The Shocking Price of a Pair of Shoes follows twenty-year-old Liam as he buckles down to weather lockdown in solitude. But boredom never comes knocking, as Liam quickly manages to make a nemesis of the homeless man on the street below.
The novel’s setting — for at least a portion of the story — is the first lockdown brought on by the Covid pandemic. This revisiting of the not-so-distant past leads to a prickly blend of fiction and remembrance, especially since Tilley’s depiction of reality hinges on a checklist of mileposts.
The prospect of being holed up with a one-night stand, the toilet paper crisis, inching closer toward the poverty line, as well as traumatizing Zoom calls are all given the same comedic twist, milking laughs and winces aplenty.
In essence, what we see is the distillation of existence into the fundamentals — and conundrums — of being. Liam spends hours brainstorming topics to raise during nightly calls with his parents, makes some ripe jokes about personal hygiene, and endures the pitchfork-raising attitudes provoked by severe miscommunication.
While he does come across as oddly self-entitled, his initial crimes abound in laughter, not tears. Even the animosity between Liam and the homeless man, who snatches up his prized shoes, is so oversaturated that it can’t help but pull smiles from cramping faces.
In effect, the bittersweet contrast between the novel’s subject matter and the treatment it receives is the story’s unerring status quo. Rising awareness of mortality collides with tedious familial connections. Anti-Asian hate slams into the superficiality of appearance.
And yet, the depth that can be glimpsed from the narrative is forever padded with humor, transforming the reading experience into a wild sprint through the unexpected. Its breakneck pace leaves little room for lethargy, as there is always something more abstract and warped lurking around the corner.
Unfortunately, too much of a good thing leads to desensitization. And, in an effort to keep the reader enthralled, Tilley flings increasingly surreal circumstances at Liam, unveiling the dusty nooks and crannies of his being. From a harmless hypochondriac, he soon transforms into a cold-blooded individual abiding by the ethos of self-interest.
While not necessarily displeasing, this mutation relies on an abundance of malice that subverts the novel’s initial premise. In the blink of an eye, Liam goes from lecturing disgruntled neighbors about social distancing to admitting to feeling no remorse for playing a part in a friend’s brutal death.
In fact, his manipulation of reality — and its various witnesses — betrays a few psychopathic inclinations. To allow for this, the idea of the pandemic is swiftly discarded, underscoring the instrumentality of the novel’s plot devices.
From comedy, we stray into the realm of tragedy. Interpersonal relations, which prove to be the basis of much of the story’s drollery early on, take on an affected, vicious edge. And where anything is possible, where rationality dissolves its ties to reality, attention spans wane.
Publication date: March 23, 2022 (The Book Guild)