth, who can only assume that anyone who hasn’t racked up as many gold coins as he has is simply too lazy to put in the work required.

Extence’s quick wit and smart use of dialogue, deployed throughout an eventful plot with a varied cast of distinct characters, add a degree of levity you’d find more often in a Hollywood screenplay.”

The way things were shaping up, I assumed the tumour would act as Gabriel’s Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, opening his eyes to the feelings of others, showing him the error of his ways and forcing him to repent before kicking him into the grave. And looking back, to a degree I wasn’t far off the mark. But I’d argue that perhaps Gabriel’s cancer isn’t the real cause of his transformation into a more caring, more empathetic, more human person. Sure, his illness might have got the ball rolling, but other than an unexplained bout of crying on the Tube which sends him to a Harley Street doctor in the first place, every turning point along Gabriel’s character arc can be explained without a degree in medicine. The tycoon John P. Merrick managed a remarkably similar change in one of my favourite classic films, The Devil and Miss Jones, with nary a tumour in sight.

And it was to the movies that I began to turn more and more for reference points as the book unfolded. The brief chapters played like quick scenes in a film, keeping up the story’s pacing, and while literature about a man facing impending doom risks chasing its tail through internal monologues, Extence’s quick wit and smart use of dialogue, deployed throughout an eventful plot with a varied cast of distinct characters, add a degree of levity you’d find more often in a Hollywood screenplay.

That impression comes into even clearer focus when Gabriel is drawn to the violin strains of a street performer busking on the steps of St Paul’s. As our hero takes to following her after she packs up her gear, I began to see the contours of a specific genre of movie taking shape. Against all odds, Extence was spinning a story about terminal illness into a romantic comedy.

Of course Gabriel would properly meet Caitlin, the violinist. And yes, readers might predict fairly easily a few of the story’s subsequent twists and turns. All the standard rom-com elements come into play: the ‘meet cute’ of two characters who could scarcely be more different; the protagonist’s attempt – innocent at first – to conceal important facts about himself, and the subsequent feeling of betrayal when his deception comes to light; that all-important, unspoken rule that our hero must grow as a person to earn the love he needs. But if these pieces seem formulaic when listed side by side, Extence is far too intelligent a writer to try to bring us a literary How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. And when Gabriel’s pursuit of Caitlin brings him into the thick of the Occupy camp, when Extence passes the microphone to a few of its members to school our hero in the concept of economic justice, the final puzzle piece falls into place: if this book were made into a movie, in a perfect world, Frank Capra would still be alive to direct it.

Capra’s great films of the 1930s and 40s – It Happened One Night, Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life – have tattooed themselves into the public consciousness. In the long wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, Clark Gable, James Stewart and Gary Cooper made their names in Capra films playing common men fighting the good fight on a playing field tilted steeply toward the rich and powerful, the bankers and big businesses, the corrupt politicians. These were comedies with a conscience, with a message that was simple, direct and overtly political. Their audience came to see the hero get the girl, for sure, but in an era when everyday people endured crushing hardship thanks to the carelessness of big business, they cheered just as hard as they watched the little guy take a stand against those business types.

It’s abysmal that after 80 years of scientific progress and economic growth, we’re still facing so many of the social divisions that characterised the 1930s.”

I was intrigued to discover that Extence holds a PhD in Film Studies, and I had to ask him if he saw the parallels that seemed so clear to me. Had he drawn any inspiration from these films that I love so much? “In all honesty,” Extence told me, “I never thought about those 30s and 40s movies when writing.” He did find my comparison of his work to Capra flattering though, which came as a bit of a relief. Capra’s place among the great filmmakers is undisputed, but the Capra touch does rub some viewers the wrong way. Some object to his penchant for blatant moralising. Others might point to scenes designed to tug at the heartstrings and call the man a sentimentalist. And you might as well write the man off if you can’t stand to hear a few strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (most famously used to cap off It’s a Wonderful Life, that song pops up in other Capra films with surprising frequency). His detractors even coined a term for the director’s oeuvre: Capra-corn. Thankfully, Extence is not a detractor, and understood right away what I was getting at. “I can see similarities in my worldview, and certainly in my approach to storytelling. I never found Capra overly sentimental – I think there’s a simple, direct power in all of his films, and I love the balance of light and dark, humour and tragedy he achieves. It’s the same thing I admire in some of my favourite writers (Vonnegut, Murakami, John Irving).”

Of course, if we’re going to draw parallels between a brand-new work of fiction and a body of work that dates back a few generations, we must acknowledge a sad truth. “It’s abysmal,” Extence went on, “that after 80 years of scientific progress and economic growth, we’re still facing so many of the social divisions that characterised the 1930s – everyday poverty, the wealth divide, the resurgence of extremism in European and American politics. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this novel.”

Which brings us to another parallel with The Empathy Problem: I’ll call it ‘social realism’. For all the fantastic devices which advance Capra’s plots (a million-dollar inheritance, a nobody who becomes a US Senator overnight, a real-life angel), these stories have few illusions about the forces arrayed against their heroes. As grand and climactic as Capra’s finales tend to be, the changes that come about happen on a rather small scale compared to the bigger picture. When Jefferson Smith mounts his filibuster on the Senate floor, the question is not whether he can flush all corruption out of government, but rather whether he can clear himself of a false corruption charge and stop a single pork-barrel bill from passing. The Occupy camp that features so prominently in The Empathy Problem might have been meant as a stand against all economic injustice, but Extence doesn’t measure its success or failure against such a grand yardstick. Extence isn’t writing an alternate history, and since Occupy didn’t blow up the system, he’s more interested in the headway the movement made in opening people’s minds. Likewise, Gabriel might make a move to redeem himself for his years of profiting from a rigged economy, but as satisfying as the outcome might be, we know from looking around us in 2016 that the economy will still be rigged when he’s done.

I wondered if this sense of realism showed Extence and his work to be a bit cynical about the way the world is headed. “I’m not sure if my book is optimistic or pessimistic about the future,” he replied, “but I do think that something has to change soon. The current economic system isn’t sustainable – and to me, that’s just a given. I read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything recently, and I think she’s probably correct when she asserts that climate change is going to be the crisis that forces humanity to do things differently. Her basic argument is that the only way we can avert environmental catastrophe is through a global redistribution of resources and power. Nothing else is going to be sufficient.”

And here is where Extence believes the line is drawn between our world and the world of Thirties Hollywood. “Going back to business as usual really isn’t an option, and this is going to become clearer and clearer. I also think that outlooks have had to change because there’s such a stark disconnect between economic ‘growth’ and the reality many of us experience – job insecurity, higher bills, crippling house prices, failing public services, a work-life imbalance, increased stress, the breakdown of communities. Whatever the rhetoric of prosperity, it hasn’t delivered happiness. I think that’s increasingly obvious to many, many people.”

Perhaps Extence’s assessment comes off as downbeat, but his novel’s social message never smothers its sense of hope. After all, half the novel’s pleasure is in watching the scales fall from Gabriel’s eyes, a process that feels like a minor miracle. And as Extence piles on delight after delight in Gabriel’s journey, I wondered more and more whether the author would have it in him to pull the trigger on our poor, afflicted hero. Mortality is a plot point reserved for tragedies, and The Empathy Problem had danced through so much of Gabriel’s death march that, with the chapters ahead of me dwindling, I found myself looking out for signs of that last Hollywood favourite, The Reprieve. Surely there’d been a mix-up. Gabriel’s tumour was likely a flaw on the brain scan. Perhaps Extence wasn’t above introducing the Miracle Cure in the nick of time. Of course it isn’t for me to give away the ending Extence has in store, but I will reveal that his final note is a poignant one; like any good old-time movie, The Empathy Problem finds a way to make us smile through our tears.


Gavin Extence has written two previous novels, The Universe Versus Alex Woods and The Mirror World of Melody Black. The Empathy Problem is published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardback, eBook and audio download. Read more.

Author portrait © Alix Extence

Brett Marie, also known as Mat Treiber, grew up in Montreal with an American father and a British mother and currently lives in Herefordshire. His short stories such as ‘Sex Education’, ‘The Squeegee Man’ and ‘Black Dress’ and other works have appeared in publications including The New Plains Review, The Impressment Gang and Bookanista, where he is a contributing editor. He recently completed his first novel The Upsetter Blog.
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