(1) The hero’s anxiety
In this curiously involuted thriller of the near future, the father is not dead but absent, if only temporarily. The son must act for him, whether he wishes to or not. They exist in the most ideal loop of anxiety, the father a ghost in the son’s brain, the son a sub-routine of the father’s competence. They are a single entity, the hero only completed by his father’s wealth and prior achievement; the father present in the world only through his son’s ability to act in it. Whose anxiety is the greatest ? It is hardly possible to venture a guess. They describe between them not so much a main character as a desirable state, a circle whose perfection is forbidden to the son, no longer obtainable by the father.
(2) inertia, animalism & paranoia
The humanity of the world is maintained only through constant effort. If you learn to grow flowers as a child–if you understand how quickly they die without water–you become a better adult. People think of love as a given. Love is made. Maybe it does come out of nowhere but it can’t support itself here, and it would soon go back there if we let it. To occur at all, festivals, celebrations, civilizations must be constructed; sustained by contribution. The nightmare of this novel is that among its characters nothing is being constructed. The only alternative to inertia, animalism and paranoia is magical thinking. Nothing practical is being done. The curve of humanity bottoms out. From here the only way is up. Where its author sites herself in relation to this understanding is uncertain.
1973: The whole of a small desert town is inhabited by aliens who have taken on human form. They escaped the disaster that wiped out their planet, but denial & post traumatic stress have erased this from their memories. The TV series, based quite closely on the original film, constructs itself as a phased revelation of their state. Imperfect recollections of life and death on the alien world are seen to be symptoms of what look like new psychological disorders. Dr Bax Fermor, drawn to the desert by convoluted Lacanian flexures in his own personality, understands their situation by an intuitive leap, and becomes town psychiatrist. He must spend the rest of his life taking care of them–some he helps to remember, others he gently encourages to forget.
(4) ripped, cut & loaded
The contemporary investigator is loaded. He drives a Porsche & wears Versace overcoats. He is as big as he is charming, as cultured as he’s ripped & cut. He got his self-defense training from an ex-KGB agent. He has a connection to the CIA; or to a mysterious agency which has only twelve clients worldwide, & which can get him information about anything or anyone, any time he needs it. His family runs every part of the infrastructure of this major American city.
The contemporary investigator is PC, & even when he isn’t, even when he falls from grace a little the way every man can, well, his girlfriend is rich too, and equally well-connected, & she won’t take any male nonsense from him. His assistant’s a Goth, tattoos all over. She won’t have truck with that male manipulative charm either.
Even when he’s arrested in what he calls “Buttfuck, Iowa”, the contemporary investigator’s connections are there for him. Despite that, he can get in trouble! Just in case that happens, he carries with him “four inches of money” (ten thousand dollars) along with unimpeachable false identities for himself and his assistant. Because even when the he’s not in charge, the contemporary investigator is in control. Even when contingency rages, it isn’t entirely contingent, not for him.
This novelist’s characters are like himself. They speak in clever & rounded sentences. They have caught life in a linguistic net, & found some odd fish there, & now they are going to tell you about it: not really at length, but in the end at more length than you suspected in the beginning.
The impression of wisdom radiates from the feeblest of their jokes. You look covertly at your watch even as you think, “How delightful!”
It isn’t possible at this distance–the distance between writer & reader–to tell how much of the novel is “biographical”. If some of it is, there’s nothing we can do about it; if none of it is, well that’s a joke some decades old by now, & perhaps a little less joyful than it seemed in 1980. What is possible to say is that the acknowledgements page, written in the same tone as the book itself, is a very self-indulgent piece of work.
A butterfly landed on page 52 while I was reading it in my garden. From that single event I learned nothing about the book, or reading, or writing, or anything at all.
(6) science & the arts
A clear & useful bridge between science and the public is constructed in this empathic literary novel of a boy & how he comes to terms with his world. Explanations of everything from black holes to epigenesis demonstrate the author’s engagement with the scientific worldview, & act as the pivots of metaphors for a full range of human emotions & concerns. The total effect is one of numbing boredom, & of a mind which has carefully removed everything of excitement from its encounters with physics, cosmology & molecular biology. A Hay Festival version of the Popular Mechanics-style science fiction of the 1920s, this novel has a similar mission to educate its demographic–primarily 40/50-year-old reading-group members with a humanities degree. As a result, the very last thing its author has managed is to be, as his dustjacket claims, “boldly imaginative”. The most interesting thing about the book is its title, the literary referentiality & linguistic quirkiness of which promise more than they can ever deliver.
(7) reader, I wrote her
“What’s your book about, Carlos ?”
“It’s about the romance & holiness & mystery & paradoxical matter-of-factness of all books. & it’s about my struggles with this book, my book, the one you hold in your hand. & it’s about women, the romance & holiness & mystery & paradoxical matter-of-factness of women, & about my struggle with this woman, the woman you–”
(8) dinner in the brownout
In this novel of alternate history, Thatcherism inadvertently drove the Left into the tertiary education system, where it became a permanent nuisance. In a world separated only by the thickness of a cigarette paper from our own, the ruling Right Wing coalition’s economic measures are aimed at driving it out again, a program which will fail to the precise extent that it succeeds: indeed at the outset of the novel, the Left, disoriented & under pressure, is already regaining its lost enthusiasm for actual Leftism; while the associated mayhem is as good as a brand launch. Even as student action weakens the walls of the ideological kettle from one side (reminding the Left that it can still act despite long term bans on unregistered strikes & street demonstrations), the collapse of the aspirational model for the majority of the population erodes it from the other. The middle aged (portrayed with amusing accuracy as the stodgy default constituency of the UK Right–established yet for psychological reasons still insecure, embittered in a curiously comfortable way by the life-defeats they’re required to call “realism”) begin to lose control of the people who most frighten & enrage them: the young who will replace them & the old who know more than they do. A purge of the universities, one of the central characters remarks at a candle-lit dinner in the brownout, is one of the first & most satisfying revenges the business-culture imagines for itself; but when you succumb to that temptation, you deal yourself a whole new hand of nightmares.
(9) science fiction
In American Ruminant, self-replicating machines arrive from the stars. Implacability is their signature characteristic. Their mission: to cannibalise our planet for parts! Life as we know it–the life of well-fed science wonks & policy advisors & their resilient, generally likeable, dependent families–seems doomed. But though the planet dies, home & hearth live on. The author recommends a spirited response to life but demonstrates only repression, invokes the concept of total loss but in the end preserves everything. You could slice big pieces off the ideological carcass of American Ruminant &, like a fortyish academic from a prairie state, it would still walk around, feeding, digesting & congratulating itself on its own gravitas & of the worth of the herbivore life in general. It might stumble occasionally or feel tired; but it would have an explanation for that.
(10) dissipative systems
In this novel of worldbuilding, a future psychoanalyst recklessly intertwines her own imagination with that of the patient. The patient has failed to construct himself & invites the psychiatrist to extend her own self-constructive efforts on his behalf. The two of them are immediately looped into the construction of a third thing–their relationship–then a fourth & fifth–each one’s perception of this relationship under the shifting terms of the old pre-analysis selves–and so on. Out of the patient’s perception of emptiness & the psychiatrist’s gesture of filling, they make not one but several “worlds”. In the end, has the psychiatrist helped the patient to see, or find, or make himself ? No: but between them they have made several new things, their exploration of which has made several more. This combination of labyrinth & dissipative system fails both of them & everything they have consigned to it reemerges sooner or later in acts of insane violence.
(11) cultural properties
The behaviouristic universe, controlled from outside the text. The meaningless anxiety generated by a plot trope carefully isolated from any actual plot. The meaningless preparation for action. The preparation for meaningless action. The Proppian magic object, its discovery the next item on a to-do list checked from outside the text. The freedom motif & its meaninglessly glib reversal. All of it makes a Skinner box look like To the Lighthouse. The actant has nice muscles but you feel only compassion. Not because she’s haggard from the effort of keeping in shape; not because she’s trapped in a scenario one millimetre deep; not because she’s encumbered by those risible poses of faux-aggression & off-the-shelf feistiness; not because her humanity has been reduced to an algorithm, a schematic whose tragedy is to make Lara Croft seem complex: but because she exists only as cultural property at the beck & call of the rights holder & the player. She can escape the prison but not the game.
(12) the last fish
This short novel’s central character stares out over a deserted coastal town, entangling himself with mysterious couples, psychiatrists and fliers as the world around him falls slowly but irrevocably into a beach-fatigued 50s sf version of itself. “Every so often, as he waited for nightfall–signalled by the long repetitive sweep of the old Ferrari’s headlights against the greenish afterglow above the esplanade–Carson would force himself up and down Hermione Miro’s small swimming pool at a slow crawl, these few enervated daily laps a way of convincing himself that he still existed.” We read this as a metaphor: but in Carson’s world, as in ours, everyone without sufficient ego is vanishing. As the novel progresses, we see that Carson is vanishing too.
The original posts, along with their comments, can be found here.