No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 13, 2010

2010/13: The Weight of Numbers -- Simon Ings

The voice of Mission Control comes through uncluttered by translation: We have loss of signal as Apollo Eleven goes behind the moon. Velocity 7,664 feet per second, weight 96,012 pounds. We're seven minutes and forty-five seconds away from lunar orbit insertion.
Seven minutes and forty-five seconds later, the means and timing of Anthony Burden's departure from Lourenço Marques have all been dealt with, quickly and without fuss. The false name on his documents sounds the only unorthodox note. Otherwise he might be any other independent traveller signing aboard a tramp steamer.
Apollo Eleven, Apollo Eleven, this is Houston, can you read me? (p. 228)

The Weight of Numbers is told from a number of different viewpoints -- an anorexic actress, a rootless sailor, a refugee psychiatrist, a tortured genius -- though only Saul Gogan, activist and aid-worker transformed by his experiences in Mozambique to something darker, gets first-person narration. Everything is interconnected, everybody is linked: I spent an hour or so flipping through the novel and mapping relationships. D is the child who was abducted by G, who was accidentally shot by N, who ...

The action moves from Sixties America to London during the Blitz to Mozambique mid-coup to desolate marshland. What goes around comes around: people meet and part and meet again, not recognising one another, not knowing how their lives have affected other people's lives. There's chances met and chances missed -- Kathleen, another mathematical genius, misses her chance to be part of Britain's war effort through over-zealous security; conversations are interrupted just before the meaningful fact can be uttered ...

I'm not sure whether it all comes together in the end or not. Is this a novel about missed chances, or about coincidence, or about the experiences (harrowing or trivial) that turn around a life? Is it, in the end, about the infinite variety of human life and the precious fragility of life on earth? Is it about one's sins finding one out? And where do the numbers come in?

Beautifully written but I don't think I -- ha! -- connected with it: I came away with a sense of hollowness at the heart of the novel. Perhaps that's simply because I didn't like any of the characters: they are all complex, shaded and nuanced, wonderfully human (warts and all), but I didn't warm to any of them.

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