I’m offering a review of Iain Pears’ new novel Arcadia as my answer to today’s BBAW topic: how I stay connected to the book blogger community. The answer is that every few months I look for a novel or volume of poetry just coming out so there’s a chance other bloggers will also be interested, and I try to offer a thoughtful review with lots of illustrative quotations.
I got an advance copy of Arcadia, by Iain Pears, from Penguin Random House and it is not much like any of his previous novels. He creates three stories—one set in an explicitly fictional pastoral world (along the lines of Narnia), another set in a dystopian future, and the third set in 1960’s England, at the height of the Cold War—and pieces them together so I was on the edge of my seat the whole time I was reading, wondering how all the characters could possibly come out all right.
To add to the “edge of the seat” feel, I was reading this book while on my way to Tucson to see Eleanor in the hospital. She will attest that on the second day I was there, when we got relaxed enough to sit around reading books in her hospital room, I finished the book and had to audibly express my surprise and pleasure at the absolute aptness of the ending, one I felt I should have seen coming but didn’t.
The novel begins in the 1960’s, with Henry Lytten reading his fantasy novel to a second generation of The Inklings, still meeting in a back room of the Eagle and Child. A teenaged girl, Rosie, who helps Lytten take care of his aging cat, finds a portal into his fantasy land in his basement—one that he did not put there or even know anything about.
Meanwhile, in the future, there’s a machine that offers a portal into either the past, or an alternate future, and people who have seized control of it from its creator, a “psychomathematician” named Angela who has just escaped into Henry Lytten’s world with her machine, which she has disguised as a work of modern art:
“I called it ‘Momentum’ and told anyone who saw it that it was a biting critique of modernity, representing how the culture of the past (the pergola) was contaminated and overwhelmed by the detritus of consumerist industrialism that was covering over the elegance of civilization with mass-produced conformity. It was thus both a radical critique of capitalism and a nostalgic vision of traditional society. The essence of the concept lay in the inherent tension that existed between the two competing visions. The explanation, which sounded a lot better in French, was generally met with a look of panic and a rapid change of subject, which was just what I wanted.”
Angela has a daughter named Emily who has opted out of her dystopian society and has never known her mother. Despite this, however, the people who have seized control of the machine spend most of the novel hoping to use Emily to force Angela to come back to the future and show them how to use her machine for their own purposes.
The characters from the fictional pastoral world become more real every time they appear in the story, until Rosie goes through the portal looking for Lytten’s cat and begins having adventures with the storytellers Jay and Henary and the outlaw Pamarchon on the grounds of the great Lady Catherine’s estate.
One of Angela’s staff members from the future, Chang, is sent back to the 1960’s to try to get word of her, and he ends up watching Lytten’s house and being suspected of spying for the Soviets. He has implants in his brain which should help him navigate through the past, but sometimes offer no help at all, like when he has been taken into police custody and asks the implants to teach him to lie:
“I wouldn’t if I were you, came the response. For a start, it’s a variable concept here. You are in a culture where ambiguity has been raised to a high level. Let me give an example: depending on phrasing, circumstance, expression, body movement, intonation and context, the statement ‘I love you’ can mean I love you; I don’t love you; I hate you; I want to have sex with you; I do, in fact, love your sister; I don’t love you any more; leave me alone, I’m tired, or I’m sorry I forgot your birthday. The person being talked to would instantly understand the meaning but might choose to attribute an entirely different meaning to the statement. Lying is a social act and the nature and import of the lie depends in effect on an unspoken agreement between the parties concerned.”
The dystopia of the future is deeply unsettling: “Man could not go to the stars. Several centuries of effort and human ingenuity had got nowhere. Space was just too big, and no one wanted to set off on a journey so that their great-great-grandchildren could reap the dubious reward of life on some dead lump of rock a billion miles away.” (Although this is exactly the plot of the SF novel I’m currently reading, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.) All the hope for change in this novel centers on the fictional land invented by Lytten, which Angela thinks she needs to control because “there can only be one future. Either Henry’s story or reality will have to go.” Rosie refuses to believe this, and her double Rosalind, who has now been left behind in Lytten’s land, keeps pushing forward to make her own happiness come true. At one point she is asked to impress a Storyteller, to “unsettle him with the power and extent of your learning” and so the following scene ensues:
“I am pleased to see you are fat,’ she said absently, addressing the mirror on the wall. ‘For, as Caesar said, ‘Let me have men about me that are fat; sleek-headed men think too much: such men are dangerous.’ You know your Shakespeare, of course? Act 1, scene 2”
“Certainly,” he said quickly, “naturally I do.”
“Good,” she said. “There are many who neither appreciate the beauty of his poetry nor yet the force of his morality. I look forward to a discussion with you at some stage. On Hamlet, perhaps, or Elvis.”
Later, Rosalind coaches Lytten, who has come through the portal in his basement into his own imaginary land, on how to act there:
“Why are you dressed like that?”
“It’s my dressing gown. I’ve just had a bath.”
“Hence the heavenly odour of sanctity which seems to be so impressing everyone.”
“You look the part, you see,” Rosalind continued. “As far as they are concerned, you have been summoned to sit in judgement.”
“Why is the result so important?”
Because if it goes wrong, Willdon is inherited by Gontal, merges with Ossenfud and…”
“…the combination is overwhelmingly powerful and the whole of Anterwold is unbalanced. Yes, yes. I remember. Hence the need for a figure of Solomonic wisdom.”
“Probably. But all we have is you, who can’t even remember his own plot. So will you just listen and look solemn? At least it will gain us some time. Go and sit on that stone thing over there. I will concoct some ceremony, and you act the part of a spirit of awesome power.”
Eventually, the characters in the fictional land have a grand happy ending, Angela and Rosie and Chang are together in the 1960’s plotting for a better future, and the future is rewritten in an extraordinarily satisfying way.
This is a marvelous novel that will keep you engrossed and guessing until the very last page, when, if you’re like me, you will sigh and feel a bit of sadness that it is over.