Daniel Ninkovic has been writing since he was a child, and has gone all the way from stapling together pieces of paper as a child to self-publishing his debut novel. A former U of T student, he took a creative writing course in his final semester, where he created and workshopped the idea for Snide Clyde Died, his satirical novel about a Toronto man’s quarter-life crisis that spirals into criminal territory.
In an interview with The Varsity, Ninkovic said that all his writing comes from a deeply emotional place: “Like a journal [he] decided to show the world.” Ninkovic began to write his novel in his early twenties, an age when many people have a quarter-life crisis. He explained that while there’s a whole genre dedicated to coming-of-age stories about teenagers leaving high school and becoming adults, he wanted to write a novel for young adults who were finishing university and moving on to the ‘real world.’
This niche genre — coming-of-age for young adults — is one I love dearly, exemplified by classics like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, or contemporary versions like How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti, which is set in Toronto like Ninkovic’s book. These stories have the power to help young readers feel less alone as they navigate their transitions into adulthood, and I recommend them to young adults everywhere.
The main character of Ninkovic’s novel, Clyde, works at a bank. He is everything you wouldn’t want in a financial advisor: sarcastic, narcissistic, with a habit of stealing your money and — if you’re particularly rich or you particularly piss him off — your identity. He is the kind of character you love to hate. In an attempt to alleviate his friend’s debt to their new drug dealer — and get rich in the process — Clyde enters into a business arrangement with Foley, a businessman involved in various unethical practices. As the novel progresses, Clyde digs himself deeper and deeper into his new shady deal until he finds himself with no way out.
Ninkovic compares the eponymous character of his novel to Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. This comparison comes up a lot when books have unlikeable characters, and if Clyde is one thing it’s unlikeable.
Having read both novels, however, I don’t think this is an accurate comparison. I find Holden to be extremely endearing, if a little annoying. He is caring, craves connection, and wants to believe there is good in the world. Most of his unlikeability comes from the fact that he is young and disillusioned.
Clyde, on the other hand, does not have the same humanizing characteristics. I think, deep down, he also craves connection, but I’m not sure that’s something he could admit to himself. Clyde constantly feels the need to one-up people and vindictively ruins people’s lives. I think where the novel struggles is that its flawed protagonist’s true motives and insecurities lack nuance. I am not against novels with dubious main characters — a good example of a novel that succeeds in crafting an amoral protagonist is The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith’s success lies not in the plausibility of her plot but in her nuanced character writing.
While Tom Ripley also makes choices that seem pretty implausible, I was willing to suspend my disbelief, whereas I was more reluctant with Clyde’s choices. Highsmith immerses the reader in Tom’s thought process; we have a front-row seat to his mental gymnastics, which makes his crimes seem like totally reasonable actions to take given his circumstances — even when they’re not. When an unlikeable character is well-written, readers find themselves rooting for them despite the horrible things they’ve done. Clyde’s lack of redeeming characteristics made it difficult for me to stay on board with what he was doing.
Admittedly, it is kind of interesting to watch Clyde make terrible decisions and ruin his life. However, in order to effectively convey the book’s themes — quarter-life crises, status-oriented culture, and materialism — we need to have some level of empathy for the character, and I struggled to identify with him. I think the need to constantly be one-upping people comes from a place of anxiety and insecurity that someone out there is doing better than you, yet I don’t really feel like this comes across in the book. We do get a bit of Clyde’s thought process when he’s sabotaging people he perceives as his competition, but we don’t get any self-reflection due to his lack of self-awareness. When the moment of self-reflection and clarity finally comes in the last couple of sentences, it feels like it came out of nowhere.
Ninkovic cites his “twisted sense of humour” and conversations with his friends as inspiration for the banter in the novel. As an example, the first barroom banter scene includes an in-depth discussion about whether they would have sex with a mermaid, debating if the top half or bottom half of a woman is more important in the bedroom.
Personally, I found these exchanges very alienating as a woman. To be fair, I don’t think I was necessarily the target audience for this book — it seems the audience was straight, single men in their twenties. And as this is a satirical novel, it is safe to assume that many of these conversations are exaggerated.
However — while I do think it can be funny and appropriate to include this type of banter if the author is establishing their character as a sleazy guy who makes inappropriate comments — if the punchline is just the content of the joke itself and not about satirizing his less-than-savoury behaviour, I think that kind of humour is best left behind in middle school. Ninkovic is right to point out that these kinds of people do exist and these conversations do happen, although if I were him I wouldn’t so readily admit that I participate in them.
Ninkovic explains his story acts as a cautionary tale. It is intended to show the deterioration of Clyde’s character over time: the reader watches him slowly make bigger and bigger compromises to his morals. From what I understood, the novel’s message is to avoid becoming too materialistic and obsessed with how others perceive you, online and in person, because none of that matters at the end of the day. While Ninkovic is apt in identifying these problems, these moral lessons are not adequately fleshed out; they’re hastily inserted at the end rather than woven throughout the book.
Ninkovic explains he opted to go the self-publishing route so he had complete control over the finished product and didn’t have to compromise his values in the process. He says self-publishing is a good learning experience — if you’re disciplined — and credits a creative writing course he took at U of T for teaching him to be self-critical. Personally, I think some aspects of traditional publishing would have been helpful; there were quite a few typos in the novel, which occasionally took me out of the narrative. But I do appreciate that he wanted to publish his book in its pure form, without having to change it to fit a specific genre.
Overall, it’s never a waste of time to support independent authors in our community. As Ninkovic said himself, this book is not for everyone, but I always find literature’s ability to resonate differently with different readers really exciting. So if you’re looking for an audacious debut novel, Snide Clyde Died may be the book for you.