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Night Work, by Thomas Glavinic, trans John Brownjohn

Thrilling meditations on a disappeared world

Jonas, an interior designer living in Vienna, gets up on the morning of 4 July, makes himself breakfast and goes out to catch the 39A bus – only the bus doesn't come. Slowly, he realises that there's no one else around. No one at all. His nightmare has begun. The satellite channels are broadcasting snow. The internet servers are down. No one is answering the phone. Jonas checks out the railway station, the airport, a motorway service station: all are deserted. The nearby city of Linz is similarly empty.

Jonas starts to ignore the rules by which he has always lived. He puts his feet up on a train seat. He breaks into shops, houses, apartments. Angry that his milk has gone off, he launches it against the wall, then ram-raids the supermarket for fresh stocks. Is he overreacting, or doing what we all might do? He arms himself with a knife. "He disliked guns on principle," we are informed. Two pages later, he is riding around a go-kart track at a funfair with a shotgun in his lap.

His mother is dead. His girlfriend, Marie, is visiting relatives in the UK. Jonas leaves notes in hotel lobbies, scribbles messages on noticeboards. He writes and sends postcards. Their possibly being delivered, at some future point, is unsettlingly implied. Will the world start up again and his lawless behaviour be uncovered? Is everything still somehow going on around him, invisibly? Or is the truth even stranger than that?

The publisher's strapline imagines a conjunction of Paul Auster and David Lynch. But confronted with Thomas Glavinic's marvellously convincing urban landscapes, entirely devoid of people, you're as likely to be reminded of Giorgio de Chirico's paintings of sun-drenched empty squares, flags fluttering silently in the "occasional puff of wind".

Seeing a light on in his apartment, he wonders if his things are where they should be, or if there's nothing there until he is present to observe them. But this is much more than a drawn-out version of the story about the tree that falls in the forest: does it still fall if there's no one to see it? It's also a lot more than a one-gag routine on the subject of solipsism. With its emphasis on doubles and its focus on the familiar world defamiliarised, Night Work functions both as an outstanding fictionalisation of Freud's essay "The Uncanny", and as a superior literary thriller packed with invention and suspense.

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