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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

2016/41: Arcadia -- Iain Pears

The English were a different matter. As their lives were so dreary and constrained, the fanciful exuberance of the human spirit was forced to take refuge in the imagination, which was the only place it could exist without attracting disapproval. [loc. 2553]

The novel begins with a young boy in a simple farming community. He is known as Jay. He goes to fetch water, and sees a vision of a fairy or a spirit. 

Zoom out: Jay's experience is an episode from a fantasy novel that Henry Lytten is reading out to his writing group. (‘Where are the dragons? A whole chapter, and not a single dragon?' Lytten scowled. ‘There are no dragons.' ‘No dragons?' said the other in mock astonishment. ‘What about wizards?' ‘No.' ‘Trolls?' ‘No. Nothing of the sort.' ‘Thank God for that. Go on.' [loc. 100]) It's Oxford, 1960, and Professor Lytten is still tangentially involved in espionage. So, perhaps, is his friend and erstwhile lover, the mysterious Angela Meersum, who has left some of her effects in his cellar, including something that resembles a battered garden pergola. Rosie, who feeds Lytten's bad-tempered cat, discovers that beyond Angela's 'pergola' there is a different world ...

Pan left to Angela, whose narrative is first-person and altogether delightful ("That was my opinion and I admit that others thought differently. But they were idiots." [loc. 382]) is actually a visitor from a technocratic dystopia, several hundred years in the future. But is it 'the' future, or simply 'a' future? And why does it bear such a resemblance to the SF novel being workshopped by Lytten's colleague Persimmon?

I found Arcadia an engaging and provocative read. It plays with various fantasy and science fiction tropes; offers a critique of Tolkien and Lewis, and sly nods to other authors, including Le CarrĂ©, who makes an anonymous appearance, and Shakespeare, whose As You Like It proves to be one of Lytten's major influences. There are a number of interesting female characters, none of them defined by their romantic or sexual behaviour; there are echoes and foreshadowings aplenty. And at heart, Arcadia is a novel about story-telling: about the role of the Storyteller, the power he or she wields, and the perils of inconsistency.

Apparently there is also an Apple App for this novel. It has more words in it than the book (hmph), and it allows the reader to follow each thread -- the bucolic, non-magical fantasy of Anterworld, the quiet life with occasional subterfuge of Oxford, and the dystopian world which Angela has fled. Frankly, I'd rather read the novel as Pears intended it, and let the author control the shape and pacing -- both of which I feel worked very well.

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