‘A Fear of Fear Itself: A Review of Dirk Kurbjuweit’s Fear’, by Nathan Smith


The first time I shot a gun I was on university exchange in California. At the time, it seemed like the thing to do.

I was living in Southern California, not far from the old Manson Family ranch, in an area circling Orange County—all suburban and Stepford-like—that still possessed the attitudes and values of America’s mid-west, including the vaunted right to bear arms.

The thought of holding—let alone shooting—a gun filled me with immense anxiety, a feeling that soon outweighed my initial curiosity about what it might be like. But since I had already rushed a fraternity (experiencing some mild hazing), whittled away nights cramming at the campus Starbucks with college classmates, and drunk my way through rounds and rounds of beer pong, shooting a gun seemed the next logical step.

The firing range was in an unremarkable part of the neighbouring suburbs, nestled between a dingy hardware store and a sickly looking Target. I was asked to provide ID—my suspect and foreign-looking Victorian Learner’s Permit apparently sufficed—and to complete a brief questionnaire attesting to my “robust” mental health and the absence of sinister or homicidal proclivities.

The range was made up of a series of lanes separated by wooden barriers. We were each given rubbery earmuffs and foggy Perspex glasses, scratched up from repeated use. My college friend, who had encouraged the visit, was holding the small handgun she and I were to use (her mother, father and sister who were with us had packed their own guns that morning). After she fired off a few rounds at the flimsy paper target, she handed me the cold luggy thing and positioned me in the booth.

Holding the heavy, deathly object in my hand was nauseating. Guns were so fetishised for me in pop culture that to hold one was both an underwhelming and disarming experience. But with some encouragement from my friend and her family, I lifted up my arm, steadied my aim by holding the lacquered wooden base underneath, and discharged my first—and only—shot.

The blowback was so intense—an unbelievable ringing in my ears, a bright spark colouring my vision—that my body fell back. I steadied myself quickly and immediately handed back the gun. I was grateful to have been taken to the range, I told her, but that single shot had satisfied my curiosity.

Afterwards, as I was driven back to my dorm—sniffing the remnants of the gun shot residue on my hand—I had a gnawing fear. The experience had, perhaps ironically, made me more uncomfortable around guns than ever, even if I was still intrigued by their ubiquity in this unlikely part of America.

This mix of dread and fascination around guns is what drives German writer Dirk Kurbjuweit’s compelling new novel Fear.

The novel concerns Randolph, a middle-aged married man whose secure domestic world is frighteningly disrupted by the man living in his building’s basement apartment. After moving his family into an upwardly mobile part of Berlin, Randolph’s seemingly harmless neighbour—an old man named Dieter Tiberius—transforms into an obsessive and menacing presence in his life. 

But Fear first opens with Randolph visiting his ageing and estranged father in prison. Despite the metal tables and chairs being screwed into the floor—forcing father and son into close proximity to each other—they are more disconnected than ever. We learn of Randolph’s challenging childhood and how he grew up under his father’s stern and uncommunicative care. Randolph also explains his father’s lifetime obsession with guns, one which, at seventy-eight, has now landed his father in prison.

As for Randolph and Tiberius, their interactions begin innocuously enough. When the family first moves in, Randolph and his wife Rebecca exchange pleasantries with Tiberius, friendly greetings and baked goods, before things begin to fray. They receive a letter in which he accuses them of sexually abusing their two small children and threatens to report them to authorities.

Over several weeks, more and more letters arrive—some including small pieces of verse and poetry—as Tiberius heightens the seriousness of his accusations against them. Randolph tries confronting him about the letters but Tiberius is unperturbed, and then Rebecca discovers he has been stalking their apartment at night, peeping through their children’s windows.

Randolph approaches the landlord but he is unwilling to help. Tiberius is a ward of the state, so the rent is always paid on time, and the allegations seem too far-fetched for such a lowly, harmless figure. The police are similarly unhelpful, Randolph’s claims of harassment and stalking are only evidenced in a series of letters that incriminate Randolph and his wife as much as they do Tiberius.

As Randolph’s efforts to have Tiberius either arrested or evicted are thwarted, Randolph and Rebecca’s marriage crumbles. Both start to suspect the other of the abuse they have been accused of, so preoccupied are they with Tiberius and his allegations.

Punctuating this narrative are Randolph’s memories of his childhood; of growing up in the constant presence of guns. These memories centre on Randolph’s father who took him to shooting ranges as a child and tried to arouse in him an interest in firearms but had little success. Learning about Randolph’s father, it becomes apparent that his stockpiling of weapons was motivated by a deep-seated fear: a fear of a world without law and order; a fear of an ever-present yet invisible evil lurking below the surface of civilised society; a fear of a return to the Germany of WWII, one marked by oppression and violence.

Just as fear motivates his father’s ballooning arsenal, so too does it inform Randolph’s understanding of his father:

I had always believed my father capable of a massacre. Whenever I heard on the news that there had been a killing spree, I would hold my breath, unable to relax until it was clear that it couldn’t have been him. That’s paranoid, I know, but it’s inevitable if you grew up the way I did.

As Tiberius becomes more of a threat to Randolph and his stable world the tantalising thought of killing him begins to feel less like a fantasy for Randolph. After years of being exposed to guns and their use by his father, the thought of finally using one does not seem so dangerous or transgressive after all.

There is an irony to the resolution of this conflict that does not escape Randolph. After all, Tiberius never physically or verbally assaults him or anyone in his family. But the accusations and paranoid poems not only create a destructive self-doubt in Randolph and Rebecca, they are an assault on pair’s stable middle-class world: “What troubles me more than anything is that he only ever attacked us with words, never with deeds,” Randolph muses, “he used a sophisticated cultural tool—the poem…to attack my family.”

With words, Tiberius unravels the veneer of Randolph’s world of respectability and wholesomeness. Each time Randolph shares the letters with authorities, he committed an act of self-incrimination, a kind of self-harm that only gets worse as the letters keep arriving. Ultimately, it is Randolph who is the stigmatized figure since a child abuser is more feared than a sad lonely man writing garbled letters.

As fear and paranoia completely engulf Randolph and Rebecca, the novel becomes a larger study of our own fascination with violence. Using the familiar themes of neighbourly suspicion and veiled class conflict, Fear dramatically exposes how small fears and suspicions can expose and create larger tensions in society, especially within the safe domestic world of the middle-class family.

Fear works most impressively as an examination of porous boundaries between order and chaos. It offers an unnerving portrait of how close many of us can come to committing unspeakable acts of violence—often motivated by a fear of violence itself.

Nathan Smith is a writer based in Melbourne. His writing has appeared in The Economist, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post.