Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
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.
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...
Waterland by Graham Swift
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
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
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
Postcards by E Annie Proulx
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.
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
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...
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.
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
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.