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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013/37: The Uninvited -- Liz Jensen

As an anthropologist I read the phenomenon more as a sick fairy tale, a parable of dysfunctional times. None of us got it right. The message was written in letters too big to read, letters that could only be deciphered from a vast distance or an unusual angle. We were as good as blind. This, by the way, is a figurative expression. Unlike many on the spectrum, I can deploy those. [loc. 132]

Hesketh Lock is an anthropologist, employed as a cross-culture specialist by legal firm Phipps & Wexman. He is very good at his job, and attributes this to his autism spectrum disorder. When asked "Isn’t a problem with social interaction quite a handicap in your field?" he replies, "When it comes to gauging human behaviour, it’s an asset. It’s like colour-blind people being deployed by the military to detect camouflage... They look for the shapes rather than the colours." [loc. 1060]

When The Uninvited opens, Hesketh is investigating a series of sabotages, apparently unrelated, thousands of miles apart. In each case the saboteur blames supernatural forces -- trolls, ancestors, djinni. In each case, too, the saboteur has acquired a sudden craving for salt.

Back in the UK, there's another unusual 'epidemic': young children are committing acts of extreme violence on adults, often their own parents. When questioned, the children refuse to speak. This fascinates Hesketh, not least because of his complex relationship with his stepson, Freddy. (Freddy's mother left Hesketh for one of his colleagues. "Whenever I think about her no amount of mental origami can counter the damage she inflicts on my nervous system. [loc. 753]) At first Hesketh is worried that Freddy will succumb to the wave of violence: later, he begins to wonder whether Freddy can offer some insight into the phenomenon that is affecting adolescents world-wide.

The Uninvited deals with population growth and environmental catastrophe, but its focus remains firmly on Hesketh and his difficult relationships with other human beings. It's a cosy catastrophe, if you like: a background, slow-mo apocalypse, with Freddy and Hesketh retaining the focus of attention and engagement. And there is something very British, at once humdrum and monstrous, about the adult world's reaction to their increasingly feral children: condom sales soar, people queue up to be sterilised, and there are "parents driving their children out to the motorway or into the countryside and just ... dumping them." [loc. 2808] Which last gave me the shivers, because that's what people do to unwanted pets.

But The Uninvited was, despite its apocalyptic setting, more cheering than not. I like Hesketh, and his perspectives on the world. A man's scalp is 'the distinctive yellow-grey of Dulux’s 1997 River Pearl' [loc 260]. Hesketh likes countries where everyone has black hair; "running people resembled matches being scattered by a giant hand." [loc. 368] He does mental origami (folding cranes) whenever he becomes distressed. And he's constantly aware of himself, and others, as physical constructs: "I’m excited. I can feel chemical changes in my brain." [loc. 859] And while his story is not exactly a tragedy, his hard-won, fiercely-held sense of self is inevitably changed:

it is beginning to seem that there are two worlds: the world I have known and inhabited all my life, and still cling to, and the world beneath it, which I have glimpsed through myth and legend, but never perceived as a whole and never believed to be anything other than one of the multiple explanations man gives to ascribe meaning to his existence. But now this shadow-world – vivid, irrational, primitive – has begun to take a grip. Not just on those around me, but now, in a way that defies all I know – on me. [loc. 3238]

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