The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-May 2011
Elizabeth Baines

January 2011
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Trevor suggested this 1952 novel, Vonnegut's first, which takes place in an America where, after another war, machines have taken over from not only labourers but non-manual workers too, and the only people in full and certain employment are a small elite of engineers, the designers of the machines. Most people live mod-con-aided but unfulfilled lives and work for the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (the Reeks and Wrecks), devised to provide them with fake manual jobs, or join the Army where they train with wooden rifles, since it is machines now that win wars and indeed led to the recent victory. The novel's protagonist is Paul Proteus, son of the influential engineer, the late George Proteus, in whose footsteps he is following until he becomes involved with rebellious elements. The novel charts his deepening entanglement in the revolutionary movement and a final rebellion, but spends a good deal of space along the way describing the society that Vonnegut imagines.

Introducing the novel, Trevor spoke of the ways in which its predictions were accurate, chiefly the fact that technology has indeed taken over our lives while we have descended into mass unemployment. People immediately said however that, from a present-day perspective, the vision of the details of the predicted world seems naif, the so-called sophisticated machines being run by tape-recorders and valves, and the computers huge rather than tiny, filling whole underground caves. That's perhaps the danger with science fiction, they said, that it dates - especially, John pointed out, novels written in the realistic style of this one. He said, if you considered Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, written eleven years later and which we discussed previously, there was just no comparison: that book is surreal and so doesn't suffer from the same problem.

I said, but also Slaughterhouse 5 is so much better written. (In fact of course Slaughterhouse 5 is about the past rather than the future and breaks the bounds of the science-fiction genre.) Didn't anyone else find this novel utterly plodding? I asked. (I found the prose airlessly pedestrian, lacking the demotic energy of the voice of Slaughterhouse 5, and there was a lot of telling and explaining rather than showing, so the book lacked vividness for me. Here, for instance, is Paul reacting to his wife during a crucial, indeed relationship-changing episode: 'Paul had expected that reaction, and remained patient in the face of it' - note that formal 'remained'.) Hadn't anyone else found it a really tedious read? Jo and Ann immediately said yes they had, in fact neither of them had managed to finish it. All those long sections describing the machines and people's lives in such plodding detail... And, I added, the awkward dialogue. Jenny said that she hadn't engaged much with the book at the start, but the further she'd read the more she'd liked it. She and Doug said they hadn't found it badly written: surely, they said, to agreement from Trevor, it was nicely satirical? I couldn't agree: I found the attempts at satire rather self-conscious and forced, even a bit amateur; I thought this was really obviously a first novel. Well, said Jenny and Doug, what about the phone conversations between Paul and his wife Anita that always ended in the same way, with Anita saying 'I love you,' and Paul replying, 'I love you': Jenny and Doug had really enjoyed that - a pattern which Jenny pointed out was reversed once Anita started cheating on Paul. I must say I hadn't noticed this reversal, as I had found the repetition so overdone I had stopped paying attention to it by then. John said he hadn't found the novel as tedious as we three had, but even Trevor, the book's champion, said it certainly wasn't one of Vonnegut's best-written books. And he agreed with John that one thing the book had failed to envisage was the increasing status of women: its doctorate-qualified women work only as secretaries (and are being gradually replaced by machines), and even the rebels hope to return to a society where men do proper men's work and women do women's. The ambitious Anita is only ambitious for Paul's career and comes over as a kind of Lady Macbeth figure.

Then Jenny said, Ah yes, but one thing the book did accurately predict was the corporate wife! Jo and Ann and I said, But surely in 1952 the corporate wife already existed, though Jenny argued that after that there was a rise in the corporate wife as a significant social phenomenon. She and Doug and Trevor also very much appreciated the satirical portrayal of a corporate morale-boosting, male-bonding weekend, which Doug found amazingly accurate as an account of such events to this day. However, I found it tediously overdone, with nothing of the light touch you find in Slaughterhouse 5.

They also appreciated the device of the visiting Shah of Bratphur, who views the supposedly advanced society with an uncomprehending and usefully fresh eye, significantly unable to distinguish the Reeks and Wrecks workers from slaves, although Doug said he was disappointed that the Shah wasn't more radically worked into the development of the plot.

I said that to me the book didn't actually feel very original, even for 1952, but because I've read so little science fiction I couldn't support my case. Others agreed, but Trevor said I may as well accuse Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four of being derivative - which in fact it was, he said, being actually a rewrite of We, the novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin which Orwell had actually previously reviewed. All of these books have similar predictions, anyway, he said. I answered that if a book is not particularly well written, which I didn't think this one was, and if it sets out merely to predict the future without much further theme or subtext or much deep insight into the human condition - another way in which I think this book fails - then it better be damned original in its predictions. However on reflection since, I have decided that the reason I felt that the book lacked originality was that its intent, like that of much science fiction, was not so much to make predictions as to satirise social trends already in motion at the time of writing, and I suppose whether you think the book succeeds depends on whether you think the satire is successful, which I don't.

This discussion didn't last very long, and we very soon ended up talking instead about the issues it had raised...

February 2011
Waterland by Graham Swift

Ann suggested this book in which a history teacher narrator, Tom Crick, due to lose his post for traumatic personal reasons, relates - both to a class of London teenagers and, in parallel, to himself - his own personal story and his family history, along with the history of the Fens out of which they emerged. The family story is one of isolation, hauntings, death, delayed development, murder, abortion and madness, and with incest at its heart.

Ann was attracted by the book's reputation as an evocative depiction of the Fens landscape which she often travels through, and the moment she suggested it, Doug, who grew up in Lincolnshire, immediately said that he knew the book and had loved it for that reason.

Everyone in the group agreed that it was indeed a vivid evocation of that flat, fluid landscape, and its mournful, uncertain atmosphere. However, Ann said that she found it hard to take the long and detailed historical digressions, those dealing with actual history - the French Revolution which Crick is supposed to be teaching (rather than telling stories), and the history of the drainage of the fens and its brewing industry - as well as the fictional history of Crick's brewing ancestors. (They are couched self-consciously in the mode of essays or lectures in a way that slows down the pace of the novel, making it leisurely, indeed ponderous, and are titled as such: 'About the Rise of the Atkinsons', 'About the Ouse'.) Jo and John and Jenny agreed that the brewing and drainage bits were boring (though later Doug - who arrived very late - insisted that, to someone brought up in Lincolnshire, drainage was fascinating!) Ann said that after a while, however, she began to see a reason in the novel's style and structure, and then found it easier to accept: ie, with its digressions and the constant loopings back in the action, it was specifically structured like a river (the fictional river, indeed, the Leem, on which the story takes place). I agreed with this, and I said that I thought that likewise the prose, with its constant subordinate clauses, its often ponderous sentences interrupting themselves and looping back to earlier clauses, was intended to mimic the looping of a river over flat land and indeed the constant draining and silting of the land itself to which the novel refers early on. The novel deals in uncertainty, the uncertainty of the landscape and indeed the uncertainty of history, and while Ann could see that this is why it's often not clear what exactly happened at various points in the story, or what the motives of the characters were precisely, she found that lack of clarity very unsatisfying. On the whole, she thought that at times the novel worked really well, but that at other times it didn't, and she didn't like or care about any of the characters.

Jenny then said that one thing she thinks is great about our reading group is that it forces her to persevere with books she would otherwise have given up on, only to find that she enjoys them after all, and so it was with this book: for the first 150 of its 350 pages she was very bored but after that began to be engaged. Trevor said that the first time he read the book he hadn't thought much of it, but that this time he'd rather enjoyed it: he felt that once you knew the story you had more patience with the digressions and could enjoy them for themselves. Clare said that, like Doug, she had very much liked the book.

John and Jo were perhaps the most negative. While the story-telling theme and the mode in which it's conveyed seemed to me very clever (and were fascinating enough to me to keep me reading in spite of some doubts), John thought the book clever in a cold, manipulative way, and Ann, I think, agreed with him that it was 'too clever'. He said he agreed with Ann that the characters and their relationships were unbelievable, and once he'd said it, there was general agreement about this, even from those who liked the book. There is a whole thirty years in the life of Crick and his wife Mary which is simply glossed over, and so you couldn't understand what had happened to their relationship, or therefore know on any deep psychological level the reasons for Mary's behaviour and madness which precipitate Tom Crick out of his teaching career. John thought the depiction itself of the sex etc was sordid - there is even a chapter titled, seemingly without irony, 'About Holes and Things' - and again everyone nodded.
As for the incest in the novel, Jenny, a sociologist, pointed out that incest happens more frequently than we tend to assume, especially in lonely and isolated places (and Ann said that a social worker had told her the same). I said that although I accepted this absolutely as sociological fact, I didn't think it was conveyed believably in the novel, especially from the point of the view of the daughter, and everyone agreed. Ann and I then discussed why this was so. This episode is self-consciously told in fairytale mode, and while we could see that this authorial choice would be based on the fact that fairytales can make the most grotesque seem matter-of-fact, we felt that it simply didn't work: we needed the depiction to be more psychological. At this point things got very confusing, as some people were muddled between the two couples in the story, indeed, just about everyone had been so at points during the reading. John thought that was ridiculous, that you should have to keep checking back to sort out the different couples in the reading, but Clare thought it was an authorial intention - the idea that all these people's lives flowed into each other like the river. John said, getting back to the lack of psychological portrayal, a whole problem with the book was that none of the women are portrayed in any depth whatever; he came away with the distinct notion that the author didn't understand women: what did the women in the group think? Jo and I agreed, but Jenny said none of the characters were portrayed in any psychological depth, and Clare said they weren't meant to be psychologically realistic, they were symbols.

I then said that my main problem with the book was the voice: quite frankly, as an ex-secondary school teacher I found that Crick's relationship with his pupils and the way he spoke to them made me uncomfortable. In real life he'd have been laughed out of the classroom. While there were aspects of the book I liked, it's so framed by and saturated in this voice, that I found it hard to get past. John too thought that the way the pupils accepted Crick's attitude and mode of address was psychologically unrealistic, and Ann agreed with me that the way the main troublesome pupil ended up as Crick's champion, smelled embarrassingly of authorial ex-schoolteacher's wishful thinking. Jenny and Trevor said they didn't have a problem with any of this. John said that while Crick makes clear that he doesn't actually call the class 'children' to their faces, and also while John understood that Crick's calling them that 'silently' throughout the text was something to do with Tom and Mary's own childlessness, the very fact that he does this last simply creates - along with his pompous diction - a sense of a history teacher dustily out of touch and thus impossible to empathise with.

John now quoted a sentence which he thought was ridiculously long, pompous and convoluted with its sub-sub clauses:
And while this determined policy on the part of the parents might have expressed the simple recognition that their first-born was, after all, irreclaimable, this did not account for the rigour with which it was pursued: for that moment, for example, when the younger son, thinking it only right to impart to his less fortunate brother some of his, albeit frugal, learning, embarked (the future teacher in the making) on a programme of secret tuition; and, being found out, was not only stopped short in his scheme of enlightenment but was roundly told by the provoked father (who was not a man, it was true, easily roused to great temper or severity, especially since the death of his sad wife): 'Don't educate him! Don't learn 'im to read!'
But Doug said that prose was great, and Clare said, Lovely stuff!

People now talked about the things they hadn't understood or thought weren't clear in the novel. Was Tom's brother Dick really not mentally slow after all, but had simply been held back? Did Tom's father know the secret concerning Dick? (The above-quoted sentence seems to imply an affirmative to both questions, but people had doubts.) Who was really supposed to be the father of the teenage Mary's baby? Were we meant to believe what Mary said about it, or not? Was there a hint of incest between Mary and her father, or not? Why did Dick commit his final act? Was he drunk, or not? What was the point of the bottles of special beer in the trunk? (People generally agreed that they had the fairytale role of a magic potion, and the trunk was a kind of Pandora's box). What was the thematic point of Dick's being designated a saviour of the world by a grandfather descended into madness? Everyone shrugged, and nobody knew. (In retrospect, I'd say this last was an illustration of the madness of trying to take control of the ebb and flow of the world.)

Ann posed the question as to why the French Revolution had been chosen by the author as the historical moment constantly referred to. It's another instance of people trying to control the ebb and flow of history, and Clare pointed to Crick's speech in which he says that revolution does not necessarily mean change (as people tend to think of it), since a revolving wheel returns to its previous point - just as, I'd add, the Fens constantly return to water, and the rivers, like the Leem after the 1947 floods, silt up and return to land.

All however agreed that the chapter 'About the Eel', with its revelation that the life cycle of the eel is still unknown, was fascinating - even Jo, and a grudging John since it was so very symbolic of the theme of the book, though he said if he'd wanted that much detail he'd have gone to a bloody encyclopaedia. He said that if you took away all the pompous digressions which seemed to give the book dignity and boiled it down to the direct personal action, it would take up about twelve pages and make a pretty sordid little story.

Finally, he asked, 'What's the point of this book? What's it saying?' No one really answered - they laughed and groaned, taking his question as rhetorical - but I'd say that the book is an exploration of uncertainty, the uncertainty of history and of storytelling and the ultimately unfathomable nature of the motives of others. It's especially interesting because the novel borrows from, and thus ironises, the mode and language of the Victorian sensation novel which, while it similarly deals with secrets and corruption and breakdown of the social order, was underpinned by authorial certainty. Like Ann, I'm not sure that the deliberate uncertainties of this book make for an ultimately satisfying novel, but even John had to admit that it was a fascinating experiment.

March 2011
Postcards by E Annie Proulx

Clare suggested this PEN/Faulkner-Award winning novel, Annie Proulx's first, which charts the fate of the Bloods, a Vermont farming family, in the years between 1944, when the elder son Loyal flees after accidentally (it seems) (and secretly) killing his lover, to the end of the eighties. The novel is structured around the postcards sent by and to the various characters over the years, in particular those sent back by Loyal to his family, never including a return address and poignantly revealing his ignorance of their fate.

Unfortunately Clare was unwell and unable to attend the meeting but sent a message that she had found the novel very atmospheric but also hard-going. Introducing the book in her place, Trevor said he had really enjoyed it as a depiction of the flipside of the American Dream and outlined the downfall of the family and most of the characters, since it turned out that four of the members present had however failed to finish the novel. John had given up after about thirty pages as he had found it dull and didn't feel it promised to go anywhere. Ann and Jenny had given up about halfway through, Ann because she had been very busy and Jenny because she said she just hadn't been in the mood for serious literature, but both suspected that if the novel had had the potential to grab them they'd have finished it anyway. Mark hadn't even tried, because he'd hated Proulx's second novel The Shipping News.

Jo said she'd disliked The Shipping News too, but she had absolutely loved this book. I said that my problem with the novel was that it was perhaps the first book I had ever read that left me feeling depressed rather than cathartically uplifted. One of my favourite books is The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry, which similarly deals with the exile and gradual degradation of a main character, who meets a similar tragic end, but I don't find that book depressing at all in the way I found this. There was something about the treatment of the situation in this novel, of the way that the characters end up dying with wasted lives behind them and forgotten.

Trevor and Jenny objected that that was just realistic: in real life everyone does end up dead! I said, but we don't all die with a sense of our lives wasted! Jenny said that she thought that a lot of people did reach the ends of their lives with a sense of waste, and she and Trevor said, and most people end up being forgotten. I said, But surely the point of the novel (as an art form) is to transcend that, to give significance to lives. Trevor said it's one point, but I said no, actually, it's the point. Even in life, we see significance in the lives of others even if they die not seeing it themselves, and the point of the novel surely is to focus significance and meaning. But somehow, to me, this novel fails to do that. In fact, as Jo pointed out, not all of the characters in this book feel that their lives were wasted. Daughter Mernelle and her husband Ray are saved by their marriage, and mother Jewell is basically emancipated by the events, yet there is something about the perspective of the novel which makes their lives seem wasted.

Jo said, but didn't I find the writing absolutely beautiful? Those wonderful descriptions of the landscape? I said, yes, they were stupendous, but I thought that this was perhaps the key to the problem: although the narrative is purportedly a shifting intimate third rather than omniscient, on the whole I felt those descriptions were made from an authorial viewpoint rather than that of the characters. I wouldn't say that the descriptions were exactly touristic, but the sense of appreciation of the beauty and grandeur was often at odds with the situations and psychic journeys of the characters. Jenny said, Yes, the farming characters would probably find the landscape pretty grim, wouldn't they? As well as that basic matter of the attitude to the landscape, there's also the question of the metaphorical language in which it's described. I did think it worked brilliantly for the psyche of the skin surgeon who buys up Loyal's fields to build himself an outback retreat, and whose emotional focus is indeed the landscape to which he looks for succour but which overwhelms him:
There was too much to look at. Knotted branches. The urgent but senseless angular pointing of the tree limbs. Grass the colour of wafers. Trees lifting soundless explosions of chrome and saffron. Mountains scribbled maroon...
However, I felt that such language was inapt for the farming characters who are revealed by the framing handwritten postcards as semi-literate. At one point, just after the murder, Loyal's heightened perception of the landscape was psychologically acceptable - He saw and heard everything with brutal clarity - but the terms in which he sees it didn't seem so: Evening haze rose off the hardwood slopes and blurred a sky discoloured like a stained silk shirt. (As John said: would he ever have even seen a silk shirt, leave alone readily think of one?) I felt, as a result, the chief subjects of the novel were the landscape and the author's appreciation of it, rather than the characters, who simply floated towards their inconsequential fates amongst the fine descriptions.

This is reinforced by the focus in terms of event. Of course everyone (in real life) dies, but the novel is so plotted that every character is propelled towards nothing more than their own death, which always ends on a note of waste, as in the description of the death of Mernelle's husband Ray. At the end he fails to recognize Mernelle (after their seemingly loving marriage) and in his mind's eye sees instead a figure from his childhood: her slender back to him, her bare arms, the square of sunlight on the floor enclosing his own shadow. / 'Too bad we never did,' he said, and died.

John said that this novel had changed his previously firm view that the most important thing about a book is prose style, and Doug, arriving late and having missed the discussion up to this point, said independently that he thought the book was brilliantly written but basically tedious.

Mark (who hadn't read the book) asked, But surely it must be saying something about America, and people said what they thought it was saying: that technological progress had destroyed people like the Bloods. Unfortunately, though, most people felt that the book did a disservice to that message by being too tedious, and I felt it did a disservice to those characters by subsuming them to the landscape.

I said I found the framework of the handwritten postcards rather forced and artificial, not much more than a linking device for the episodic structure: it's not as if all of the postcards were in the bundle grabbed by Loyal when he's first on the run, and in reality many of those communications would not have been made on postcards but in letters. Most people, including even Jo, agreed. Jenny said the postcards had really irritated her, as she found them extremely difficult to read, which meant that she often lost their significance to the chapters they headed, and there were murmurs of agreement. Ann said, with reference to both the episodic structure and the linguistic style, that she wondered if Proulx's narrative mode was better suited to short stories than novels: she had read two volumes of her short stories and had found them wonderful.

Finally, I asked people what they had made of the sections appearing every so often and titled 'What I See' and printed in bold (which last Mark said he hates in novels, along with sections in italics). Most people were blank, and even Jo said that she hadn't known what to make of them. It seemed to me now on reflection that that they were intended as authorial intervention, but I hadn't previously been sure, probably because, as I said, there was such an authorial feel to the main, purportedly intimate-third narration.


April 2011
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Doug suggested this novel because, he said somewhat provocatively, he thought it was time we had a 'boys' book'.

In fact, it's a novel that sets out to subvert the conventions of the Western. It's based on real-life events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s and follows the fortunes of 'the kid', a fourteen-year-old boy who joins the infamous Glanton gang, charged with running down Indians for their scalps but ultimately killing all in their way and turning in the end on each other.

Doug said he loved the novel, most especially for its stunning descriptions of the landscape, conveyed in a lyrical prose involving evocative verbal innovations/archaisms which we had already appreciated when we read McCarthy's The Road. He felt odd about this, however, loving the beauty of these descriptions, when at the same time the violence enacted by the gang and others was so graphically depicted and in such a sustained way. As for McCormac's message about the violence, he thought that, unlike that of conventional Westerns, it was that all parties were guilty of it, indigenous peoples and Europeans. (The book also subverts more recent views of the Indians as innocent and peaceful victims.) He was bowled over by McCormac's invention of the character of the white-gang member called the judge, a kind of superhuman being, huge and hairless and cultivated among illiterates yet the personification of violence. Doug reiterated that he felt odd about loving the lyrical aspect of the book, yet added only half-ironically said that he'd have joined the Glanton gang, indicating, I think, that for him the book did not after all entirely succeed in subverting the boys'-wishfulfiment of traditional Westerns.

I said that while I'd had problems with the disjunction between the psyches of the characters and the descriptions of the landscape in Annie Proulx's Postcards (which we discussed last time), I felt that here the disjunction was authorially intentional and very interesting. I thought that what McCormac was consciously doing was placing the human figures and their violence as part of that landscape, no less a part of it than the animals and the geographic elements. Ann strongly agreed. Human violence, as a result, is an elemental force against which human morality and cultivation are impotent, and the judge is a kind of totem of this. He is supremely accomplished in all the human arts and civilised systems: he knows the law and legalese (hence his moniker) and several languages. He can play musical instruments and dance and draw beautifully; he knows Darwinian theory. But every natural thing he draws he must afterwards mutilate or erase. Nothing exists, he explains at one point, unless he owns it. Once he possesses them by drawing them, he can obliterate natural objects or the artefacts of ancient civiliations. Through the figure of the judge, even the human systems of cultivation are exposed as immoral and violent. The kid, as the motherless and illiterate son of a schoolmaster descended into drunkenness, is himself an icon of the precariousness of civilisation, and John said it was interesting that the novel began with echoes of David Copperfield, and then totally subverted that novel's theme of the making of a moral conscience. The kid is indeed the one member of the Glanton gang who tries, on several occasions, to act morally and to save others, but as the judge points out to him at the end of the novel, his apparently moral choices end in disaster, with death. The most moving and symbolic instance is when, years after the Glanton gang has dispersed, or rather imploded, and he is travelling alone, the kid comes upon a massacred wagon train with just one old woman remaining, sitting upright in the sand. He kneels in front of her and delivers a long speech about how she must come with him, he will take her to safety, before she keels over, revealed as a mummified husk. Ann, Doug and Trevor agreed that this was a very moving moment. Ann said it had occurred to her that the judge represented all the seemingly cultivated dictators of our contemporary world who nevertheless indulge in barbarous practices, and I thought that was a very interesting point.

Trevor then spoke about some of the moments he'd found particularly vivid, such as when the Glanton gang are first invited as conquering heroes by the governor of a town to an elegant dinner, and end up trashing everything. Meanwhile, at some time during the discussion, Clare had said that she hadn't liked the novel at all, had hated the violence and had been unable to continue with it. Up to this point Jenny, a criminologist, hadn't spoken at all, and now she said that she too hated the book. She said that what she really objected to was the utter lack of engagement with the subjective experience of violence from the victims' point of view: the fear, and the loss, the psychological damage which is far, far worse than the physical violence.

I said that that was a feeling that I'd had too as I read the book. In fact, I had found the book a very difficult read, and the only way I'd managed to get it read was to set myself a certain number of pages to read each day and stick to it. But when I got to the end I decided that that perspective - the emotional experience of the victim - was one that the author had deliberately eschewed, along with all interiority, in order to make his political point about the elemental nature of violence. Ann agreed: she said that she had found it difficult to read too; she had had to skip over the violence, and had wanted to dwell on the landscape descriptions but had found herself pushed on by the next (violent) episode, but when she got to the end, she'd had the same experience as me: she found the book an interesting political and artistic experiment.

For Jenny, though, this just didn't justify the omission. In any case, she said, historically at the time there were authorities sending people out to these frontiers to colonise the West, authorities who thus had a moral responsibility but were turning a blind eye, and this was a dimension totally overlooked by the book. I think she felt that fundamentally the book had abdicated a moral responsibility of literature, and in the end I and, I think, others were unsure...


May 2011
Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

I suggested this book as one of my favourites, one that I said had made a lasting impression on me and which I have always recommended to anyone and everyone. It concerns the fictional eighteenth-century James Dyer, born unable to feel pain and becoming, via a series of picaresque adventures, a skilled and sought-after surgeon, before the ability to feel is finally unlocked in him.

The number present to discuss it was our smallest: just four. One of those, Mark, hadn't managed to read the book, and this necessitated my recounting Dyer's convoluted adventures, which underlined the eighteenth-century-type picaresque aspect of the narrative. However, as I explained, the book is not ultimately linear: it begins after Dyer's death when the (real-life) Burke and Hare are dissecting his body to look for clues as to his unusual condition, then moves backwards a year to the point in Dyer's life when, now able to feel pain, he has lost his surgeon's nerve. After this it switches further back thirty-eight years to the night of his conception, the half-rape of his mother by an unknown stranger on a frozen lake, conditions (according to traditional lore) determining his life of frozen feeling. It is after this that the novel takes on a linear mode, charting Dyer's life to his death (and taking in on the way the eighteenth-century epistolary mode). This structure is I think both clever and essential, as it allows us as readers to become involved with Dyer's fate when we might otherwise be unable to do so, ie while he is dispassionate and unempathic.

I said that the things that had attached me to the book were its themes of empathy and of magic versus science, these being among my own themes as a writer. James becomes a freak of nature and a wonder of science and is first shown in fairs and used by Gummer, a snakeoil saleman (who is probably his biological father) to 'prove' the efficacy of his medicine, and then 'saved'/abducted by an aristocrat who keeps a stately home full of such 'freaks' - including Siamese twins, a librarian with six fingers and a creature who seems to be a mermaid - to be exhibited to a royal scientific society. All of this conveys beautifully the Enlightenment tension between superstition and scientific reason, and the lack of empathy often involved in scientific inquiry, issues strongly relevant today. Press-ganged with Gummer (who has 'saved' him from the aristocrat), Dyer becomes mate to a ship's surgeon before taking on the role himself and then, with his utterly clinical and cool-headed approach, a famed surgeon.

The trouble is, I said to the others, although once again I found the book engrossing, I had not in fact remembered any of this plot, and I usually remember novels very well. I had only remembered that Dyer 'had a series of picaresque adventures' before the next stage of the story, which I did strongly remember. Here Dyer takes part in a race - which did in historical reality take place - to be the first doctor to reach the Russian court and inoculate the Empress against smallpox. It is on this trip that Dyer's unfeeling is breached, that he first begins to feel, and the scene in which the agent of this change appears was imprinted on my brain. She is a woman, a kind of witch, and we first see her pursued by men and dogs in the snowy woods, through the eyes of the Reverend whose party has been holed up by the weather in a monastery along with the disappointed Dyer who will not now make it first to the court. The English party rescue the woman, and from that moment on she works her 'magic' on James Dyer and he begins to feel, at first emotion and then the physical pain his body should have suffered through all its previous traumas. At last, as a consequence, he learns the empathy we have seen in him at the start of the book.

I wondered why I should have so vividly remembered that particular scene and been so vague about the rest. When I thought about it, I similarly couldn't remember the precise adventures of the heroes of picaresque eighteenth century novels either, such as Joseph Andrews or Roderick Random, and I decided that it was because of something inherent in the picaresque mode: its deliberate reliance on ups and downs of fortune (suited to an age, the eighteenth century, when life indeed was precarious and one's fortunes could turn in a second), and consequent disconnection between episodes. The encounter in the woods with Mary, however, operates in a much more organic and pivotal way: unlike Dyer's other experiences, it's not just a random illustration of the theme which could have been replaced by another, but is absolutely essential to the plot, the moment that will change the course of Dyer's life in a more fundamental way than any other, where the theme is most dynamically realised through the drama of character in action. After this there can be no more hostage-to-fortune moments: it contains within it the seeds of the end, and as such it's the stuff of modern drama and fiction, and not of the eighteenth-century novel which for much of the time Ingenious Pain pastiches. I found the episode extremely moving on both readings, and the narrative following it (and read in the light of it) very moving, too.

I also said that, actually, I had been surprised to find that I couldn't think of anything more to say about the novel (beyond admiring the concept and theme and the fact that I'd forgotten most of the story) and it now struck me that this novel was a supreme example of so-called 'high concept' (so beloved of present-day marketers). It's based on a very striking, unusual yet graspable idea - that of the man who feels no pain and so can't empathise - but that idea is established right from the beginning of the novel and the rest of the book is largely an illustration rather than a development of it. The book is thus less deep than it seems or than I had remembered.
Ann and John agreed. They too had found the book an engrossing read but had been left with similar thoughts. We three also agreed that the book's eighteenth-century world feels stunningly authentic, and we particularly admired the authentic feel of the language. We also thought it a supreme achievement to have engaged readers with such a potentially unappealing character as the icy Dyer.
John, a child psychologist, pointed out that James's condition was an exaggerated version of some aspects of autism: apparently some of those with autism do have a high pain threshold and many have an obsession with circular mechanisms - James is indeed obsessed with the orrery, the moving model of the planets, which he is given as a child; that, significantly, is his first memory - and the book is thus a comment on the 'autistic' tendencies - the overlooking of emotion - in medicine.

Mark said that he was just really dubious about books written in the present day and set in the past: he didn't see the point (especially when they adopted past modes of fiction as this novel seems to). We said that a character with James Dyer's condition in the present day would have been immediately picked up by the system and prevented from the kind of adventures James has that carry the theme so vividly - apart from the fact that his condition is unusual enough to be mythical and thus better placed at a historical distance. Mark said he could see that that was true, although he remained generally suspicious of historical novels.

Ann and I puzzled about the Epilogue which I won't describe here in order not to plot-spoil, but although its meaning was not altogether clear to us, once again we found it very vivid, evocative and moving. And in spite of our doubts about the whole novel on analysis, there was no denying that it remains an engrossing, striking and moving read, remarkable above all for its humanity.


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