The Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh

Waugh was a professional writer from the year he published his first short story in 1926 till his death in 1966. During that period he published some 26 short stories. There are several editions of his collected short stories, notable the Everyman one and the Penguin one. I read the Penguin one but the Everyman edition (which includes a few more stories than the Penguin) is the one that’s available online.

What all the editions tend to highlight is that Evelyn Waugh did not, in fact, write many short stories. All the editions include the juvenilia written at school, and the half dozen stories written at Oxford, to bulk up the books. And for real aficionados and completists it’s good to have everything in one volume like this. But the fact remains that in a writing career of 40 years he only published 26 short stories.

Spin-offs from novels or no short stories at all

Not only that, but when you look more closely, you realise that a number of the stories are offcuts of the novels and so closely linked as to be barely standalone narratives.

Thus ‘Incident in Azania’ is set in the fictional country created for the novel Black Mischief and feels very much like an anecdote which could have been included in that novel but was cut as surplus to requirements. ‘Cruise’ is a short squib, a lampoon consisting entirely of postcards written by a gushing, silly, posh young lady on a cruise round the Med, an idea recycled from one of his travel books. ‘Charles Ryder’s Schooldays’ is quite obviously a spin-off from Brideshead Revisited and ‘Basil Seal Rides Again’ is a final flurry for the character at the centre of Black Mischief and Put Out More Flags.

So four of the 26 are direct spin-offs from novels.

More than that, three of the stories are actual extracts from the novels: ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ is an early version of the final chapters of A Handful of Dust and ‘By Special Request’ is not a standalone story at all, but the original ending of A Handful of Dust as it first appeared when the novel was serialised in Harper’s Bazaar. ‘Compassion’ was recycled in its entirety into the end section of Unconditional Surrender.

So seven of his adult short stories aren’t really standalone narratives but either rely on the novels they derive from or are actual excerpts from them. Leaving 19.

Two of these 19 aren’t really short stories at all. The post-war narratives ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’ and ‘Love Among The Ruins’ are far longer than your normal short story, certainly than the other stories included here, and so are generally categorised as novellas. Leaving 17.

And lastly, by far the longest item in the collection, at around 80 pages, is ‘Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel’ which, as the title suggests, is not and was never intended to be a short story, but the first sections of an abandoned novel.

Leaving only about 16 short stories gleaned from a career which lasted nearly 40 years.

Commissions

Finally, the notes in the Penguin edition reveal one more fact about the ‘short stories’, which is that quite a few of them were commissions, not written off his own bat. Now there’s nothing wrong with a story being commissioned – both Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four were commissioned over the same historic dinner (30 August 1889) with the magazine editor, J. M. Stoddart. However, all of Waugh’s commissioned stories only make sense, or make a lot more sense, when you learn they were commissioned as part of series on a set theme:

Thus:

  • ‘A House of Gentlefolks’ was commissioned for a series titled The New Decameron
  • ‘The Kremlin’ was commissioned for a series titled Real Life Stories by Famous Authors (which explains its opening sentence: ‘ This story was told me in Paris very early in the morning by the manager of a famous night club, and I am fairly certain that it is true.’).
  • ‘Too much tolerance’ was commissioned for a series titled The Seven Deadly Sins of Today and only really makes sense in that context
  • and ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’ was written for the Tight Corner series in the Daily Mail, ditto

The short story not Waugh’s metier

So the conclusion I draw from this little statistical analysis is that Waugh was very much not a short story writer, certainly not in the manner of Saki or Somerset Maugham or Kipling or J.G. Ballard, writers who produced a tremendous output of short stories but, more importantly, who suited the short story format. All four of those authors, in their different ways, knew just how to manage their material into artefacts which create maximum artistic and psychological impact and a range of effects. Waugh not so much.

In fact I’m afraid to say I found a lot of Waugh’s stories disappointing. A few I didn’t even understand, I didn’t see the point of them.

In a novel like Vile Bodies Waugh took scores of anecdotes about the shallow, heartless behaviour of his upper class Bright Young Things and combined them in such a way as to produce a kind of group portrait which was much larger than the sum of its parts. But broken down into short, isolated texts, most of these anecdotes feel much weaker, and sometimes pretty lame.

For me the stories’ value was analytical, they gave me a greater understanding of what you could call the ‘mosaic technique’ of Waugh’s novels, what I’ve referred to as the importance of gossip, not only as subject matter of the novels but as a key element of his technique. The way the central events of the novels are always commentated on by the shoals of secondary characters which fill his novels, gossiping at parties and restaurants and balls and dinners, mingling catty comments about the central events of the novel’s narrative with deliberately throwaway mentions of the trials and tribulations of other, unrelated people to give a powerful sense of their ultimate irrelevance; or the way all stories, and all lives in the modern world are swamped and trivialised by the sheer number of people and tragedies and stories we’re meant to pay attention to.

This technique has multiple benefits: from the point of view of literary realism, it helps create the illusion of the throng, of the crowdedness of London High Society, where everyone knows everyone else, goes to each other’s parties and dinners, where everyone spends a lot of time energetically gossiping about each other’s ups and downs and affairs.

Seen in terms of technique it has at least two benefits: it allows Waugh to skip or cut briskly between scenes with great dramatic effect, just as films can cut from one scene to another in a split second. This encourages or suits Waugh’s tendency to be concise and clipped, so that some of his best scenes are only half a page long before they cut away to something completely different. Technique and style are perfectly combined.

(Waugh’s debt to cinema technique becomes overt in some of these texts, not least in ‘Excursion in Reality’ which is a Vile Bodies-era satire about a hapless young writer who gets caught up in the 24/7 crazy world of film production; and the very first text in the collection is a kind of commented-on version of the screenplay of a black-and-white, silent movie.)

Waugh’s understated debt to Modernism

The second benefit of Waugh’s ‘mosaic technique’ is the way this approach subtly incorporates some of the best features of the previous generation’s Modernism. Modernism refers to a movement in literature during and after the Great War which sought to depict the hectic, frantic, fragmented, fractured experience of living in big cities in styles or narrative structures which reflected psychic collapse and disintegration. Thus the disintegration of a highly sensitive mind portrayed in T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the extreme fragmentation of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the collapse of a unified narrative and then of the English language itself in James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the collapse of the patriarchal Victorian tone of voice into the swirling stream of consciousness of Virginia Woolf’s novels.

Waugh swallowed Modernism whole, experimented with it, and then adapted it for his own purposes, keeping only what he needed. The very first story in the collection, ‘The Balance’, published in 1926, is the best example (described below) in the way it is broken up into short snippets headed by the captions of the silent movie it describes. This immediately recalls the clever use of newspaper headlines in the ‘Aeolus’ chapter of Ulysses and anticipates the blizzard of newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, popular songs and so on which litter the classic example of German high Modernism, Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, published a few years later in 1929.

My point is that this technique of fragments, of consciously breaking up the text of a narrative into a mosaic of short clipped scenes, of cutting away from the main protagonists of an event to a group of their friends heartlessly laughing about their fates, a technique exemplified in Vile Bodies but which appears, with greater or lesser frequency throughout all his fiction, this was Waugh’s version of Modernist fragmentation and alienation.

Waugh and mental breakdown

And although Waugh has the (deserved) reputation of being a great comic writer, actually rereading the novels as I’ve been doing, it has been a shock to realise just how much misery, suffering and pain they include.

There are scores of examples but, focusing literally on mental breakdown, I think of the devastating impact on Tony and Brenda Last of the tragic death of their son in A Handful of Dust. Take the scene where they return from their son’s inquest to big, empty Hetton Hall and Brenda barely makes it into the entrance hall before sitting down in a decorative chair which nobody usually sits on, sitting there and looking around her in a daze. Or immediately after Tony gets news of his son’s death and trembles on the brink of going to pieces, is only saved by the compassion of ‘the Shameless Blonde’, the sturdy American woman aviator who stays with him and forces him to play cards all afternoon. A scene of tremendous psychological power.

Or take Vile Bodies which is all very hilarious up till the racing car crash which precipitates the concussion and nervous collapse and eventual death of the bright, confident heroine Agatha Runcible.

A key strand in the similarly polyphonic novel Put Out More Flags is the psychological decline of Angela Lyne, up to that point a confident, dominating presence in London High Society, whom the advent of war reduces to an alcoholic wreck, hiding out in her serviced apartment, drinking all day in dark glasses with the curtains closed.

A central thread in Brideshead Revisited is the agonising decline of the bright and beautiful young undergraduate Sebastian Flyte into a shambling, poverty-stricken, feverish wreck in the slums of Tunis.

And then, of course, Waugh wrote an entire novel dramatising his own mental breakdown, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold in 1957.

So for a writer who’s (correctly) associated with the reactionary views of England’s moneyed upper classes and (correctly) famous for his high-spirited comedy, it’s worth repeating that Waugh also wrote throughout his career about extreme tragedy, psychological trauma and mental collapse, and did so using his own version of the polyphonic, mosaic narrative technique – both a subject matter and a technique more usually associated with the avant-garde.

Anyway, to return to the short stories, my point is simply that if most of them had been included in one of his novels, they would have made one more hilarious scene amid the general mayhem of the polyphonic, multi-stranded plots and contributed to the complex artistic and psychological impact of the novels. But given here, as standalone short stories, as just one bald anecdote, a surprising number of them come over as lame and flat.

Which is why I wouldn’t really recommend these short stories to anyone. I’d recommend reading pretty much all the novels first, before you bother with them.

Pre and post-war

One last point. The stories can also be divided in chronological order into those written before the Second World War and those written after. At a glance you can see that he was far more prolific in short stories before (21) than after (5). (For the period of the war itself he was either serving in the Army or, from December 1943 to June 1944, entirely busy writing his magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited.)

If we count Scott-King’s Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins as novellas, then he can only be said to have written three short stories between 1945 and 1966, confirming my feeling that the short story was emphatically not his genre. That said, all three post-war short stories are good.

Short stories 1. Pre-war

1. The Balance (1926)

Born in 1903, Waugh was only 22 when he wrote this, by far his most experimental and avant-garde text.

In the cinema

Very much in the style of Vile Bodies, this fairly long text uses a number of highly experimental narrative techniques. Most of it, the long first part, consists of scenes from an imagined film. It opens with a cook and a house parlour maid (Gladys and Ada) making their way to their seats in a cinema and then making cheerily working class comments on the action of the movie they’re watching. Somewhere behind them (in the more expensive seats) sits a Cambridge student who drawls knowing intellectual comments (pointing out the debt to European Expressionism of some of the shots, explaining what steak tartare is). And the text is punctuated by the captions in CAPITAL LETTERS which are appearing onscreen, as this is a black-and-white, silent film.

Thus the text consists of: capitalised captions, interspersed with the narrator’s description of what is happening onscreen, interspersed with the working class comments of the two servants given in italics, and the occasional sardonic comment from Mr Cambridge.

The ‘story’ is made up of clichés and stereotypes, which allows his working class women to spot in advance what’s going to happen, the Cambridge man to make superior comments, and Waugh to mock all of them.

Adam is at art school. He loves Imogen. Imogen’s mummy tells her she must stop seeing him. They share a cab to Euston where she catches a train to the country. Ada, catches cab to home near Regent’s Park, goes up to room, melodramatically considers suicide by pills, imagines the vulgarity of family breaking down door, calling police, thinks again. Scoops up his best books and takes them to a luxury second-hand bookseller, the fussing about first editions suddenly reminding me of The Picture of Dorian Gray. He gets a tenner for his books, then a cab to Paddington and train to Oxford and goes to see, one by one, his incredibly posh undergraduate friends. Old Etonians, the Bullingdon Club, chaps who hunt, who paint, who drink very heavily.

The window blind has become stuck halfway up the window so that by day they are shrouded in a twilight as though of the Nether world, and by night Ernest’s light blazes across the quad, revealing interiors of unsurpassed debauchery.

Yes, Dorian Gray. Waugh is channeling Wilde turned into a 1920s silent movie. And deliberately elitist or excluding references to aspects of Oxford life. Eights week. Commem. The Bullingdon. The Canning. All the posh young men he tries are busy till he resorts to visiting the rooms of Ernest Vaughan.

They go for dinner at a local pub, get plastered, go on to some rough proletarian pubs, play darts, get into loud arguments, get kicked out, catch a cab back to the colleges, gatecrash a party, pour drinks on the carpet, nearly get into another fight till Ernest walks dignifiedly out into the quad, throws up and passes out.

Cut to the next evening when the pair gatecrash a Liberal Association party at Oxford town hall. Having irritated the guests and got blind drunk they walk outside where Ernest steals a car, drives it haphazardly down St Aldate’s before mounting then kerb and crashing into a shop window. Police close in and arrest him. Adam walks very depressed back to his hotel room. He uncaps the bottle of poison and drinks the contents down in one.

End of film. Glady and Ada and the smart Cambridge graduate and a hundred others exit the film, all chatting about it, the two women to make their way back to their shared rooms in Earls Court where they’ll carry on discussing it over cups of cocoa.

Adam outside the film

At which point the text cuts and changes to a series of three sections of parts. Part one finds Adam in the hotel bedroom piecing together the fragments of the last 24 drunken hours and then remembering standing by the bedroom window in a storm of nausea before throwing up through it into the courtyard, presumably evacuating the poison from his system.

A boyhood memory

In the short part two he has a vivid memory of being a 7-year-old boy and playing a game with the family cat, Ozymandias, which consisted of locking it and himself in his bedroom then chasing it round the room terrorising it at every stop; only then did the real game begin, which was the challenge of trying to coax it back to a state of relaxed affection. And the particular memory which floats into his head as he lies on the bed recovering from his failed suicide attempt, is of the time that Ozymandias escaped to the top of the wardrobe, so the 7-year-old Adam pulled his table over to the wardrobe and put a chair on top of the table and climbed up on both and reached out for the cat and… the whole lot collapsed to the floor and he fell and knocked himself out. Vivid as yesterday he remembers the sensation of slowly ‘regaining consciousness’ and piecing together like a jigsaw the scattered flowing bodily sensations till he had attached particular pains to particular parts of the body and his ego was once again in control.

This early experience of psychological fragmentation, flotation and reassembly recurs at moments of drunkenness, as now. Now he gets up and has breakfast in the hotel still in a hallucinatory state:

He had breakfasted in a world of phantoms, in a great room full of uncomprehending eyes, protruding grotesquely from monstrous heads that lolled over steaming porridge; marionette waiters had pirouetted about him with uncouth gestures. All round him a macabre dance of shadows had reeled and flickered, and in and out of it Adam had picked his way, conscious only of one insistent need, percolating through to him from the world outside, of immediate escape from the scene upon which the bodiless harlequinade was played, into a third dimension beyond it.

Adam talks to his reflection

Adam walks out of Oxford along the towpath. He had written a letter to Imogen begging her to come back. He crosses a bridge over the canal and looks at a swan sailing by whose reflection is broken and fragmented. He tears up the letter and chucks the fragments into the river, then has a brief conversation with himself. He supposes tearing up the letter means he is over Imogen, and the fact that he’s here at all means he’s resolved to go on living. Was there no moral influence on his decision to live, no wish not to burden his loved ones, no profound insight into the meaning of life? No. Simply a rest, a sleep, a change of scenery. Ultimately, those are the small measures which make all the difference. No intrinsic motives from the soul. Just as random as…circumstance.

A shift of perspective

And then in its last two pages the text does what I mentioned so many of them doing: it switches perspective altogether to create a deliberate alienation effect. Suddenly we are at a country house named Thatch and Mrs Hay has invited her undergraduate son Basil and one friend for luncheon but a whole carload has turned up, gossiping and smoking all the time.

The point being, they are all telling each other about the other night when horrible Adam gatecrashed lovely Gabriel’s party with some ghastly man named Vaughan who was offensive to everyone then threw up. Here, right at the start of his career, we find Waugh using a technique which will serve him again and again, which is spending a lot of time on a close account of the incidents and thoughts of one or two protagonists; and then suddenly cutting far away to hear the same events being retold as throwaway gossip by people who don’t give a damn about the characters we’ve just been following and have invested so much time and trouble in.

It’s a very simple technique but very modernist in feeling, pulling the rug from under our feet, suddenly making us realise how silly and trivial the little trials and tribulations we’ve been following are in the great scale of things. Making the entire fictional edifice in which we had been investing time and emotion seem infinitely fragile and inconsequential.

Short conclusion

Arguably, and certainly to someone like myself, soaked in early twentieth century modernism, this is the most interesting of all the stories in the book. It clearly foregrounds three things: one, the very self-conscious modernist technique which Waugh studied, copied and assimilated; two, the interest in altered and extreme psychological states, reflected not only in Adam’s drunkenness but the much more interesting and vivid descriptions of regaining consciousness after his concussion as a small boy; three, the determinedly, almost offensively, upper class nature of the settings and characters – Mayfair, Lord and Lady this, Old Etonians at Oxford etc.

Of course it was this latter strand, the supremely upper class settings and characters, which were to characterise the rest of his writings. But this, Waugh’s first published short story, makes abundantly clear the surprisingly experimental nature of his early literary taste.

And also shows how an interest in morbid or damaged psychology was not just a personal thing, but has its roots in the fin-de-siecle obsession with decadence, its hyper-Gothic interest in altered states and very deeply troubled psyches, epitomised by Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray which leaves stray echoes in some of the self-consciously aesthetic moments this text – but reborn thirty years later in the era of Freudian psycho-analysis, jazz nightclubs and cocktail bars.

For these reasons I found it by far the most interesting, and intellectually stimulating, story in the collection.

A House of Gentlefolks (1927)

Only a year later and Waugh has swallowed, assimilated and concealed his learnings from Modernism (although there is a surprising reference to the famous Modernist author, Gertrude Stein, on the second page).

This is a first-person narrative which, in style at least, is thumpingly traditional, telling a simple narrative in chronological order with no fancy tricks. The narrator arrives by train at a rural station, it is raining, catches a taxi to Stayle, a grand country house surrounded by a wall, entry via umpteen gates, seat of the Duke of Vanburgh.

The narrator tells us his name is Ernest Vaughan, same name as the drunk in the previous story and, as he tells us he was sent down from Oxford for bad behaviour, it is presumably an early example of Waugh’s career-long habit of populating his fictions with recurring characters.

Anyway, sent down from Oxford, Ernest is at a loose end when his godmother tells him the Duke of Stayle is looking for a tutor to take his 18-year-old grandson and heir to the earldom on a tour round Europe. The only snag is the boy is mad. They now introduce him to the young fellow, actual name George, who has, it must be said, odd manners. Ernest feels sorry for him, as he only attended school for a term and is obviously ill at ease with strangers. He decides to take the job on.

Within a few hours they’re on the train to London, Ernest with a check for £150 in his pocket, where they check into a hotel and Ernest takes George on a tour of London’s attractions, revues, nightclubs and parties with his super-posh friends. Plus the very best tailors to get formal suits and travelling clothes made up. Over the next few days Ernest watches George blossom, learning about food, restaurants, fine wine, and party etiquette before his very eyes.

At one point they have a candid conversation in which he suggests that he isn’t mad at all; maybe it’s his grandfather and his great-aunts (who Ernest met in the first scene) who are the eccentrics, and this certainly seems likely to Ernest and to the reader.

Then it all grinds to a halt. In an ending almost as crass as saying ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’, Ernest gets a letter from old Lord Stayle saying the family’s thought better of the experiment and are cancelling the trip. George is to come home straight away. A lawyer arrives to cancel all obligations and take him off. George’s parting words are that in 3 years time he’ll come of age and be able to do what he wants.

In a way the most telling moment comes in the final sentence:

Five minutes later Julia rang up to ask us to luncheon.

This has the brisk brevity of Vile Bodies, powerfully conveying the sense that, oh well, that adventure’s over, he’s mad, she’s dead, they’ve gotten divorced, Harry’s married Margot, he died in the war, she’s pregnant, whatever – conveying the dizzy speed of the high society social life Waugh dedicated himself to.

The Manager of ‘The Kremlin’ (1927)

The unnamed narrator likes going to a restaurant in Paris. One night he stays late and the manager, Boris, tells him his story. He was a student when the revolution joined out and joined a white army fighting the Bolsheviks. It was a motley crew which included various foreign nationals including a Frenchman. Boris helped save this man’s life by lending him his Russian uniform when they travelled through the most backward parts of Asiatic Russia. They were forced to flee east. Once in Japanese territory they shake hands and part. Boris took ship to America where he hoped to join his mother who had fled there early in the revolution. He does not thrive and after a couple of years takes ship to France, travelling to Paris where he hears there is a large diaspora. Here he really runs out of money and is down to his last 200 francs. In a very Russian gesture, he decides to blow it on one last luxury meal. As chance would have it the Frenchman he saved those years ago is dining at the next table. He accosts his old colleague and asks him how he’s doing. Boris explains he’s skint. The Frenchman runs a motor car company and toys with offering him a job but reflects that a man who could blow his last francs on an exquisite French meal is really cut out for the restaurant business. And so he loans Boris the money to start a restaurant and Boris employs some Russians he knows and now he is rich. Which is the story he tells the narrator in the early hours, as the ‘Kremlin’ restaurant closes up.

Love in the Slump (1932)

Big gap between the previous story published in 1927 and this one in 1932. During that time Waugh published his biography of Rossetti, Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), travelled to Abyssinia and produced Remote People (1931).

Originally titled ‘The Patriotic Honeymoon’, this is broad farce. An eligible if unremarkable young couple get married, decide to spend a patriotic honeymoon in England then experience a series of farcical mishaps. The portrait of the young wife is obviously a lampoon but nonetheless interesting social history about just what subjects were lampooned back then – portrait of a frustrated singleton c.1932:

Angela was twenty-five, pretty, good-natured, lively, intelligent and popular—just the sort of girl, in fact, who, for some mysterious cause deep-rooted in Anglo-Saxon psychology, finds it most difficult to get satisfactorily married. During the last seven years she had done everything which it is customary for girls of her sort to do. In London she had danced on an average four evenings a week, for the first three years at private houses, for the last four at restaurants and night clubs; in the country she had been slightly patronising to the neighbours and had taken parties to the hunt ball which she hoped would shock them; she had worked in a slum and a hat shop, had published a novel, been bridesmaid eleven times and godmother once; been in love, unsuitably, twice; had sold her photograph for fifty guineas to the advertising department of a firm of beauty specialists; had got into trouble when her name was mentioned in gossip columns; had acted in five or six charity matinées and two pageants, had canvassed for the Conservative candidate at two General Elections, and, like every girl in the British Isles, was unhappy at home.

It’s interesting that what spurs Angela on to take the initiative and propose to bland, boring, safe, accountant Tom Watch is that he father has announced he has to make economies and will probably be closing the London house in order to retrench to his place in the country, sack a few of the servants, live a simpler life. Angela doesn’t want to live a simple life. So she combines her £200 a year with Tom’s £800 a year which they reckon they’ll be able to live on, just about, though not being able to have a child.

It rains on the wedding. They catch a train to Aunt Martha’s house in Devon. At some remote rural stop Tom gets out to check if they need to change and is buttonholed by an old school acquaintance who insists on buying him a drink then another at the station bar. When they come out on the platform the train’s gone, along with his baggage and bride!

He reluctantly accepts the old school chum’s back to his place and stay over. They drink a lot. He wakes up to discover his host is going hunting. Against his better nature he dons a hunting outfit, is loaned a mare, and has a good day’s run till he’s thrown and the mare trots off. He makes his way across country to an inn, the Royal George Hotel Chagford, where he’s taken in and given a bed for the night. Next morning he discovers the stop for his aunt’s place is no fewer than three changes from his present location so he sets off on slow local stopping trains not arriving at the station till late at night. He has travelled all day in wet clothes. No car is available. He decides to stay the night in the station inn.

Next morning Tom wakes hoarse and feverish. A taxi takes him to Aunt Martha’s where he discovers that… his beloved fiancée has left, having received a telegram from his first host saying Tom had met with an accident, she has travelled to his (the first host)’s house. Tom is too coldy to do anything and goes to bed. Next day, the sixth of the honeymoon, he begins to feel it’s not working our quite as he expected. His aunt’s maid suggests the host’s name will be inside the jacket he lent Tom and so there’s a brief exchange of telegrams with Angela a) saying she’s having a lovely time and b) no point meeting up now, wait till they meet up back in London. Which they do the next day.

And, as so often, the story cuts away from the main protagonists so that we learn from a conversation between Angela’s parents that she’s been given access to a lovely cottage in Devon, quite near the estate of the chap she stayed with. Won’t that lovely? The implication is that, after less than a week of honeymoon, Angela has found someone richer and more exciting than Tom to have an affair with.

Too Much Tolerance (1932)

The narrator is stopping between ships at a stifling little port on the Red Sea. It’s important to know that this ‘story’ was commissioned for a series about the Seven Deadly Sins and as such is a lampoon on the idea of tolerance, too much tolerance. It’s a simple idea. The narrator falls in with the only other European in his hotel, an amiable round-faced moustachioed commercial agent and this man displays the virtue of tolerance to excess. He likes all the races and creeds he meets.

In a gesture towards psychology Waugh explains that he had been brought up by elderly parents, retired from India, who held very fixed beliefs about etiquette and social distinctions. So as a young man he set out to consciously rebel against all that, to be open, and tolerant and accepting.

Slowly the narrator learns how this attitude has led to the man being hopelessly abused and reduced in life. Out of kindness he took a fellow into partnership in the business he’d set up with the legacy from his parents, but while he was serving in the Great War the fellow ran it into bankruptcy. Strange thing, though, almost immediately afterwards, his partner set up a new concern and is now a rich man.

In a similar vein, he reveals he has a 27-year-old son who’s never had a job, wants to be something in the theatre, gads around London with well-off friends. So our chap sends him as much money as he can to support him.

Lastly, he has a wife, or had a wife. His father had strict moral principles about who could and couldn’t be introduced at home, but he thought that was all rubbish and encouraged his wife to have her own friends and go out and about on her own. She liked dancing, he didn’t, she went to dance lessons and then dance clubs and then left him for a chap who was good at dancing and had a bit of a fast reputation.

So here he is. Reduced to ‘selling sewing machines on commission to Indian storekeepers up and down the East African coast’, a victim of his own niceness and credulousness:

a jaunty, tragic little figure, cheated out of his patrimony by his partner, battened on by an obviously worthless son, deserted by his wife, an irrepressible, bewildered figure striding off under his bobbing topee, cheerfully butting his way into a whole continent of rapacious and ruthless jolly good fellows.

Excursion in Reality (1932)

Struggling young novelist Simon Lent, living in a pokey mews flat and managing a relationship with demanding Sylvia, is hired out of the blue by British movie mogul Sir James MacRea. He is collected from his mews flat and plunged into a mad whirligig of meetings, missed appointments, canteen breaks, tours round film studios and sets, a whirlwind affair with Macrae’s secretary, Miss Grits, all based on the nonsensical notion that he should write an updated version of Hamlet, with modern dialogue, with a bit of Macbeth thrown in. Lent demurs. Sir James steamrollers over him:

“Ah, you don’t see my angle. There have been plenty of productions of Shakespeare in modern dress. We are going to produce him in modern speech. How can you expect the public to enjoy Shakespeare when they can’t make head or tail of the dialogue. D’you know I began reading a copy the other day and blessed if I could understand it. At once I said, ‘What the public wants is Shakespeare with all his beauty of thought and character translated into the language of everyday life.’”

For three weeks Lent throws himself into the ridiculous project, working hand in glove with Miss Grits and summoned to meetings at any hour of day or night. And then, as suddenly as he was summoned Lent is dropped by the director and studio, his contract terminated, and returns to the calm life of a struggling novelist, living in a tiny mews flat and having long moody dinners with Sylvia again.

Incident in Azania (1933)

Azania is the name of the fictional African country Waugh invented as the setting for his fourth novel, Black Mischief, loosely based on Zanzibar which he had visited on his 1930 trip to East Africa, recorded in Remote People.

The story is so inconsequential, I wondered if I’d read it right. Into the small colonial society of Matodi, port city of Azania, arrives the strapping blonde Prunella Brookes, attractive feisty daughter of the local oil company agent. Since there are only eight Englishwomen in the entire town, including a 2-year-old and all the rest married, her arrival inevitably causes a stir and soon there is gossip about which of the most eligible bachelors she is likely to date.

Then she disappears, then ransom letters arrive at the club. She has been kidnapped by bandits, led by the notorious Joab! They want £10,000 for her safe return.

The story is picked up by the wider press and a strapping Australian journalist flies in, a reporter for the Daily Excess. In a repetition of the satire on the press which featured in Black Mischief and was to form the central theme of Scoop, this chap writes a series of sensational and utterly invented descriptions of the bandits and their squalid caves and their fearsome leader.

Finally, he collects the ransom money, takes a jeep and the local Armenian businessman and all-round fixed Mr. Youkoumian up in the hills determined to find and confront this Joab, hand over the ransom and free the lovely young virgin. Instead, in a tremendous anti-climax, they encounter Miss Brooks stumbling down the track towards them, apparently freed and unharmed. With complete illogicality, instead of turning and heading back to town, Prunella insists they are surrounded by Joab’s snipers and so Youkoumian had better take the car and ransom and drive further up the hill to the bandit camp.

During the wait Prunella gives the ardent journalist a detailed and obviously completely fictional account of her stay among the bandits. Then Youkoumian returns, Prunella declares the snipers have all withdrawn, they get in the car and return to Matodi.

Much fuss and bother about her, the memsahibs clucking like hens, the chaps congratulating themselves on job well done, the journalist files his last triumphant story and departs, and a couple of months later Prunella quietly sails back to Blighty.

Only slowly does it dawn on some of the senior members of the ex-pat community that they have been diddled. There’s no proof and it isn’t explicitly stated, but the implication is that the entire ‘kidnapping’ was a con set up by Prunella with Mr Youkoumian, who split the £10,000 ransom between themselves.

Bella Fleace Gave a Party (1933)

Miss Annabel Rochfort-Doyle-Fleace or Bella Fleace as she is known to the entire countryside, is a very old lady, ‘over 80’ (p.103), who lives alone in a grand house which somehow survived the upheavals surrounding Irish independence, in a place called Ballingar.

One colourless morning in November she decides to give a Christmas party in the old style. The preparations are elaborate and described in length, along with pen portraits of the house’s staff (butler Riley), the caterers and so on.

The preparations were necessarily stupendous. Seven new servants were recruited in the village and set to work dusting and cleaning and polishing, clearing out furniture and pulling up carpets. Their industry served only to reveal fresh requirements; plaster mouldings, long rotten, crumbled under the feather brooms, worm-eaten mahogany floorboards came up with the tin tacks; bare brick was disclosed behind the cabinets in the great drawing room. A second wave of the invasion brought painters, paperhangers and plumbers, and in a moment of enthusiasm Bella had the cornice and the capitals of the pillars in the hall regilded; windows were reglazed, banisters fitted into gaping sockets, and the stair carpet shifted so that the worn strips were less noticeable.

Bella takes a great deal of trouble writing the invitations by hand and considering who to invite and who to exclude, which leads to more brief portraits of the inhabitants of the grand houses in the area, including the various arrivistes and nouveaux riches.

The great night comes, the mansion is illuminated by candles, decorated by swags of flowers, the staff are ready, the expensive food is cooking but…nobody comes, nobody that is except the two arrivistes she had specifically excluded from inviting, but who are attracted by the lights and music from the old house. Puzzled, then perplexed, the old lady slumps on the sofa in the hall. Next day she dies. Her heir, a distant cousin and Englishman named Banks, arrives to make an inventory of the house and its contents. Tucked away in Bella’s escritoire, beautifully written, stamped and addressed he finds the invitations to the party, unsent.

Cruise, or Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure (1933)

Consists entirely of a series of letters and postcards sent home by a silly young woman on a Mediterranean cruise. Must have seemed very clever when it was published. Still pretty funny.

POSTCARD

This is the Sphinx. Goodness how Sad.

POSTCARD

This is temple of someone. Darling I cant wait to tell you I’m engaged to Arthur. Arthur is the one I thought was a pansy. Bertie thinks egyptian art is v. inartistic.

POSTCARD

This is Tutankhamens v. famous Tomb. Bertie says it is vulgar and is engaged to Miss P. so hes not one to speak and I call her Mabel now. G how S. Bill wont speak to Bertie Robert wont speak to me Papa and Lady M. seem to have had a row there was a man with a snake in a bag also a little boy who told my fortune which was v. prosperous Mum bought a shawl.

The Man Who Liked Dickens (1933)

A version of the story which ends the novel A Handful of Dust namely the man, named Mr McMaster here, Mr Todd in Handful, who lives an extremely isolated life among the Shiriana Indians in the Amazonas for 60 years. One day the Indians bring an Englishman to him who has staggered out of the rainforest, shattered, suffering from shock and exposure, an explorer whose partner Anderson has died.

This Paul Henty has a very similar backstory to Tony Last in Handful i.e. his wife left him for another man and, in the first flush of embitterment he got talking to a chap in his club who was planning an expedition to Amazonia and here he is.

The details of the ‘expedition’ are different. There were initially more members, who are all given pen portraits and to whom various misadventures happened, eventually depriving Henty and Professor Anderson of colleagues and a lot of supplies. And in this version Anderson simply falls ill of malaria and dies, compared to the version in the novel where it is the main hero who falls ill, and the expedition leader, Dr Messinger, who sets off to find help in a canoe and is washed over a waterfall to his death. Here the Indians who had brought him this far overnight abandon Paul, taking the canoe, leaving him to stumble along the river bank, becoming increasingly starved, feverish and hallucinatory. This, also, is less effective than the devastating description of the state of utter, helpless misery Tony Last is reduced to after Dr Messinger disappears.

As in the novel the McMaster/Todd figure has power over the local Indians because he fathered most of them – and he has a gun. He informs Henty that a black man stayed with him and read to him every afternoon. Henty is happy to do the same and is shown the man’s ant-eaten collection of Dickens novels. At first all goes well, but by the time they’re into the second volume of Bleak House Henty is restless. He brings up the idea of him leaving and returning to civilisation and for the first time McMaster becomes slightly menacing. Yes. The black man had the same ideas. Then he died. McMaster says he will get the Indians to build a canoe. The months drag on. Then the rainy season arrives and McMaster says it will be impossible to travel. He tries to communicate with the Indians but they don’t even understand sign language. He finds a token left in Martin Chuzzlewit which is a pledge McMaster gave to the black man, Barnabas Washington, that he would be allowed to leave at the end of reading that book. When Henty insists that McMaste lets him leave McMaster simply tells the Indians to stop making him food, to stop bringing him the same breakfast, lunch and dinner he’s been having as McMaster. Henty is forced to resume.

Then a lonely wandering prospector arrives at the camp. McMaster is vexed, gives him something to eat and sends him on his way in under an hour. But that’s time enough for Henty to scribble his name on a piece of paper and press it into the man’s hand. From that moment he lives in hope that his name will eventually reach civilisation, the towns on the coast, and an expedition will be launched to find and rescue him. Thus encouraged he accepts McMaster’s invitation to a feast given by the Indians. He eats and drinks heartily.

When he wakes up it is days later and his watch has gone. McMaster explains that while he slept a little expedition of three Englishmen arrived looking for him. His wife in England is offering a reward. McMaster shows the men the grave of the black man, saying it was Henty’s, and gave them Henty’s watch as proof that the poor man had gotten ill, died and been buried there. The Englishmen went off well contented with the story, the evidence and the proof. No-one else will come looking for him. Ever. He is doomed to spend the rest of his life reading Dickens to a madman in the depths of the Amazon jungle.

So in all important points it is identical with the text used as the final part of A Handful of Dust. And, as there, the final speech where McMaster explains how he tricked him and that he is now doomed meets with no reply from Henty, no indication of his reaction, making it a thousand times more powerful. In much the same way that there is no response from Basil Seal when the old native in Black Mischief explains he’s just taken part in a cannibal feast and eaten his own girlfriend. None needed. This situation itself is shock enough.

Out of Depth (1933)

This is an oddity, a science fiction story, a time travel story. It starts conventionally enough in Waugh’s usual environment, the posh upper classes. Rip is an ageing American who always dines with Lady Metroland when he’s in London (Margot Metroland having weaved in and out of Waugh’s stories since Decline and Fall). When he arrives for dinner he finds most of the other guests gathered round an unusual figure:

An elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits. It was like Mother Hippo in Tiger Tim; it was like an evening shirt-front in a du Maurier drawing; down in the depths of the face was a little crimson smirking mouth; and, above it, eyes that had a shifty, deprecating look, like those of a temporary butler caught out stealing shirts.

Lady Metroland introduces him as Dr Kakophilos, a magician. She is very proud of the sensation he creates, but Rip finds him a sinister, repellent person with a thin Cockney voice. At the end of the party a very drunk Rip finds himself driving Dr Kakophilos and old friend Alistair Trumpington home. Kakophilos invites them in and in his sitting-room is suddenly dressed in magician’s garb, ‘a crimson robe embroidered with gold symbols and a conical crimson hat.’ He launches on a discourse about time and space, recites words of power, while Rip and Alistair giggle drunkenly. As they get up to leave, the magician asks them both if they have a favourite period in time. Alistair says the time of Ethelred the Unready, Rip prefers to go forwards, to five hundred years in the future, thinking it a load of gibberish then stagger to their car and Alistair drives off very drunk and crashes into a van in Shaftesbury Avenue.

When Rip comes to he finds himself in London five hundred years hence, a deserted city in ruins which has been reclaimed by nature. Piccadilly Circus is covered in hummocky turf and a few sheep.

The entrance of the Underground Station was there, transformed into a Piranesi ruin; a black aperture tufted about with fern and some crumbling steps leading down to black water. Eros had gone, but the pedestal rose above the reeds, moss grown and dilapidated. (p.137)

He walks down to the river, almost all the buildings have gone, it is wild. He finds a cluster of huts built on stilts. At dawn the inhabitants emerge, savage tribal people dressed in skins. He walks forward and they surround him, offering no violence, just puzzled. Rip is convinced this is a drunken hallucination but it just won’t wear off.

Days then weeks pass as he is fed fish and coarse bread and beer. Finally there is a great fuss and some educated people arrive. The big thing in the story is that they are black. For a start the boat they arrive in is mechanically driven i.e. far above the scope of the savages, and they were wearing uniforms of leather and fur and well organised under a commanding leader. They trade with the natives, exchanging manufactured goods for gewgaws the natives have dug up and also taking Rip from them.

In other words, the tables have been turned, the roles reversed, and instead of technologically advanced white men penetrating darkest Africa and trading with primitive blacks, now it is the whites whose society has collapsed and the blacks who penetrate up the wide lazy Thames.

Eventually their ship arrives at a military station on the coast, in the style of the early western outposts in Africa. There is a steamer, a black anthropologist with glasses studies him, they get him to read old books with what is obviously, to them, an ancient accent, they measure his skull with calipers. In every way a reversal of white colonial practice.

Then, described in the briefest way, barely a paragraph, he is in a Christian mission and finds the congregation of illiterate whites staring at an altar where a black priest in the outfit of a Dominican friar conducts a Mass, something Rip remembers from his youth, something which has obviously not changed for 2,500 years.

Then he comes round in a hospital bed to find a priest by his bedside, obviously calling into question the extent to which anything he’s just experienced was ‘real’. But when the priest tells him that Alistair, also in hospital, has woken from a dream of being in the middle ages, Rip in a panic thinks maybe it was true, maybe his consciousness was thrown forward in time.

I have seen this described as Waugh’s most overtly Catholic story, which it might well be. But it was the vision of an England fallen back into uncivilised savagery, and visited by colonising technologically advanced Africans which caught my imagination.

By Special Request (1934)

This was the original ending of A Handful of Dust as it appeared in the original magazine serialisation in Harpers’ Bazaar. It feels very flat and banal compared to the horrifying reading-Dickens ending which he eventually chose. Above all, this original final version of the story is very, very short at just eight pages.

In this version, Tony takes the elaborate steps to secure a divorce which feature in the novel but then, when he realises how avaricious and selfish Brenda has become, he calls off the divorce settlement negotiations and – this is the point of divergence, does not set off on a hair-brained expedition to Brazil, but instead (much more likely) treats himself to a long and leisurely cruise.

The story commences as Tony’s liner returns to Southampton. He is met by his chauffeur but surprised to learn that his estranged wife, Brenda, is in the car. They are frightfully decent and polite to each other. Brenda explains she just had to give up that flat, it smelt so frightfully of hot radiators. He knows this is a Decision Moment: should or should he not take Brenda back and forgive her? But in reality, he falls asleep in the warm soft back of the car and only wakes when they reach Hetton.

Where they are greeted by the butler and the luggage unloaded and then he and Brenda inspect the work which has been done in the renovated bathrooms, checking the taps and so on like a, well, an old married couple.

After dinner they sit in the library and Brenda timidly hopes Tony wasn’t in a rage with her when he left, isn’t in a rage now. Course not, he replies, and asks after Beaver, her one-time lover. Well, it all ends up being about money. Tony cut her off without a cent and Beaver didn’t have any money, was blackballed from clubs, she tried to get a job with Mrs Beaver who turned her down, then working in her friend Daisy’s restaurant but that didn’t last.

Then Beaver met the Shameless Blonde and fell madly in love and chucked Brenda, who was now on the brink, living on scraps from the delicatessen round the corner. But the Blonde wouldn’t have anything to do with him and so his mother eventually sent him off to Europe to be a buyer for her business. And so here she is, penniless and without prospects. During the recitation Tony begins to nod off again and so she says, ‘Come on, let’s go up’, and as simply as that their marriage resumes.

In a 3-page coda months have passed and Tony and Brenda are happily married and have popped up to London to do some shopping. Brenda is on at Tony to do something about the flat she leased a year ago for her affair with John Beaver. So at last Tony goes round to see Mrs Beaver, who owns the apartment block. Only instead of simply cancelling the lease, he comes to a discreet arrangement with Mrs Beaver…to have his name removed from the lease and name board of the block, for a fee. Tony rejoins Brenda after her shopping and they catch the train back their country house.

And the train sped through the darkness towards Hetton.

Clearly that is a metaphorical darkness, for the transaction inaugurates a new era of infidelity and betrayal in their marriage. On the one hand this ending is obviously much more realistic than the reading-Dickens ending. But you can also see why it’s unsatisfactory in several ways.

  1. At a stroke it wrecks Tony’s character, his position as the unchanging moral rock at the centre of the story. And in doing so undermines the… the moral or psychological structure of everything which had preceded it.
  2. And undermines the value of the death of their son. That was such a shocking, staggering event that for the entire story to fizzle out in Tony’s go at having an affair feels cheap and nasty. The reading-Dickens ending may be weird, wildly implausible, bizarre and cruel but it has the great advantage of matching the cruel death of little John. In its madness and cruelty it is a far more fitting ending to the novel.

Period Piece (1936)

Lady Amelia, an old lady, likes having stories read to her by Miss Myers. She likes crime stories, often quite violent ones, American ones with ‘brutal realism and coarse slang’, ‘narratives of rape and betrayal’. I suppose, in Waugh’s circle and for his audience, this idea itself might be quite amusing.

When Miss Myers one day ventures the opinion that the story she’s just finished reading was far fetched, Lady Amelia replies that if you recounted stories from the lives of the people around them, you’d probably call them far-fetched. She then tells the story of ‘the extremely ironic circumstances of the succession of the present Lord Cornphillip.’

Etty a cousin of her mother’s marries Billy Cornphillip, a phenomenally boring man. Lady Amelia was a bridesmaid (p.155). Their marriage upset Ralph Bland who was Billy Cornphillip’s nearest relative and stood to inherit his fortune if he’d died without an heir. He has a wife and children to support and not much money. Over the years, though, Etty fails to become pregnant so Ralph bucks up.

Ralph comes to stay one Christmas but his 6-year-old son gives the game away when he tells Billy that, when he (Billy) inherits, he’ll pull the whole place down. At that point there is a complete breach between the two men and war declared. Billy is a Conservative and Ralph comes down to stand in his constituency as a Radical (and wins). At which point Billy accuses Ralph of corruption during the election and successfully gets him unseated.

Ralph takes this very badly and takes to attending speeches Billy is giving and laughing of clapping in the wrong place, he gets drunk in the local pub and is found asleep on Billy’s terrace. All this is very difficult for skinny Etty who had been friends with Ralph.

One bonfire night Ralph got drunk and made a load of threats against Billy, who called the police and had him up in magistrates court and he was given a banning order but amazed everyone by leaving that very afternoon for Venice with Billy’s wife, Etty! However, the affair was not a success, they stayed in an insanitary palace, Etty fell ill, Ralph ran off with American lady who was much more his type, and so Etty returned to England. She tries to find friends to stay with but, eventually, everyone hears she was back with Billy and about to have a baby. It is a boy i.e. a son and heir.

So this is very broadly the same plot as in Unconditional Surrender – a posh chap accepts the child his wife has had by another man she’s been having an affair with.

But the point of the story, or maybe its literary feature, is the way it veers away at the very end from what might well be the most bombshell part: which is that the boy never knew he wasn’t the son of his father, and which is described only indirectly:

until quite lately, at luncheon with Lady Metroland, when my nephew Simon told him, in a rather ill-natured way. (p.159)

It is very characteristic indeed of Waugh that these kind of bombshell moments are told at one remove or prompt little or no response. Blink and you might miss them. Imagine the impact on the son, his confused feelings, the agonised conversations when he confronts his mother and father. Absolutely none of that is here, all left to the reader to work out, that’s if he or she even notices this revelation, given the way it is tucked away at the end of the little story as a throwaway sentence.

On Guard (1934)

Millicent Blade is a lovely girl but she has a small shapeless nose. In another example of the way Waugh, when reaching for a comparison for anything, thinks first of his prep or public school, his description of Millicent’s nose goes:

It was a nose that pierced the thin surface crust of the English heart to its warm and pulpy core; a nose to take the thoughts of English manhood back to its schooldays, to the doughy-faced urchins on whom it had squandered its first affection, to memories of changing room and chapel and battered straw boaters.

Hector kissed her reverently on the tip of this nose. As he did so, his senses reeled and in momentary delirium he saw the fading light of the November afternoon, the raw mist spreading over the playing fields; overheated youth in the scrum; frigid youth at the touchline, shuffling on the duckboards, chafing their fingers and, when their mouths were emptied of biscuit crumbs, cheering their house team to further exertion…

Hector gazed at her little, shapeless, mobile button of a nose and was lost again . . . “Play up, play up,” and after the match the smell of crumpets being toasted over a gas-ring in his study . . .

A good deal of the upper-class pose in Waugh’s fiction derives from the failure of all these public schoolboys to ever grow up and genuinely confront a wider world; their preference to stay within the safe sanctuaries of Oxbridge colleges or Westminster common rooms or Inns of Court chambers or their gentlemen’s clubs, mentally prisoned in their boyhoods, never growing up.

Anyway, Millicent’s fiancé, Hector, is off to Africa, buying a farm off a chap named Beckthorpe who has consistently bad luck with it. Dining with Beckthorpe at his club, Hector wonders what he can give Millicent as a memento, to make her remember him till he’s well off enough to invite her over. Some jewellery? A photo?

Beckthorpe suggests a dog, and so as to ram the point home, name it Hector. Next day Hector goes to one of London’s largest emporiums and, in rather a panic, buys a poodle. When he leans down to commune, the little perisher takes a snap at him which he adroitly avoids. Hector tells the doggy to prevent any other men getting at Millicent.

Millicent, characteristically, goes to the wrong station so misses seeing Hector off on the train to the port to the ship which will take him to Africa. Hector gives the poodle to Beckthorpe to give to Millicent. Millicent writes to tell him she loves it and it has already bitten a ‘man called Mike.’

The narrative now steps back to reveal that Millicent’s passions for men generally last about 4 months and was reaching that period when Hector’s last minute flurry of activity to find a job slightly renewed it. The comic conceit of the story is the idea that the puppy heard and understood Hector’s injunction not to let other men near Millicent.

The rest of the text develops this idea via mishaps with a series of suitors. Hector the dog adopts strategies to be the centre of attention so no suitor stands a chance: he makes a fuss of the sugar bowl, goes to the door and scratches to be let out then scratches to be let back in, or pretend to be sick, gagging and retching so that Millicent carries him from the room thus destroying any attempt at humour.

As for Hector the supposed fiancé, Millicent soon forgets about him. He writes weekly from the farm in Kenya where things are hard, but Millicent rarely even opens the envelopes and never reads to the end. When friends ask her about Hector, she increasingly thinks they’re referring to the dog not her beloved:

it came naturally to Millicent to reply, ‘He doesn’t like the hot weather much I’m afraid, and his coat is in a very poor state. I’m thinking of having him plucked,’ instead of, ‘He had a go of malaria and there is black worm in his tobacco crop.’

If young men she’s met at parties call, Hector learns to mimic taking a call, cocking his head on one side, so that Millicent gets into the habit of putting the receiver to the dog’s muzzle, deafening the (hungover) young men with a barrage of barks. If men invite Millicent for a walk in the park, Hector goes on ahead, carrying her bag and periodically dropping it so the young man has to pick it up.

Two years pass. Suitors come and go each of them, eventually, foxed by the dog. She has long ago stopped caring about her lover in Kenya. At last Hector meets his match in the person of the middle-aged Major Sir Alexander Dreadnought, Bart., M.P., a man routinely put upon by friends and family from an early age who had developed a forebearing nature.

Hector tries out all his tricks but Dreadnought simply finds him charming. Dreadnought invites Millicent and her mother to his place in the country where Hector does everything he can to be obnoxious, ragging the carpet, rolling in poo in the grounds then coming back and soiling every chair in the house. He howled all night, killed some partridges, hid so the household were up half the night looking for him. Dreadnought takes it all in good part.

Back in London Hector the poodle ponders his options and realises that, all his strategems having failed, there was only one last desperate way for him to keep his promise to his original master, his purchaser, Hector. And so the next time Millicent leans over to nuzzle him, Hector makes one quick snap and bites Millicent’s pretty little snub nose clean off! A plastic surgeon repairs it but creates a new type of nose, strong and Roman. Gone is all Millicent’s schoolboy charm. Hector achieves his aim, and turns her into a suitorless spinster:

Now she has a fine aristocratic beak, worthy of the spinster she is about to become. Like all spinsters she watches eagerly for the foreign mails and keeps carefully under lock and key a casket full of depressing agricultural intelligence; like all spinsters she is accompanied everywhere by an ageing lapdog. (p.171)

Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing (1935)

Has a great comic opening line:

‘You will not find your father greatly changed,’ remarked Lady Moping, as the car turned into the gates of the County Asylum.

Ten years earlier Lord Moping had attempted to hang himself after a particularly distressing annual garden party had been ruined by squally weather. He was taken away and housed in the wing of the asylum reserved for wealthier lunatics where the Lady Moping visited him periodically. This is the first time their grown-up daughter, Angela.

Lord Moping is brought to the doctor’s office where they wait by a kindly old gent with lovely white hair who the doctor tells them is named Mr Loveday. He has become Lord Moping’s assistant in the asylum, patient and kind.

Lord Moping is huffy and busy with all his ‘work’, under the delusion that he needs to do a great deal of research about rivers and fisheries and send off letters to important people such as the Pope. He claims not to recognise or know Angela and hurries back to his room, but Mr Loveday very kindly comes back a few minutes later to see Lady Moping and Angela and assure them that his lordship will like to see them again, it’s just he’s very busy and distracted at the moment.

When he’s gone the governor tells him Loveday is not a warder or nurse, as they thought, but himself an inmate. Why? Twenty years earlier, when a young man, he knocked a young woman off her bicycle and strangled her. Gave himself up immediately.

Angela is a noble spirit, a compassionate soul. She thinks it’s unfair such a sweet kind old man as Mr Loveday should be locked up. She studies the laws surrounding lunacy. She makes an excuse to pop over to the asylum again and asks to ‘interview’ Mr Loveday. When she asks him if he’d like to be free, Loveday replies that, yes, he has one little ambition he’d like to fulfil before he dies.

Angela leaves with the tears of the sensitive in her eyes. She studies more, lobbies the various important personages who come to stay at their house over the summer. Finally she gets her way and it is announced Mr Loveday will be released. There is a big ceremony with the governor, Angela and various lunatics in attendance, then Mr Loveday walks free.

A few hours he is back, handing himself in. He took advantage of his hours of liberty to strangle another young lady who happened to ride by.

Gruesome, in the manner of Roald Dahl’s boom-boom Tales of the Unexpected.

Winner Takes All (1936)

A tale of two brothers, Gervase and Thomas Kent-Cumberland, the first much favoured, feted, celebrated and blessed with all the gifts a grand family can bestow; Thomas an unwanted second child which his mother hoped would be a girl. Throughout their lives Gervase receives all the benefits and gifts:

  • Gervase is born in an expensive nursing home with all the trimmings, his birth celebrated with a bonfire on the beacon hill, his christening with a garden party leading to fireworks; Thomas in a shoddy modern house on the East Coast delivered by a repellently middle class doctor
  • when their uncle buys Thomas the big red model car he’s always wanted for Christmas, their mother assumes he’s got it wrong and changes the labels so Gervase receives the grand toy
  • when their father dies during the Great War their mother becomes extremely parsimonious and obsessed by the threat of Death Duties, cuts are instituted all through the grand household and in their school activities, so that poor Gervase doesn’t inherit the debts – ‘ “It is all for Gervase,” Mrs. Kent-Cumberland used to explain’
  • Gervase is sent to Eton, to save money Tom is sent to a much cheaper, modern school
  • Gervase goes up to Christ Church Oxford where he consorts with other magnificent Etonians in the Bullingdon Club; when Tom goes to visit him he is intimidated and drinks too much in a corner
  • marooned at home after school, his mother sets Tom to reorganising the family library; in it he comes across a manuscript journal kept by a Colonel Jasper Cumberland during the Peninsular War; Tom does a lot of research, identifies maps of the campaign and a picture of the Colonel and writes an introduction and notes to it; all this is taken off him and given to Gervase who publishes it under his own name and gains all the praise and kudos
  • swiftly followed by Gervase’s 21st birthday party whose celebrations are lengthy and elaborate; Tom’s old bedroom is given to a guest and he has to sleep in the local pub
  • meanwhile Tom had been found in a motor manufacturing firm in Wolverhampton and found digs over a fruitshop on the outskirts of town

After a while you realise Waugh has just sat down and made a list of every single humiliation a younger son can be put through, and then inflicted in his fictional Tom. The sequence of humiliations rises to a sort of climax when Tom falls in love with a very ‘common’ girl from the motor manufacturer works, Gladys Cruttwell. When he, finally, reluctantly, takes Gladys home to meet his mother, Mrs Kent-Cumberland is, as you might expect, appalled.

With the result that Tom is swiftly removed from the motor business and dispatched to a farm in Australia! Meanwhile Gervase has come of age and now owns and runs the estate at Tomb with lavish prodigality, extending buildings, buying hunters, contemplating a swimming pool, entertaining lavishly each weekend.

Meanwhile years pass and Mrs Kent-Cumberland does not notice from his letters (which she rarely reads) that Tom has fallen in love with an Australian girl, that he is sailing with her and her father to London, that they have arrived!

She sends Gervase to meet them who reports back that they are a) staying at Claridges (rich and b) going to stay in the country with the Chasms (socially connected). Eventually they arrive, tall Mr MacDougal and daughter Bessie. What quickly emerges is they own vast territories in Australia and are loaded. Bessie is a comically naive and impressionable young woman, impressed by everything she sees. But the more she sees of England the less remarkable Tom seems. The more his brother stands out as a copy of him but with more life. When Mr MacDougal has a confidential chat with Mrs Kent-Cumberland and informs her that his annual revenue is somewhere around £50,000, a twinkle comes into her eye.

She makes plans and carries them out. She encourages Gervase to be very nice to Bessie, drops hints to Bessie about the advantages of being attached to the eldest son and then carries off her masterstroke – she returns from London one day to tell Tom she has just bumped into Gladys Cruttwell! Of course she arranged a luncheon and told Gladys that Tom had never got over him. Now she lies to Tom and tells her Gladys never got over him. She has invited her to come and stay for a few days. She plays on Tom’s sense of guilt and fair play, asking whether he had not, in fact, led on the poor girl and then dumped her.

When they are reunited and left alone they both proceed along these carefully arranged lines with the result that two weeks later Tom and Gladys are married. Mrs Kent-Cumberland explains everything to the MacDougals, not least that Gervase, the taller, handsomer brother is free and available. They are married after 6 weeks engagement. He and Bessie have two children and six racehorses. Tom and Gladys are packed off to Australia where MacDougal gives him a junior management job on a remote ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Not so much a tale of sibling rivalry as of sibling crushing defeat. And the indomitable figure of the scheming upper class mother.

An Englishman’s Home (1939)

Mr Beverley Metcalfe made his pile in the cotton trade in Alexandria and then bought a large acreage and house in the quaint Cotswold village of Much Malcock. He is nouveau riches, he insists on calling the nice Georgian house he’s bought Much Malcock Hall, although all the locals, including his ineffective gardener Boggett, insist on referring to it by its traditional name, the Grumps. The narrative paints a lazy, comic picture of the village and its inhabitants, at least those of the ‘card-leaving class’ aka ‘the gentry’, namely Lord Brakehurst, Lord Lieutenant of the County, his wife Lady Brakehurst had, Lady Peabury (‘a diligent reader of fiction, mistress of many Cairn terriers and of five steady old maidservants’) and Colonel Hodge, and ‘the Hornbeams at the Old Mill were a childless, middle-aged couple who devoted themselves to craftsmanship’, vegetarians and bohemians. Everyone cordially dislikes everyone else. It’s all very English.

Into this placid little world drops a bombshell – a young man has bought one of old farmer Westmacott’s fields and is planning to build an estate of suburban villas there! Now this field abuts at different points the properties of Metcalfe, Peabury, Hodge and Hornbeam and so they convene a series of meetings at which they agree to find out what can be done to prevent the development, contact the local council, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and so on.

Eventually it becomes clear they are going to have to buy the field off its purchaser in order to keep it undeveloped. Colonel Hodge is sent by the committee to meet the purchaser, Mr. Hargood-Hood at the village’s one pub, the Brakehurst Arms. Here Mr. Hargood-Hood very successfully terrifies the Colonel by showing him what he intends to build: it’s not an estate it’s an experimental industrial laboratory, complete with two great chimneys to emit the poison fumes, a water tower to get high pressures, and six bungalows for his staff.

The text then includes correspondence between Metcalfe and Lady Peabury in which it is revealed that Mr Hargood-Hood wants £500 for the field (and lawyer’s fees and cost of the architect’s drawings). (Back when he bought his Georgian house Metcalfe had been offered the option of buying Westmacott’s field for some £170 but turned it down because of the expense; so this represents a tripling of the asking price.)

Peabury refuses Metcalfe’s offer to go halves on the purchase – the two obstinately refuse to co-operate – with the result it looks like the development will go ahead and both Peabury and Metcalfe begin to make plans to sell their homes and move out of the village when Colonel makes a last-ditch bid to avert building going ahead. He comes up with a solution to the great Peabury-Metcalfe standoff which is to purchase the field in order to build a scout hut on it: Lady Peabury will contribute £250, Metcalfe £500, and the other families a few pounds. This allows the field to be purchased from Hargood-Hood and disaster averted, while Metcalfe gets to have the new building named after him and can swank round the village as a public benefactor.

Only in the last few paragraphs do we learn that it was a scam all along. Hargood-Hood’s ‘lawyer’ is in fact his brother and they make a tidy living by descending on idyllic country villages, buying up a plot with suitably loaded neighbours, then threatening to build their toxic factory and letting the gentry buy back the field at a grossly inflated rate. it’s a scam, a con, although, as ‘Jock’ admits, they cut this one pretty fine. The gentry of Much Malcock squabbled for so long that the brothers were nearly left holding the baby!

The Sympathetic Passenger (1939)

Mr James hates the radio, the endless blare of music from wirelesses owned by his wife and daughter. (Dislike of wirelesses which are on all the time blaring out music being a theme which also crops up ‘Tactical Exercise’ and is prominent in the final volume of the Sword of Honour trilogy)

With relief he leaves his house and sets off to drive to the local train station. On the way he sees a man trying to flag down lifts. He stops and offers him a lift to the station. What follows is the dialogue of these two people in a car. Mr James casually mentions his dislike of the radio and this triggers the hitchhiker into an increasingly demented rant, in which he accuses the BBC of mind control and other wild, delusional accusations. A car overtakes them playing loud blaring music and the hitchhiker orders Mr James to chase it and overtake it so they can kill the heathen driver. Mr James is by now terrified but his car simply won’t go faster at which point the hitchhiker says he will kill Mr James.

They arrive at the station and Mr James leaps out but the other guy is quicker and is closing in on him when…a load of policemen sortie from the station entrance and pounce on the man, Oh yes, he’s a well known lunatic, the policeman tells him cheerily. In fact Mr James is lucky to be alive.

Mr James drives home a chastened man and when he arrives, for once, doesn’t complain about his wife or daughter playing the radio. In fact he now finds it strangely reassuring.

Work Suspended (1942)

This is a long piece and reviewed in a separate blog post.

Charles Ryder’s Schooldays (written 1945, published 1982)

I’ve mentioned the struggle many privately educated writers of Waugh’s generation had in escaping the mental world of their prep and public schools and this is a kind of quintessence of that world and that problem. The thirty or so pages of this fragment are set at a private school named Spierpoint Down which is pretty obviously Waugh’s own public school, Lancing on the South Downs. Crucially, unlike Brideshead Revisited, it is not a first-person narrative told by Charles, but a third person narrative about him. Charles is in the Classical Upper Fifth.

It is the first day back after the summer holidays, Wednesday 24 September 1919. We are treated to an excruciatingly tedious exposition of life at Spierpoint, with its hundred and one stupidly named buildings (Head’s House, Old’s House) and petty regulations and privileges for the different year groups or prefects and so on (the way one is allowed to wear coloured socks or walk arm in arm with a friend once one has graduated to this or that privileged class or clique).

It is a world of private rules designed to create a strong esprit de corps among those who are in the know and exclude everyone outside. It is drenched in hyper-privileged assumption that all the pupils are rich, know London’s restaurants and theatres, belong to a network of extended families which run everything and know each other, and the assumption that all these insufferable fifth formers will, in due course, go on to ‘the university’ meaning Oxford.

Charles likes Art and Drawing. He helps a rather over-confidential master, Mr Graves, assemble a small printing press and sort out the moveable typepieces into different fonts. There is Sunday morning communion with a lavish description of the vast Victorian and unfinished chapel. Charles and two friends are caned for refusing to say their evening prayers when ordered to by their head of house.

The diary of classes, sports, book reading, conversations and petty jealousies continues for another few days until Sunday 28 September and abruptly halts, exhausted by its own tedium. This fat chunk of public school fetishisation lacks any of the wit or humour or fun or lightness which characterises the best of Waugh’s writing. it feels intolerably smug and superior and self-satisfied. You can see why he never published it during his lifetime.

Short stories 2. Post-war

Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947)

A novella – reviewed in a separate blog post.

Tactical Exercise (1947)

This is good story, in a grim, grand guignol sort of way. John Verney hates his wife Elizabeth. He was wounded in Italy. The pain of the wound leads to outbursts of anger. He returns home to have to live with her family in house in Hampstead. Everything infuriates him: the back garden is a bomb crater, all the glass in the back windows are broken. A grimy life of rationing. John stands as Liberal in a county constituency but loses badly to a Radical who happens to be a Jew. His bitterness against life makes him increasingly antisemitic.

Meanwhile, his wife Elizabeth works in something clandestine in the Foreign Office. She’s clever, she’s a linguist. When John learns her boss is a Jew it crystallises his hatred of his wife. She becomes a symbol of everything he hates with all the resentment and bitterness of the war, his coming down in the world, his political failure. For John his wife becomes a representative of the shabby socialist bureaucracy which shackles him, she is helping communist regimes in eastern Europe, and she works for a Jew!

Still they manage to just about be civil to each other and live together. They both go to see a film, a trite murder mystery in which the wife drugs the husband and throws him out of the window of a holiday home overlooking a cliff. He falls to his death. She inherits his wealth. This gives John the idea of copying it.

A month or so later they go on holiday to a holiday cottage at the edge of a cliff. John thinks he’s being clever by softening up the locals for the crime he plans to commit by telling everyone that his wife sleepwalks, telling chaps at the golf club, down the pub. One of them even recommends him to go talk to the local doctor, a nice chap.

The twist in the tale is that she has been planning to murder John all along. She brought a bottle of whiskey along as a treat and John has been having a glass every evening before supper. Now, when he finishes the glass he starts to feel strangely woozy. She helps him to the sofa, by the window, the window overlooking the cliff, and the long fall to the jagged rocks below…

This macabre little tale is one of several which anticipate the twisted stories of Roald Dahl.

Compassion (1949)

This narrative was recycled in its entirety, and almost verbatim, into the final part of the third novel in the Sword of Honour trilogy, Unconditional Surrender.

In the novel the events involve the trilogy’s protagonist, Guy Crouchback; here they involve a Major Gordon. The basic narrative is identical: Gordon is posted as British Military Mission i.e. liaison with the communist Yugoslav partisans in a place called Begoy in Croatia. He describes the wrecked town and the heavy-handed Partisan authorities who call themselves ‘the Praesidium’. To be precise:

Begoy was the headquarters of a partisan corps in Northern Croatia. It lay in a large area, ten miles by twenty, of what was called “Liberated Territory,” well clear of the essential lines of communication. The Germans were pulling out of Greece and Dalmatia and were concerned only with main roads and supply points. They made no attempt now to administer or patrol the hinterland. There was a field near Begoy where aircraft could land unmolested. They did so nearly every week in the summer of 1944 coming from Bari with partisan officials and modest supplies of equipment. In this area congregated a number of men and women who called themselves the Praesidium of the Federal Republic of Croatia.

Gordon is assigned a creepy interpreter named Bakic who spies on him. The narrative concerns the 108 Jewish displaced persons Major Gordon discovers in the town. Their representative, an anxious young woman named Mme. Kanyi, tells Gordon they want to leave, to get away to Italy. Mme. Kanyi’s husband is an engineer and does his best to keep the struggling power plant going.

Gordon becomes obsessed with helping the Jews but is blocked at every turn, especially by the communist authorities who are very suspicious of his motivation. He manages to get two representatives out on a flight to Bari, but by the time the authorities give permission for the rest to be flown out the autumn fogs and then winter snows prevent planes landing at the airstrip.

When his mission is wound up and he is transferred back to Bari Gordon eventually learns that the Jews were in the end evacuated and sent to a camp for displaced persons near Lecce. When he visits the camp the Jews he helped crowd round but Mme. Kanyi and her husband are not there. All they know is that they were taken off the lorries evacuating them from Begoy at the last moment.

At this point occurs the biggest difference from the narrative as it appears in the novel. Here Gordon gets a cousin in the newly opened embassy in newly liberated Belgrade to do some digging for him. This cousin writes him a letter which is quoted verbatim in which he reports that the Kanyis were executed by the communist authorities. The husband was blamed for sabotaging the power plant and the wife was accused of having an affair with the British liaison officer and for concealing counter-revolutionary propaganda. Now we and Gordon know that the husband was the only person keeping the wretched power plant going, and that the wife was not at all having an affair with him, they just spoke a few times. As for the ‘counter-revolutionary propaganda’ that was a load of old London magazines Gordon left with her to help her while away the long winter nights. Their execution is, in other words, a farcical tragedy and an enormous injustice.

In the story he recounts all this to his regiment’s second in command and the chaplain. When he says it was a complete waste of time, the chaplain gives him a more subtle theological interpretation, saying that no matter how pointless it may seem, the situation a) prompted good works by Gordon but also b) that the Kanyis in some way did him good, drawing out of him a new feeling for compassion and charity which hadn’t been there before. Hmm. Thought-provoking.

In the novel the facts remain mostly the same but the treatment feels completely different. The final scene with the bluff second in command and the chaplain offering words of comfort are completely absent from the novel. But it’s not the absences, it’s the positive additions in the novel which transform the story.

  1. We have known Guy intimately for almost three novels. Everything which happens resonates with his character of sterling integrity and quiet determination.
  2. In the novel Guy has other Brits around him, namely the squadron leader and de Souza who add a kind of variety to his responses, so his obsession with saving the Jews becomes one action among multiple ones carried out by the British Mission.
  3. The final scene with the chaplain is swept away and replaced by a more complex final arrangement: in this, instead of getting a written and therefore rather bland report about the fate of the Kanyis, it is told to him by a lickspittle functionary of the army who we have, through the course of the book, come to realise is a communist fellow traveller or stooge. Unlike the anonymous cousin in Belgrade of the story, this creep, Gilpin, the coward who had to be kicked out of the plane on his first parachute jump then lied to everyone about his ‘bravery’, it is this character who Waugh has gone to great lengths to build up as a representative of the corrupt ‘values’ of the new era, who tells Guy to his face about all the ‘evidence’ of the Kanyis’ counter-revolutionary activity, and smirks that they got the revolutionary justice they deserved. It is a vastly more powerful and disgusting experience to read the version in the novel, and very effectively crystallises all the morel, military, political and social failures and compromises which he sees the end of the war as bringing.

So this is an interesting enough story, but you shouldn’t read it here, you should read The Sword of Honour trilogy where the same basic story acquires multiple extra resonances and meanings from its inclusion in a novel.

Love Among the Ruins (1953)

A novella – reviewed in a separate blog post.

Basil Seal Rides Again (1963)

This was Waugh’s last published work of fiction. All critics quote Waugh’s own description of it in the dedication to old friend Ann Fleming, as: ‘a senile attempt to recapture the manner of my youth’. It certainly contains a roll call of well-loved characters from the 1930s comic novels, including Peter Pastmaster, Parsnip and Pimpernell (the joke names he gave the left-wing 30s writers Auden and Isherwood), Lady Metroland, Sonia Trumpington and numerous others, indeed the narrative opens with Peter and Basil attending a banquet to celebrate the award of the Order of Merit to Ambrose Silk (the lisping aesthete character Waugh based on Brian Howard). Peter and Basil have let themselves go: ‘They were two stout, rubicund, richly dressed old buffers’.

Critics have judged the story harshly but I found some of it funny, for example the opening dialogue between the two old boys as they suffer through long speeches then go for a pee at the same time, gossiping all the time in an amusingly drunken senile way:

‘This Albright married someone — Molly Meadows, perhaps?’
‘I married Molly Meadows.’
‘So you did. I was there. Well, someone like that.’

Returning to his wife, Angela, in their London house, Basil, having caught sight of himself in the toilet mirrors, is more than usually aware that he is fat and unwell. Basil reviews his life and we learn that he blew all the toes off one foot while demonstrating an explosive device during the war, hence his  family nickname of ‘Pobble’ and the need to walk with a cane. Suddenly he realises he is old:

His voice was not the same instrument as of old. He had first assumed it as a conscious imposture; it had become habitual to him; the antiquated, worldly-wise moralities which, using that voice, he had found himself obliged to utter, had become his settled opinions. It had begun as nursery clowning for the diversion of Barbara; a parody of Sir Joseph Mannering; darling, crusty old Pobble performing the part expected of him; and now the parody had become the persona.

He and Angela agree to try out one of those health clinics, sanatorium thingies. They drive down to Kent, check in and have an interview with the presiding doctor:

‘You complain of speechlessness, a sense of heat and strangulation, dizziness and subsequent trembling?’ said this man of science.
‘I feel I’m going to burst,’ said Basil.

For 3 or 4 days they put up with the diet of carrot juice and raw eggs but then, in an entirely predictable bit of comic business, Basil procures some brandy off the young man who runs the resort gym and runs a tidy black market in illicit booze and grub. He drinks it down in one and passes out. The sanatorium  doctor expels him. Basil and Angela return to London.

Here he discovers his daughter, 18 year old Barbara, is in love with a ghastly, uncouth young man, Charles Albright. Late at night Basil discovers the pair rummaging around in his wine cellar, basically stealing some booze to take to a ‘happening’. This is barely into the 1960s so it’s not a psychedelic 60s happening, it’s a beards-and-jazz, beatnik 50s happening.

Basil insists on having an interview with the young man by himself, a solemn occasion for both parties at which Basil is disconcerted to find himself being bested. He looks into the young man’s eyes and face and recognises himself.

After a boozy lunch Basil drops in on Sonia Trumpington who lives alone, with her son, doing charitable works and sewing. He asks Sonia is she knows this Charles Albright, she replies yes, he’s a friend of her son, Robin. When Basil whiningly asks what his daughter can see in the scuffy, beardy young man, Sonia robustly replies, you! He looks, speaks and behaves just like a young Basil.

Sonia says she has photos somewhere of the mother and digs up an old photo album from the 1930s. She identifies the young woman as Elizabeth Stayles, there’s a photo of Basil about to throw her into a lake at some gay 1930s house party.

Seeing the photo awakens an old memory in Basil’s mind. Elizabeth Stayles, yes, didn;t he have an affair with her, all those years ago?

Basil thanks Sonia and returns to his London house whence he invites young Barbara for a chat in Hyde Park by the Serpentine. Here he informs his daughter that her lover is his, Basil’s son. He had a brief fling with Elizabeth Stayles when he got out of hospital after the toes incident, during the Blitz winter of 1940. Only lasted a week then Basil took back up with Angela and Elizabeth (Betty) rooted around for someone else and ended up marrying Clarence Albright, killed in action 1943. Betty herself died young of cancer in 1956. The point is there’s no-one to gainsay his story.

His story being that his daughter, Barbara, has been going out with, and fooling around with, her half-brother. Barbara gets up from the park bench and stumbles across the park. Basil catches a cab to Bellamy’s club for an egg nog, and then onto Claridge’s to meet his wife. She says their daughter returned home looking tragic and locked herself in her room. ‘What she needs,’ says Basil, ‘is a change of scene. I’ve bought all three of us tickets to Bermuda.’

To be honest, from the text I’m not sure whether Charles really is Basil’s son or whether it’s the last in Basil’s long list of outrageous lies and scams. If it is an outrageous lie he has conjured up to scupper his daughter’s relationship with the young man, then it is obviously cruel and heartless. If is isn’t a lie, if it’s true, it’s still a pretty heartless story for Waugh to concoct; told from the father’s point of view it completely ignores the emotional devastation the revelation must have on his daughter.

But I don’t quite understand the handful of critics I’ve read who say the story is ‘disgusting’, as if it was an entirely new note in Basil or Waugh’s career. They seem to forget that Waugh has Basil unknowingly EAT the young woman he fancies in Black Mischief after she’s been caught, killed and cooked by a tribe Basil is staying with. That book was published in 1932, precisely 30 years before this story. Or that in Waugh’s first novel the kindly Mr Prendergast has his head cut off with a hacksaw by a psychotic prison inmate. Or the short story about the polite and docile Mr Loveday who strangles young women to death. Or the devastating ending of Handful of Dust. Or the heartless death of Angela Runcible in Vile Bodies. Or the not one but two suicides in The Loved One.

In other words I wasn’t upset by the story’s apparent cruelty because casual cruelty had been a stock in trade for Waugh’s fiction right from the start.

So: I like the bufferish tone of the story and I liked the old-boy banter between Peter and Basil and especially between 60-something Basil and his wife. It felt both sweet and charitable to the infirmities of age, as was the brief sad interlude where they visit old Margot Metroland and find her sitting in the dark hunched over a television set (as so many lonely old people become addicted to doing).

On the other hand, all the dialogue with his daughter struck me as hopelessly unrealistic, stiff and unnatural, really false although – but how can I know how 60-something posh fathers spoke with their debutante daughters in 1962?

And as to the harsh, cruel sting in the tail, well, it doesn’t feel to me like some sad falling-off of Waugh’s powers at all but entirely in keeping with the cruelty and sadism lurking in the wings of all Waugh’s 1930s novels and of a piece with macabre little horrors such as ‘Mr Loveday’s Little Outing’ (1935) or ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’ (1939).


Credit

The Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh was first published by Chapman and Hall in 1947. All references are to the 2018 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

What is Waugh satirising in ‘Love Among The Ruins’?

Maybe it’s worth taking a moment to explain what Waugh was targeting in his 1953 satirical novella Love Among The Ruins. This essay is in three parts:

  1. Waugh’s conservative values
  2. The state of Britain after the war i.e. Labour represent everything Waugh detests
  3. Specific topics satirised in Long Among the Ruins

1. Waugh’s conservative values

Elitist

Waugh was an elitist in the literal sense of believing that Britain should be run by its hereditary elite, the landed gentry and aristocracy. He thought they were the best educated, the most responsible and, because of their ties to the land and to grand houses, mansions and parishes across the country, were  the most representative of a kind of mystical ideal of the English population and English values.

Snob

Waugh was a snob. It is well-documented that he liked to hobnob with the aristocracy and namedrop and social climb as much as possible. His father was ‘only’ the managing director of a medium-sized publishing company, so Waugh was a long way lower on the social ladder than the lords and viscounts and earls that he liked to litter his novels with.

Catholic elitism

Waugh was a Christian who showed an unusual interest in church architecture and ritual as a boy, even before he was sent to one of the country’s most High Church public schools (Lancing). A number of his friends converted to Catholicism in the late 1920s so there was a certain inevitability about his Christian traditionalism eventually manifesting itself in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930.

Waugh’s Catholicism was linked with his other values in a multi-faceted belief in old, traditions, the values of country living, the natural innate superiority of the landowner to his tenants and farmers. He valued luxurious good living, grand country houses, fine wines, the best food, the impeccable manners of the highest in society, and the aristocratic values of nonchalance and superiority.

Catholic belief

Beyond that, however, Catholicism was based on certain inflexible, timeless values. To start with, on the sanctity of human life. This meant no abortion or euthenasia. It is not for man to determine the start or end of human life. All human life is sacred. God is at the centre of all systems of value, underpinning all morality. Removing God, declaring an overtly atheist ideology, begins the process of undermining human life and all morality. Various forms of state-approved murder soon follow, abortion and assisted suicide being the two most obvious.

Individual responsibility and expression

Connected with all this is Waugh’s conservative idea of individualism. In the kind of society Waugh liked, one that implemented a low-tax, laissez-fair regime which allowed the aristocracy and upper middle class to flourish, there was lots of scope for the privileged in society, for the grand old families in their country houses and the bright young things they sent to public school and on into London’s party and cocktail bar circuit, to develop charming idiosyncracies and eccentricities.

In a sense, Waugh’s fiction is devoted to the oddballs, eccentrics and chancers who are able to flourish in the wealthy, blessed, privileged, over-educated and under-worked circles which he described. Take the outrageous practical joker Basil Seal in Put Out More Flags or the eccentric Apthorpe in Men at Arms, or, in a slightly different vein, the camp aesthetes Anthony Blanche (Brideshead) and Everard Spruce (Flags).

For Waugh, it is only his idealised conservative society that true individualism, individual tastes, aestheticism and connoisseurship are able to flourish.

The British Empire

On the global stage i.e. in international politics, Waugh saw Britain and the British Empire as embodying the finest values of civilisation, gentlemanly democracy and individual freedom. In his travel book Remote People it is very striking that Waugh unequivocally supports the right of the white settlers in Kenya to live the life of Riley at the expense of the native African population. He mocks the British Empire as everyone of  his generation did, confident in the knowledge that it was here to stay forever. Its actual dismantling after the war came as a great shock.

The international alternatives

In Waugh’s fiction English gentlemanliness is contrasted with:

  1. the irritating, bubble-gum and Coca Cola trashiness of American soldiery (in Sword of Honour) and of superficial, vacuous American consumer culture (in The Loved One)
  2. the terrifying totalitarianism of the post-war communist states, with their utterly amoral commitment to seizing complete power and reducing entire populations to modern slavery (embodied in the Yugoslav communists in Unconditional Surrender)

So that’s a brisk run through Waugh’s conservative Catholic values. Now let’s set these values against the reality of Britain in 1950, when he wrote the first draft of Love Among The Ruins.

2. The state of Britain after the war i.e. the Labour government represented everything Waugh detested

The impact of the Second World War

The Second World War was a disaster for all Waugh’s values. Britain went bankrupt, was only kept afloat by ruinous loans from America, and emerged from the war with her role greatly diminished, a diminution symbolised by the relinquishing of India (and Pakistan) in 1947.

Not only the country but large numbers of landed families were financially ruined, first by the collapse in the economy, in particular the agricultural sector many relied on, and also by the collapse in value of the stocks and shares in British companies whose dividends they’d lived on between the wars and whose value now plummeted.

The Labour Party’s socialist policies

But the greatest cataclysm was the coming to power of the Labour Party in the 1945 general election. The Labour Party embodied everything Waugh despised, disliked and even hated about the modern world. It was the antithesis of everything he valued. In those days the Labour Party contained real socialists who genuinely wanted to nationalise everything, to impose state control of huge sectors of industry (coal, steel, shipbuilding) and the professions (doctors).

Nationalisation

In its first five years in power the Labour government enacted a broad swathe of socialist policies. It nationalised the coalmining industry and the trains. More was promised in a government which pledged to take over ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy. Owners of private companies the length of the land were forcibly bought out.

The theft of private property

Conservatives like Waugh saw this not as contributing to some vague notion of social justice but the very real confiscation of people’s property and businesses.

The faceless bureaucracy

The new ministries set up to run the economy were stuffed with bureaucrats and ideologues. Quite quickly the bureaucracy of the nationalised industries became a joke. ‘The man from the ministry’ came to symbolise the interfering, know-nothing, centralised bureaucracy which conservatives like Waugh contrasted with the personalised relations between landed gentry and local tenants and populations whose names and faces and traditions and values they knew and shared, which Waugh depicted in his idealised version of rural patriarchy. Human interaction was replaced with uncaring forms and procedures.

The NHS

The Labour government’s most famous achievement was the creation of the National Health Service but people tend to forget the immense amount of pressure, which could easily be seen as state intimidation, which was brought to bear on the medical profession. Again, to a conservative like Waugh this meant that a personal relationship with a local doctor who had individual responsibility to run his own practice and, for example, to carry out works of charity, to moderate his fees according to patients’ ability to pay, was replaced by outsiders parachuted into a large, faceless bureaucratic system.

This attitude – the preference for individual and established relationships over modern bureaucratic arrangements – is typified in a passage from The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold where the narrator describes Pinfold’s relationship with his local doctor:

Mr. Pinfold seldom consulted his doctor. When he did so it was as a ‘private patient’. His children availed themselves of the National Health Act but Mr. Pinfold was reluctant to disturb a relationship which had been formed in his first years at Lychpole. Dr. Drake, Mr. Pinfold’s medical attendant, had inherited the practice from his father and had been there before the Pinfolds came to Lychpole. Lean, horsy and weather-beaten in appearance, he had deep roots and wide ramifications in the countryside, being brother of the local auctioneer, brother-in-law of the solicitor, and cousin of three neighbouring rectors. His recreations were sporting. He was not a man of high technical pretensions but he suited Mr. Pinfold well. (Chapter one)

The way the local doctor has deep roots is obviously described, but let us dwell on the phrase ‘his medical attendant’. The implication is that Pinfold prefers Dr Drake because he is more like a servant than a bossy, hurried NHS doctor would be.

To summarise: in a broad swathe of Labour Party policies a conservative like Waugh saw nothing of ‘social justice’ being implemented but only that individual relationships, individual responsibilities and individual freedom of action were being taken away by an overbearing state and replaced by surly, bad-mannered state interference.

Rationing

Rationing had been introduced under Winston Churchill’s wartime government and, of course, destroyed at a stroke the wonderful world of fine wines and expensive meals depicted in Waugh’s 1930s novels. As Waugh himself points out, one aspect of his nostalgia fest Brideshead Revisited, is the description of sumptuous meals and fine vintages which the author, writing in tightly rationed, blacked out Britain of 1943, could only fantasise about.

Waugh like many Britons hoped that rationing would end with the end of the war but it didn’t. In fact it intensified as Britain’s ruined economy struggled to rebuild itself in a world which was also ruined. Rationing was extended to more foods and services, in a world which began to seem like it was going to be grey and shabby forever.

Shabby housing

The most visible sign of the war was the ruins to be found in every British city. The Labour government came to power promising a huge programme of housebuilding and this overlapped with ambitious plans by developers and architects to implement new continental ideas of town planning and design.  A series of new towns was conceived, designed and built. Every town and village in the land acquired a penumbra of council houses built on council estates.

Unfortunately many of these developments quickly developed bad reputations, council estates for poverty and chavvy behaviour, the new town towns for being soulless concrete jungles. Tower blocks which looked gleaming symbols of modernity in the architecture magazines turned out to be badly designed, badly built, quickly stained. The windows leaked and the lifts broke.

In his post-war correspondence Waugh summed up all these changes with the satirical notion that Britain was being changed into a new state named ‘Welfaria’.

3. Specific topics satirised in Long Among the Ruins

The name of the new state, ‘New Britain’, has a suitably Orwellian, totalitarian overtone.

The replacement of traditional oaths with ones using ‘State’ instead of God indicate how the genuine source of morality and meaning in Waugh’s Catholicism has been replaced by the corrupt, fallible, pretentious and doomed-to-fail worship of the State (in oaths such as ‘Great State!’, ‘State be with you’ and ‘State help me’).

But the state has usurped not just God but all kinds of relationships, large and small. It is symptomatic that Miles Plastic is an orphan because parents interfere with the upbringing of children, do it well or badly, introduce an element of personal duty and responsibility, and also introduce that human variety and individuality which Waugh values.

The abolition of individualism

In his satirical New Britain, the State interferes everywhere to abolish individualism. So instead of individuals the State’s aim is to produce millions of identikit citizens. Hence the throwaway reference to the way everyone in New Britain speaks with the same ‘flat conventional accent of the age’.

For Waugh, this is a nightmare vision, the death of colourful individualism and the soul-destroying reduction of all human beings to the same, dull, identikit lowest common denominator.

And not just people. Where there had been a plethora and range of goods and services now there is only one brand of everything, the State brand (exactly as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with its Victory brand of goods). Thus the State wines and State sausages and State clothes of Waugh’s fantasy.

The abolition of personal responsibility

The abolition of individual responsibility is, of course, the target satirised in the long opening passage about Mountjoy Prison, in which Waugh satirises the belief that criminals are not responsible for their actions, society is, so that any given crime is not the fault of the criminal but indicates a failure of the welfare system. And hence the satirical details, which flow from it, such as prisoners who are clearly old lags now living in the lap of luxury with prisons replaced by lovely houses in beautiful grounds and nothing more taxing than sessions of ‘Remedial Repose’ to attend and the governor isn’t called a prison governor but ‘Chief Guide’.

(The State confiscation of private property is included in the satire of Mountjoy prison when we learn  that Mountjoy Castle had been the ancestral seat of a maimed V.C. of the Second World War, who had been sent to a Home for the Handicapped when the place was converted into a gaol. Obviously the fact that the former owner was a war hero is designed to maximise the reader’s outrage at this typical act of State theft.)

The abolition of personal responsibility is further demonstrated by the way Miles’s criminal act of burning down the RAF barracks where he was stationed and burning to death half the inhabitants is dismissed by the State’s psychologist as perfectly natural adolescent behaviour.

The failure of modern architecture and town planning

It typifies the socialist removal of individuality and character and texture and colour and interest that once Miles is rehabilitated, he is not sent to a named specific town but to ‘the nearest Population Centre’ which has the generically futuristic name of ‘Satellite City’

It is also symptomatic that all the architects’ grand plans have resulted in a shoddy, half-built reality. The so-called ‘Dome of Security’ has blacked out windows, broken lifts and shabby rooms. All around it the rest of the gleaming modern town has failed to be built at all and instead the Dome is surrounded by slums made of huts, the use of the word ‘huts’ suggesting not even English habitations but African shanties.

There were no workers’ flats, no officials’ garden suburb, no parks, no playgrounds yet. These were all on the drawing boards in the surveyor’s office, tattered at the edges, ringed by tea cups; their designer long since cremated. (p.441)

It is similarly symptomatic that when Miles moves in with Clara they share a cramped compartment of a world war Nissen Hut. More than a decade after the war the coalition government has miserably failed to build adequate homes for the population.

The rise of State murder

It is no surprise that the busiest part of the local authority is the Euthenasia Department. In other words, the socialist regime has created a society which people would rather die than live in. For a Catholic like Waugh euthenasia is a sin. Only God decides when people should die. The State offering people the service of assisted suicide is not only repugnant to secular liberal values, but a sin.

State sterilisation

Same goes for sterilisation. A good Catholic believes in using no form of contraceptive device and abortion is a sin. From the same point of view, seeking to permanently sterilise people, or yourself, is a crime against nature and against God.

The irreligious amorality of modern science

The entire idea that the ‘heroine’ of the story should be beautiful but with a lush curly beard caused by the side effects of an operation to be sterilised combines at least two elements: disgust at the notion that women should sterilise themselves in order to further their career (Clara is sterilised in order to become a better ballet dancer); and the beard idea is a ludicrous satire on the unintended side-effects of modern science, in this case the fictional ‘Klugmann’s Operation’.

After the war there was a boom in the idea that ‘modern science’ would solve our social problems. As a Catholic Waugh takes a pessimistic view of human nature and of humanity’s ability to change or cure itself. Only God can do that via divine grace.

On this view there is something both blasphemous and pathetic about modern science’s hubristic claims to be able to cure the modern world. Much the same critical worldview underpins and informs C.S. Lewis’s post-war satire and fable That Hideous Strength (1945).

For Christians like Waugh and Lewis almost all the ills of the modern world stem from man’s foolish attempts to deny the reality of God and try to set up mankind in God’s place.

On a more mundane level, the inevitable failure of modern science is embodied in a) the side effects of the Klugmann Operation i.e. Clara growing a beard; and then b) the grotesque results of the ‘plastic surgery’ carried out to remedy this, which replaces Clara’s soft and beautiful face with an inflexible mask of tough, salmon-coloured rubber. Yuk.

The feeble replacement of Christmas

It’s a small detail but indicative of the whole situation that the State thinks it can simply ‘replace’ the word Christmas and Christmas trees with ‘Santa-Claus-tide’ ‘Goodwill Trees’. It’s pathetically unimaginative in itself but also indicates a deeper failure to understand the nature of human society, the way traditions and beliefs are handed down through the generations. It is exactly as shallow and doomed to fail as the French revolutionaries’ trying to replace the Catholic Church with the cult of the Supreme Being or Lenin and Stalin’s attempts to replace the Russian Orthodox Church faith in The Soviet or the Great Leader. Abolishing the church and Christian festivals masquerades as liberal and progressive but is the precise opposite: destroying history, destroying tradition, destroying diversity, destroying people’s freedom to choose their beliefs and ideas, all swept away in the name of one, centralised, totalising ideology of Unity and Progress.

Summary

Some of Waugh’s points are still relevant today. Even people on the progressive wing of politics lament the depersonalising affect of bureaucracy and form-filling which came in with the welfare state and has never gone away. None of us remember the profound poverty and immiseration of the 1930s which the nationalisation of key industries, the establishing of a welfare state and a national health service were designed to address.

It’s possible, therefore, to profoundly disagree with Waugh’s politics (such as they are) but sympathise with this or that detail of his complaint. Then again, like any satire on a dystopian future, even when it’s intended to be biting we can distinguish the political point (which we might disagree with) from the satirical humour (which we still find funny).

In some ways, then, the text is a handy checklist of issues or topics which a Christian conservative like Waugh objected to in the post-war world and post-war politics. It’s a useful primer on the conservative point of view which was, of course, to triumph in the 1951 general election, when Labour were thrown out and Winston Churchill’s Conservatives returned with a majority. And a primer on the perennial concerns of the conservative frame of mind.

And to return to its literary effects – although, in the end, Love Among The Ruins fails as a story, it is entertaining enough, especially in the dense opening passages, for the vigour of its attack and satirical vehemence.


Credit

Love Among the Ruins by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1953. All references are to its place in the 2018 Penguin paperback edition of the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Dr. Brodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges (1970)

In Buenos Aires anything can be fixed; someone always has a friend.

Paratexts

Borges was world famous and getting old by the time he came to compose the 11 short stories collected in Dr Brodie’s Report. They had all been recently published, either in 1969 or 1970 just as the author, born in 1899, was turning 70.

The book has a little gaggle of paratexts, namely a foreword, a preface and an afterword, in which Borges tells us that these stories were the first he’d written since 1953, after a 16 year hiatus in fiction writing – and it really shows in the drastic change of style and subject matter the stories in this collection exhibit compared with the metaphysical and brainteasing ficciones from the 1940s which made him famous.

Surprisingly, of all the authors in the world, Borges names Rudyard Kipling as his model for these stories, and not the later, very compressed Kipling, but the bright young thing of the 1888 collection Plain Tales From The Hills. (As it happens, I have read and reviewed all Rudyard Kipling’s many short stories so can vouch for the difference between the early and later Kipling.) Borges rather artlessly tells us he has tried to write stories in the same straightforward manner as early Kipling.

He calls the art of writing ‘mysterious’ (‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream’) and goes on to describe how a beginning or end of a story will come to him as he walks down a street in Buenos Aires but he has to wait for the middle to appear. More often than not, if he forces it, those are the weakest bits.

He mentions his politics (controversially right-wing) but emphasises that personal opinion is trivial and superficial; the process of creation taps into unconscious forces which are much deeper (a rule which could also be applied to Kipling’s highly controversial work).

Borges was 70 when the book was published. He tells us he has given up ‘the surprises inherent in a baroque style as well as the surprises that lead to an unforeseen ending. I have, in short, preferred to satisfy an expectation rather than to provide a startling shock.’ This is presumably what he means when he calls the stories ‘straightforward’, but still, none of these paratexts really prepare us for the complete change in subject matter, tone and style from his classic ficciones of the 1940s and 50s.

Instead of those weird and wonderful fantasies which play with mind-bending ideas of space and time and infinity and reality, these 11 stories are brutally realistic, sometimes macabre tales, of Buenos Aires hoodlums and gaucho lowlifes or, as he puts it in The Intruder:

a brief and tragic mirror of the character of those hard-bitten men living on the edge of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century

They are hard tales of tough slum dwellers without any of the bookish trappings, the scholarly references or the playful whimsy of his classic ficciones.

The stories

1. The Gospel According to Mark

In March 1928 failed medical student Baltasar Espinosa, a lifelong townie, is invited by his cousin to go and stay on a ranch, La Colorada ranch, in the southern part of the township of Junín. During his stay the local river floods and his cousin is called away on business. Baltasar is left with the three illiterate servant family, the Gutres. Illiterate and uneducated, They are in awe of him, treat him with great respect which turns to awe when he starts, out of pure boredom, every evening after dinner reading to them from a big old traditional Bible in the house. There is banging and nailing, there are mysterious sounds. One morning the simple-minded Gutres adults double check with Espinosa that Jesus let himself be crucified to save all humanity and then… seize Baltasar and take him out back of the house to crucify him on the cross they’ve been building!

Well, this story lacks all the characteristics of the classic Borges ficciones, the saturation with books, bookish references and high-flying metaphysical and philosophical ideas. And it certainly does bear a resemblance to the Rudyard Kipling who wrote a number of hauntingly macabre and horrifying stories. I liked it very much.

2. The Unworthy Friend

The narrator remembers when he used to visit the Buenos Aires Bookstore run by Santiago Fischbein. He remembers Fischbein once telling him an anecdote about when he himself was young, barely more than 15. He was taken into the circle of a local tough guy named Francisco Ferrari. He hero worshipped this tall Latin-looking cool dude who dressed all in black and was amazed when, after bumping into him a few times, Ferrari asked him to hang out in the saloon with all the other members of his gang. Eventually he is invited to take part in a break-in to a factory and told to be the lookout. The morning of the planned break-in he took a long tram journey downtown and reported the whole thing to the police, who were initially sceptical. But that night, when the gang are inside the warehouse, the police arrive quietly, having tethered their horses further down the road (their horses?), the narrator lets them slip into the warehouse without raising the alarm, then hears four shots. It wasn’t a gunfight, as he knows Ferrari and co. didn’t have guns. When the cops drag Ferrari’s corpse and that of his older mentor, don Eliseo Amaro, out of the building, the narrator realises it wasn’t an arrest, more an assassination, the settling of old scores.

3. The Duel

The very understated, barely detectable rivalry between two upper-class Argentine ladies, Clara Glencairn de Figueroa and Marta Pizarro, who both decided to become painters and remained friends despite their rivalry.

4. The End of the Duel

This is a grim, macabre and often barely understandable tale about two hardened gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira, who farm neighbouring land and, for any one of a number of reasons, become hardened rivals and enemies.

Until a civil war breaks out in 1870 and they fight for a while on one or other of the sides (it’s the reds versus the whites and, on a first reading, I became confused about who was who and why), the point being they are fellow soldiers on the same side, though their hatred continues unabated.

Anyway, the two rivals are on the white side, which loses a battle to the reds, and are both captured. The red officer in charge is one Captain Juan Patricio Nolan, who has a reputation as a prankster, and now he comes up with a weird and sadistic ‘prank’, which is to set them to run a race after they have had their throats cut. Got that? So they line up with all the red soldiers and white prisoners watching, then a couple of red soldiers step across and cut both their throats as Nolan tells them to start their race. Cardoso and Silveira run a handful of paces before both falling to the ground and bleeding their last into the dry dirt.

You call that a ‘prank’?

5. Rosendo’s Tale

Way back in his 1935 collection, A Universal History of Infamy, had included one ‘realistic’ story of Buenos Aires lowlife hoodlums, or gang members (insofar as that term applied to 1920s criminal gangs). That story was told through the point of view of a gang member who idolises their tough leader, Rosendo Juárez, and describes the puzzling events of a night when another hoodlum, nicknamed ‘the Butcher’, burst into a dance the gang were holding, and confronted their macho leader, Rosendo Juárez who, inexplicably, dropped his knife, failed to rise to the bait, and simply walked away.

Now, 35 years later, Borges publishes a story which gives Rosendo’s side of the story in a first-person narrative. In a nutshell, after a life devoted to becoming chief hard man and head of a gang, when he was confronted by the blustering bullying Butcher, he had a revelation, he realised he was looking in a mirror, he realised what he had become – and was disgusted, realised his whole life was revolting, dropped his knife, and simply walked out into the night never to come back.

Then something happened that nobody ever understood. In that big loudmouth I saw myself, the same as in a mirror, and it made me feel ashamed. I wasn’t scared; maybe if I’d been scared I’d have fought with him. I just stood there as if nothing happened.

The real puzzle here is why Borges bothered. To put it another way, it’s bewildering to think that Argentina’s literary world gave a damn about the earlier, quite difficult-to-follow, hard-to-believe and ultimately trivial story, to such an extent that everyone, including Borges, thought it worthwhile writing this sequel or alternative view.

6. The Intruder

Two lowlife brothers, Eduardo and Cristián Nilsen are hard-drinking, tall, red-haired stingy brawlers. One day Cristián brings home Juliana Burgos and, to cut a tedious story short, both brothers fall in love with her. Eventually, Cristián lets his brother ‘use’ her and they live as a threesome. But the brothers can’t help getting jealous of each other so one day sell her to a brothel. But then Cristián catches Eduardo slipping off some nights to the brothel to carry on boffing Juliana, so they buy her back and bring her home to be their servant and sex slave. Eventually Cristián murders Juliana and the brothers bury her body out in the country.

This story didn’t put me off Borges, a writer can write whatever they want, but it put me off the tone and feel of this book, and it put me off Argentinians a bit.

7. The Meeting

The case of nervous, dark-skinned Maneco Uriarte and tall, white-haired Duncan took place around 1910. The narrator is nine or ten and his cousin Lafinur takes him to a barbecue at a country house called The Laurels. There’s a fine barbecue, then an evening drinking which settles into a game of poker while the boy narrator goes exploring the big, strange house. The owner of the house comes across him and is just showing him his fine collection of knives (Argentinians and their knives).

But the sound of shouting interrupts him and takes them back to the main room where the poker players have got drunk and Uriarte is shouting that Duncan cheated him. The confrontation escalates, someone points out there’s a cabinet of ornamental knives nearby, the select one each and go out into the garden followed the the rest of the men who form a ring while the pair tentatively and then in earnest begin a knife fight which ends with Uriarte plunging his knife into the chest of Duncan who falls to the floor and dies.

Then there’s a little bit of the old Borges magic, a little bit of voodoo thinking. Years later Borges describes his memory to a chief of police who is able to identify the knives as having belonged, before this incident, to two famous rivals, almost as if… as if it was the knives who were destined to fight, not the men:

I began to wonder whether it was Maneco Uriarte who killed Duncan or whether in some uncanny way it could have been the weapons, not the men, which fought. I still remember how Uriarte’s hand shook when he first gripped his knife, and the same with Duncan, as though the knives were coming awake after a long sleep side by side in the cabinet.

8. Juan Muraña

For years Borges liked to tell people he grew up in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo, famous for knife fights and guitar playing (Argentines and their knives!). He sounds like an educated upper-middle-class kid who has a pathetic hero worship of street gangsters and hoodlums.

On a train journey he bumps into an old schoolfriend, Emilio Trápani, who has read his book about the poet Evaristo Carriego in which, apparently, ‘you’re talking about hoodlums all the time.’ Well, says, Trápani, he’ll tell him a story about a real hoodlum. Trápani tells him his mother’s sister married Muraña.

Of all the men around Palermo famous for handling a knife way back in the nineties, the one with the widest reputation was Muraña.

Knives knives knives. Maybe the book should have been titled Knife Fighters of Buenos Aires. And indeed this story is about yet another knife murder.

Trápani was a boy and barely understood his mother’s anxiety that they were about to be evicted from their apartment by the Italian landlord. His mad old aunt, who had been married to the notorious knifeman, Muraña, lives up in the attic. One day his mother takes Trápani to see the landlord, but they arrive to find a crowd and that he’s been stabbed to death. Only weeks later does the boy Trápani venture up into the attic where his mother’s mad widowed sister lives and from her ravings, suddenly realises that she did it but she blames it on her late husband’s knife. In fact she identifies the knife with her husband, and holds it out to the boy saying:

“Here he is. I knew he would never forsake me. In the whole world there hasn’t been another man like him. He didn’t let the gringo get out a word.”

And then a two-penny, ha-penny payoff.

Juan Muraña walked the familiar streets of my boyhood; I may have seen him many times, unawares. He was a man who knew what all men come to know, a man who tasted death and was afterward a knife, and is now the memory of a knife, and will tomorrow be oblivion—the oblivion that awaits us all.

The story itself is a bit spooky but these final lines are, I think, bathetic (meaning: ‘producing an unintentional effect of anticlimax’) because they are so entirely conventional and, almost, sentimental.

9. The Elder Lady

An extended memoir of a rather grand though not particularly well-educated old lady, Mrs. María Justina Rubio de Jáuregui, daughter of a hero Colonel Rubio of the civil war, who lived with her memories of a gladsome girlhood and a homestead with acres of land but, by the time Borges knew her, was restricted to a room in a suburban apartment. On her hundredth birthday, in 1941, there’s a big party, a minister attends, journalists cover it, there are grand speeches and champagne. That night she took to her bed and over the following days, calmly and dignifiedly died.

In the Afterword Borges frankly admits this was a portrait of a great-aunt of his.

10. Guayaquil

This story feels the closest to one of the ficciones in that it is spooky and eerie and takes place in the world of scholarship and academia.

Some letters have been discovered written by the great Simon Bolivar, Liberator of the continent of South America, among the papers of the scholar Dr. José Avellanos of the (fictional) nation of Estado Occidental. Most of them are run-of-the-mill except for one of them which gives Bolivar’s side of the momentous encounter between himself and the Argentine national hero General San Martín, at a place called Guayaquil, in which General San Martín renounced political ambition and left the destiny of South America in the hands of Bolívar.

The discoverer of the letters, Avellanos’s grandson Dr. Ricardo Avellanos, opposes his own country’s government so put the letters up for auction and the Argentine ambassador won them for the glory of his nation. The narrator is a reputable historian, who secures the backing of the National Academy of History and the relevant Ministry to be the official representative of Argentine who will fly to Estado Occidental to take receipt of the letters and then write the definitive scholarly paper about them.

However, the narrative opens soon after the narrator is surprised to be visited at his bookish home by another historian, Dr Zimmerman, who has been proposed by the University of Cordoba. Zimmerman is a refugee, having fled the Nazi takeover of Prague.

The meat of the story is that through a strange and obscure process which the narrator barely detects and cannot define, Zimmerman, although mild and retiring and perfectly polite, somehow manages to – not to persuade, that would be too explicit – to somehow manoeuvre the narrator into abandoning his journey and to sign a letter authorising Dr Zimmerman to fly to Estado Occidental as Argentina’s official representative.

There is mention of the Golem, the legend of the animated anthropomorphic being, which was defined in a novel by an author from Prague. For a flickering second we wonder if Borges is implying that… Zimmerman is the golem. But no…

At several other points Zimmerman invokes the name of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher who said the world as we know it is a product of our own unrelenting drives or Will. So… is he a demonstration of the power of this Will? Without violence, without threats, without any argument or even attempts at persuasion, he simply gets the narrator to do what he wants him to.

Or, (as Borges states in the Afterword) ‘if the reader is in a magical mood’, then the encounter of the two historians could be envisioned as a re-enactment of the confrontation between the two generals which the famous letter describes, in which General Martin inexplicably renounces his rights or ambitions to political power and leaves the way open for Bolivar. As the narrator finds himself inexplicably renouncing his scholarly ambition and leaving the path open for Zimmerman.

This is the most classically Borgesian of these stories, the most complex and subtle and, for that reason, haunting, but it echoes the theme of some of the other stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

11. Doctor Brodie’s Report

This is more like ficciones Borges. The narrator finds a manuscript tucked away in an old edition of Lane’s translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (London, 1839). He identifies the manuscript as written by a David Brodie, D.D., a Scottish missionary who worked first in central Africa and then transferred to the jungles of the Amazon.

It is a fragment which starts in the middle of his description of the super-primitive men he has found himself among, and who he calls the Yahoos. Obviously this name refers to the apemen found in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels and the text’s method of systematically describing the Yahoos’ appearance, food, and their disgusting concept of royalty reminded me of H.G. Wells systematically describing the Eloi and the Morlochs or the society of the Selenites on the moon, or the Country of the Blind.

I have spoken of the queen and the king; I shall speak now of the witch doctors.

The point being that, even though many of the details are disgusting, the authorial tone is warm and reassuring, like being in an Edwardian wood-panelled room smelling of pipe tobacco, sitting in an ancient and absurdly comfortable sofa, listening to a beloved uncle telling a story.

And so the manuscript goes on, describing the Yahoos’ customs, their king and queen and four witch doctors and their amazingly primitive language. But the story lifts off when Brodie speculates that they might not always have been in this state of extreme degradation, but may be the wrecks of a degenerate nation, a hunch he thinks is confirmed by inscriptions he finds on the heights of the plateau adjoining the malarial swamps where the Yahoos now choose to live.

He describes his escape from the land of the Yahoos and journey to a settlement of blacks, who had a Catholic missionary, who nursed Brodie back to health. Many months later he found himself back in Glasgow where he composed this narrative and is still haunted by visions of the utter collapse of humanity which the Yahoos represent.

Algunos pensamientos

I suppose one way of thinking about the vast difference between Borges’s metaphysical ficciones of the 1940s and these ‘straightforward’ memories of knife fighters and crooks is that the ficciones represent Europe, are an extension of the bookish culture of European civilisation, while these stories are much more monotone, mostly realist accounts of Buenos Aires slums and lowlifes; except, that is, for The Gospel According to Mark which appals with its Edgar Allen Poe macabre-ness, and the final two stories which echo some of the metaphysical magic of the ficciones:

[As to the witch doctors] they are four, this number being the largest that their arithmetic spans. On their fingers they count thus: one, two, three, four, many. Infinity begins at the thumb…

This is the Borges of the 1940s, most of the other stories not at all. They’re not bad, but…

Eternal recurrence

One strong theme emerges from the four or five strongest stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

Thus in The Gospel According to Mark the crucifixion is re-enacted by illiterate peasants who barely understand its context or significance.

The Meeting and Juan Muraña are closely linked in the way that the knives at the centre of each story in some sense ’embody’ the characters of their previous owners, as if the knives are destined to carry on acting out certain types of knife-ish behaviour.

In an oblique way The Elder Lady is about a person who has lived on into her own afterlife, a symbol of events which are almost forgotten and have almost lost their meaning.

In Guayaquil Borges himself suggests that the two present-day historians of the story may be unknowingly re-enacting the drama of confrontation and renunciation first lived out by the two generals whose history they are studying.

And in the chilling Doctor Brodie’s Report the narrator suggests that even in their state of complete immiseration and illiterate, inarticulate degradation, the the people he calls the Yahoos might still retain echoes of social organisation, namely institutions such as the monarchy, a language of sorts, priests or witch doctors, poets and belief in an afterlife. As if the structures of civilisation echo and re-echo through the ages, no matter how degraded and meaningless they have become.

Naming the collection after this story and placing it at the end leaves a quite misleading aftertaste of Wellsian science fiction, of Conan Doyle wonderment, of Edwardian English adventure yarns quite utterly different from the very Latin American settings of almost all the other stories.


Related links

Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

The human body is one of the dirtiest things in the known universe (p.116)

Michael Crichton

I’ve no idea what Crichton was like as a man but I admire his phenomenal success as a writer of popular techno-thrillers. If you’re going to entertain, then you might as well do it as effectively as possible. Ever since I learned about it years ago, I’ve been impressed by what will probably be a unique feat that no-one will ever match, namely that in 1994 Crichton was, simultaneously, the writer of America’s number one movie, Jurassic Park, was the creator and producer of America’s number one TV show, ER, and had a book at number one in the bestseller list, Disclosure.

What an amazing achievement and indicator of the practical skills of a man who was not only an author and scriptwriter, but who produced and directed movies himself, as well as creating and exec producing hit TV series.

The Andromeda Strain

Right back at the start of his career, young Michael (born 1942), was 26 when he published this, the first novel to appear under his own name (a few had appeared under pseudonyms). It announces a major talent, not so much in the plot – space probe returns to earth carrying a deadly virus is the same as, say, The Quatermass Experiment – but in the thoroughness and the verisimilitude of the scientific and administrative framework he presents the story in.

The story begins by describing the arrival of a two-man recovery team (Lieutenant Shawn and Private Lewis Crane) to retrieve a space probe which has crash landed on the small town of Piedmont in Arizona (population 48). They’re in the middle of doing so when their radio message back to base is dramatically cut short. Alerts are transmitted up the chain of command until five scientists who have been kept on standby for just such an emergency are each visited at home in the middle of the night by dark-suited security officials, asked to accompany them immediately in unmarked cars to military airports and flown to the top secret biohazard unit in the Nevada desert which has been painstakingly constructed for just such an emergency, under the codename Project Wildfire.

The scientists are:

  • Dr. Jeremy Stone: Professor and chair of the bacteriology department at Stanford University, fictitiously the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • Dr. Charles Burton, 54 (p.61) Professor of Pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine, ‘nervous, jumpy, petulant’, nicknamed the Stumbler (p.54)
  • Dr. Peter Leavitt ‘superb clinical bacteriologist’ (p.59) who suffers from epilepsy, ‘an irritating, grumbling, heavyset man’ (p.54)
  • Dr. Mark Hall, surgeon
  • Professor Christian Kirke, who never makes an appearance because he’s in hospital for appendicitis

The plot then follows the scientists’ race against time to identify the weird extra-terrestrial virus and try to find a cure. The breakneck plot builds up to a climax when there’s a breach in biosecurity at the Wildfire centre with the result so that the virus gets loose among our heroes, and there’s a race against time to prevent its spread… with a novel twist at the very end.

So much for the thrilling plot, but what really distinguishes the text, and makes Crichton’s debut stand out, is the enormous amount of scientific, technical and administrative content.

Organisations

For example, the book is packed with dense and authoritative-sounding explanations of the umpteen different branches of the US military, space agency and security services which were involved in the research, commissioning, financing and building of the biohazard centre, including:

  • Vandenberg Scoop Mission Control
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • the Wildfire facility is built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics
  • the Army Medical Corps, Chemical and Biological Warfare Division
  • the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee
  • the Goddard Spaceflight Centre
  • the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee

Official documentation

Lots of pages of the text consist of ‘copies’ or apparent photostats of official documents, procedures, maps, computer projections and so on, for example a photocopy of the original letter written by concerned scientists to the President of the United States suggesting the creation of a quarantined biohazard centre. It was here, right back at the start of the project, that the scientists included the controversial suggestion of having a small thermonuclear device onsite, which could be detonated if the infection gets out of control (under Directive 7-12, codename Cautery).

In fact soon after Stone and Burton have investigated the town (wearing tip-top latest biohazard suits) and discover an old man still alive and a screaming baby and retrieve them into a helicopter and take them back to the Wildfire centre, Piedmont is itself destroyed by a small nuclear weapon (p.114).

Scientific references

Then, complementing the detailed descriptions of security organisations there is the science itself. It includes references to:

  • a fictional study by J.J. Merrick an English biophysicist on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life and the probability of it being single-cell life
  • a study by the Hudson Institute on the likely outcome of various scenarios around an alien infection outbreak and the impact of detonating a nuclear weapon to obliterate it (p.87)
  • a two-page study complete with statistical analysis, of the Odd Man Out Hypothesis
  • a study by Rudolph Karp who established there are life forms on meteors and asteroids (p.130)
  • the Vector Three report which identified three possible sources for extra-terrestrial bacteria
  • the Messenger Theory of John R. Samuels i.e. that an intelligent civilisation on another planet might choose to communicate not by sending radio or TV signals but sending out tough microforms of life which can recombine if they ever arrive somewhere inhabitable (p.228)
  • a 274-page report on Project Wildfire, highlights of which Dr Hall has to read;  through to detailed descriptions of American military research into chemical and biological weaponry, with lists of the major research universities involved and some of the papers produced on the subject:

Few Americans, Stone knew, were aware of the magnitude of the US research into chemical and biological warfare.

History of the science into the 1960s

Crichton spends time giving us some background on the development of science up till the 1960s: in particular how before, during and after the war, most expensive research focused on physics, in particular nuclear physics. But how, with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, biology had exploded as a field of interest.

He gives us digressions on the nature of biology itself – ‘the only science which cannot define its subject matter’ because there is no agreed definition of LIFE. On the types of animals used in bio experiments – rats, monkeys, pigs – (p.146) or the large range of growth media used in laboratories (p.163). And an explanation for laymen of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the billions of bacteria we host, which leads on to a detailed explanation of the drawbacks which would occur if a wonderdrug were discovered which killed off all bacteria and viruses. In fact Crichton goes to the trouble of inventing a wonderdrug, Kalocin, for the purpose of the book which does just that – kills off all bacteria, viruses, fungi etc which inhabit the human body with the result that… all the human patients died (p.266). We need the bacteria which infest our bodies.

Man lives in a sea of bacteria (p.167)

Hard technology

And then there is the technology, which includes (obviously) the rocket technology used to launch the ill-fated space probe; NASA’s network of monitoring stations around the earth; and the technology used within the Wildfire biohazard installation, including state of the art sterilisation processes, spectrometers, amino-acid analysers, the microtome, the X-ray crystallographer, the electron microscope (a BVJ model JJ-42), Fourier electron-density scans and so on. He gives an explanation of why an electron microscope is better than a light one, as explained by one of its inventors (p.255).

Computers

Then there are computer diagnostics and computers in general. Crichton patiently explains to the 1969 reader that computers are capable of doing many tasks much faster than people! I’m always struck to be reminded just how long computers have been around and enthusiasts have been promising that they will change the world.

Commission of enquiry

All of this heavily factual material is organised as if in a report written up after the crisis was over and as the result of an inquiry into how it was handled. Thus the narrative itself contains mention of where the team made crucial mistakes.

  • It is a peculiarity of the Wildfire team that, despite the individual brilliance of the team members, the group grossly misjudged their information at several points. (p.243)
  • This was a most unfortunate decision, for had they examined the [growth] media, they would have seen that their thinking had already gone astray, and that they were on the wrong track. (p.250)

Scientific results

And the text includes numerous scientific illustrations, for example computer readouts of autopsies, chemical analyses of blood, a scanner printout from a ‘photoelectric eye’ that examined the growth media, an early sketch of the hexagonal structure of the Andromeda Strain, electron-density mapping of a sample of the strain – all carefully credited to Project Wildfire, as in a scientific paper.

The text is followed by four pages of finely printed references, mixing up genuine studies of extra-terrestrial life and biology with papers by the fictional characters in the novel.

Bureaucratic tone set in the preface

This approach, the pose that the entire text is an after-the-fact report, starts in the author’s preface, usually a place where the author is candid with the reader, but in this case Crichton presents himself as an investigator into the events surrounding the breakout, and gives copious thanks to numerous military officials who are entirely fictitious and are clearly part of the fictional cast, as if they were real figures.

The effect is partly to give the text verisimilitude but also allows him to do the standard thriller strategy of anticipating mistakes and accidents and disasters to come without going into detail and so making you impatient to read the full story itself.

Same happens when he describes the experiments the scientists carry out in the Wildfire lab and highlights their mistakes with phrases like ‘Only later would it become clear that…’ or ‘That was his first mistake…’, ‘It would be forty eight hours until he realised his error…’ (p.173)

Taken together, it’s all these tactics which give the novel its authoritative air and which, in turn makes the biological crisis all the more scary, and then the security breach at the centre all the more nailbiting.

Plot summary

By the end you realise that without all the images and diagrams and facts and figures in report format, and without the digressions about biology and computers, the book would have been significantly shorter, and the simpleness of the story much more apparent. Here is a barebones plot summary:

  • a space probe infected with alien life form crash lands near small town in Arizona, Piedmont
  • almost everyone in town dies almost immediately with weird symptoms, namely their blood congeals to powder
  • except two survivors, an old man and a screaming baby
  • they’re brought to a brand new hi-tech biohazard facility named after the project Wildfire where – after a thorough history of the thinking behind the centre, how it was researched, signed off, designed and built – the four scientists central to the story run a series of tests whose results are discussed at length, and engage in high-level speculations about the origin and form of the entity
  • there are several apparently unrelated incidents, mainly the crash of an air force jet which was flying high through airspace over Piedmont; crash investigators confirm the pilot’s last message which claimed that all the plane’s rubber hosing and casing was turning to powder
  • meanwhile the scientists have established that the Andromeda Strain, as it’s been named, consists of perfectly hexagonal crystals which replicate with amazing speed, and feed off pure energy, leaving no waste products
  • one of the scientists, the doctor, finally puts all the pieces of the jigsaw together and realises that the baby and the old man didn’t die because their blood PHs were abnormal, the old man because he was a diabetic, the baby because its continual crying acidated its blood – the Andromeda Strain only replicates within a narrow PH band
  • at just this moment the alarm goes off inside the bio centre indicating a seal has been broken sealing off the containment area, triggering the alarm and the countdown
  • countdown? yes, because throughout the novel we’ve been told that the Wildfire station has at its heart a thermonuclear device which will automatically detonate if there is a security leak – now the alarm bells go off, the red lights start flashing, all the big metal security doors slam shut and a nice lady’s voice starts counting down; they have three minutes before the bomb detonates!!
  • the thing is, it’s only been in the last hour or so that the scientists have realised that the strain feeds off pure light or energy – in other words, a nuclear explosion, far from wiping the virus out, will cause it to replicate a trillion-fold and spread all over America!!!
  • now, there is a failsafe, the nuclear countdown can be halted: the biohazard centre is dotted with light switch-sized sockets into which a metal key must be inserted to countermand the nuclear countdown, BUT the security doors clanging shut have sealed Dr Stone and Dr Hall off from any of these units – oops
  • which leads to the most famous passage in the book, and the movie based on it, when Dr Hall has to make his way through air ducts into the central circular core of the installation and climb up it to the next level, despite the fact that, given the security breach a) the central core is flooding with poison gas and b) remote control darts fire poisoned arrows at anything moving i.e. him
  • these last few pages are grippingly described as Hall tries to climb the ladder up inside the central shaft, despite becoming woozier and woozier, poisoned by the gas and hit by the poisoned darts, till he crashes through the door into the level above and staggers, almost unconscious to the nearest security point, inserts the key and turns it, then blacks out!!

Payoff

The virus mutates into a harmless form. Wind carries air from the now-leaking bio-hazard lab over Los Angeles but nothing at all happens. Lead scientist Stone speculates that a) it has mutated to a non-fatal form, as indicated by the way it had started eating rubber and plastic instead of human blood, and b) disliking oxygen rich environments (which earlier tests had established), it is likely to migrate upwards out of the atmosphere.

And that is the explanation for the brief two-page epilogue in which we learn that a recent manned space flight (Andros V) crash-lands killing all the crew. In an interview with journalists, the head of the program reveals the crash had something do with the failure of plastic safety shields. The journalists don’t know it, but we the readers know that this is proof that the Andromeda Strain has indeed gravitated away from the unfriendly oxygen-rich atmosphere of earth up to the troposphere – and the book ends with the threat that it might, possibly, remain there for ever, preventing the passage through it of any machines which contain rubber or plastic…

The IPCRESS connection

It’s fascinating to learn from Wikipedia that Crichton was heavily indebted to Len Deighton’s debut novel The IPCRESS File which was published in 1962 and which Crichton read on a visit to Britain.

The Deighton novel is also written in the style of an official report and recreates the often dull bureaucratic paperwork surrounding spying; the title itself indicates that the entire thing should be read as an official report.

Same with Andromeda which, on the pre-text pages, carries instructions as for an official file, which state: ‘THIS FILE IS CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET and that the ‘receiver’ of the file must first show his identity card to the courier.

All great boyish fun. I wonder if Crichton ever told Deighton about his indebtedness to him. I wonder what Deighton made of it.

Crystals

It’s interesting that the Andromeda Strain of virus turns out to be a perfect crystal and that one of the scientists is known for printing papers speculating that life on earth began as crystals (p.226). Because this is a genuine theory and is well expressed in the 1985 book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985), which I read and reviewed not too long ago.

The movie

In 1971 The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill as Stone, James Olson as Hall, Kate Reid as Leavitt (changed to a female character, Ruth Leavitt), and David Wayne as Dutton (Burton in the novel). A lot of its appeal is due to the fact it was low budget and not dominated by well-known Hollywood names, lending it an extra soupcon of credibility. I saw it as a kid and loved it.


Credit

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was published Knopf in American in 1969. All references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson (1999)

Nothing dates quicker than the future. All Tomorrow’s Parties is the title of a song by the Velvet Underground recorded in 1967. The choice of a Velvet Underground track as the title of a novel supposedly set in a hi-tech future confirms the sense that Gibson, born in 1948, despite being credited with the invention of futuristic visions of cyberspace and cyberpunk, in fact has a very 1960s/70s mentality, all dark glasses and leather jackets and ripped t-shirts.

Gibson is the Lou Reed of science fiction.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

This is the third in Gibson’s ‘Bridge Trilogy’ and reunites us with key characters from the earlier two novels, notably:

  • Berry Rydell (security guard and protagonist of Virtual Light)
  • derelict computer hacker Colin Laney (the protagonist of Idoru)
  • Shinya Yamazaki, self-described ‘student of existential sociology’ who appears in both the previous books
  • former bicycle courier Chevette

It’s ten or 20 years in the future, after a big earthquake (nicknamed ‘the Little Big One’, page 160) hit California, resulting in the state officially dividing into two administrations, NoCal and SoCal.

The earthquake rendered the famous Golden Gate bridge so unstable that it was closed to traffic and very quickly became a shanty town, a favela, people building shacks and shops out of spare parts and random kit on the lower and main levels of the bridge, then slowly building above these, using the massive cables and struts as superstructure to create a slum stretching up into the sky.

It had all been open then, just girders and railing and deck: now it was this tunnel, everything patched together out of junk, used lumber, plastic, whatever people could find, all of it lashed up however anybody could get it to stay, it looked like… (page 185)

The Bridge is populated by all kinds of lowlife, criminals, popup shops, computer hackers, fast food joints, seedy micro-hotels, wasted dudes trying to sell you drugs and so on. It sounds a lot like the rundown parts of New York in the 1970s, because William Gibson is the Lou Reed of science fiction. Hey man, take a walk on the wild side.

The characters use a would-be street slang which sometimes feels curiously dated. When the character Tessa refers to nightclubs she knows, she includes one named ‘Cognitive Dissidence’, quite a heavy-handed play on the modish phrase, ‘cognitive dissonance’, like the comically themed nightclubs in Idoru.

But when her friend Chevette says, ‘Yeah, she knows ‘”Cog Diss”‘ – the books seems to assume that abbreviating Cognitive Dissidence to Cog Diss indicates how wildly street and hip and in the know and down with the kids Chevette is, but – it made me laugh at its crapness. Increasingly, I am associating Gibson not with some far-out digital future, but with Lou Reed and ageing Dad Rock (def: ‘music played by old white dudes’).

This impression is bolstered by the role played in all these novels by:

  1. the very old-tech format of TV shows (Rydell wanted to be on a cop TV show, Tessa makes TV documentaries)
  2. guitar music. In fact the novel includes an actual rock band, a collection of ageing white dudes led by one Buell Creedmore (see below) and includes other (fictional) rock bands with stupid names, which Gibson has referred to throughout the trilogy, such as ‘Chrome Koran’ and ‘Blue Ahmed’

This is the seventh Gibson novel I’ve read and certain elements are a fixture:

  1. Something is about to happen, something big, he can’t tell you what it is but it’s gonna be big. Thus Laney, the guy who was experimented on at his orphanage (page 71) and as a result has developed a supernatural ability to recognise patterns in the vast reams of data flowing through the net, he knows something is coming, something which will change everything.
  2. The basic mindset is 1940s film noir, hardboiled crime genre, Raymond Chandler for the internet age. Guys are tough, dames are tough as well, but generally need rescuing by tougher guys. Thus the two main male characters in this novel are Berry Rydell, the tough security guard we met in the previous novels of the trilogy, and an even harder tough guy, a silent assassin who thinks, speaks and moves with Zen detachment, a man with no name (lol, really, I’m not kidding) until we do, finally, get his name, towards the end of the book. But for most of the text we are kept wondering, ‘Who is he?’ ‘What is he seeking?’
  3. The novel is made up of four or five storylines, each focusing on a lead character, which run separately and distinctly throughout the book but with the strong suggestion that they’re all going to link up somehow, towards the end, which is also when the Big Thing which has been hinted at throughout will finally take place.

The first and third of these elements in particular, make for a very strong narrative grip or attraction. All through the book we’re kept on tenterhooks wondering what The Big Thing is going to turn out to be, although with the nagging suspicion that, as with a number of the previous novels, The Big Thing might actually turn out to be a disappointment (as, for example, the vague and underwhelming marriage of a pop singer and a virtual woman in Idoru).

The book is 277 pages long and divided into 73 chapters giving an average of 3.8 pages per chapter, although many of them only run to 1 or 2 pages. That’s to say, the narrative moves at pace, cleverly constructed to jump between the activities of the four or five leading characters. These are:

Berry Rydell

Rydell is a rough, tough, handsome man, ‘all muscle and long legs’ (page 181). He was a cop back in Knoxville, Tennessee, till he killed a drugged-up abuser who was firing randomly into a closet where he’d locked his girlfriend’s kids. Forced to quit the police, Rydell joined a security operation, IntenSecure. Then he was hired by a TV show which turned nobodies into celebrities in order to knock them down, but became increasingly unhappy with it, specially after he was unable to prevent a woman the show was persecuting from killing herself. So he quit TV and ended up working as security in a hotel. Here he was spotted and recommended for a job as security to a pop star in Japan, Rez, who was planning to ‘marry’ a totally digital woman, and this was the plot of the previous novel in the series, Idoru.

We learn that after the events described in Idoru Rydell made it back to America, to Los Angeles, where he was working as security, again, this time for a chain of convenience stores called Lucky Dragon, owned by a Korean. For a while he lived with Chevette who he hooked up with during the previous novel and thought he was going to feature in a documentary about hard-done-by cops, made by the Cops In Trouble series. But slowly all his hopes fizzled away, and Rydell became so sad Chevette that left him (page 182) and he got the convenience store job.

It is here that, one day, he takes a phone call from Colin Laney, who was the one who fixed him up with the job in Japan, and now tells him he’s got a job for him up in San Francisco.

So Rydell quits the Lucky Dragon job and drives up to Frisco. He does so in a carshare arranged by his fellow security cop, Durius. The guy sharing the car is an aggressive drunk named Buell Creedmore. He’s a pain in the butt and when Rydell arrives in SF and parks the car, we think he’s walking away from Creedmore, but Creedmore continues to turn up through the book and we discover he is quite a decent country and western singer who sings with ‘legendary’ guitarist Randall James Branch Shoats from Mobile, Alabama (page 100).

Colin Laney

Laney was one of a cohort of kids at an orphanage in Kentucky who were experimented on without their knowledge or consent. They were given an experimental drug, 5-SB.

‘5-SB allows the apprehension of nodal points, discontinuities in the texture of information. They indicate emergent change, but not what that change will be.’ (page 194)

Its effect was to make Laney supersensitive to the flow and shape of information flooding through the (still fairly primitive) internet (page 75).

At one point in his career Laney was a quantitative analyst for Slitscan, a tabloid TV show ‘of quite monumental viciousness’ (page 222). In Idoru he was hired as co-ordinator of internet data helping to create and curate the digital woman. Now we learn the idoru has left Rez who, in mourning has undertaken a rock tour of the Kombinat states (i.e. the old Soviet Union) and Laney, ill with probable tuberculosis, poor and decrepit, has gone into hiding in a large cardboard box hidden in the bowels of Shinjuku station, which he rents off a wordless Japanese man who spends all day silently making models.

This is where Shinya Yamazaki, an ‘existential sociologist’ who featured in both the previous novels, tracks him down and tries to bring him antibiotics and food. But Laney is too obsessed to eat. Right at the start of the book he tells Yamazaki that the datasets are building towards a seismic change. ‘What’s going to change?’ asks Yamazaki. Everything, replies Laney, thus creating the sense of suspense which keeps the reader turning the next 250 pages.

We also learn what happened to Rez and the idoru after the end of the previous novel. Basically, Laney was hired in the period covered by Idoru to facilitate the ‘marriage’ of the rock star Rez and the ’emergent digital being’, Rei Toei. That novel ended with the couple getting ‘married’ and going off to a newly-built circular island in Tokyo Bay. Now we learn that after that, Laney was kept on to educate this digital being, Rei Toei but that, as she grew and learned more about the world, she grew away from Rez. Laney realised he was falling in love with this being made entirely of data and so, one day, quit his job (pages 163 to 164). Soon afterwards he heard Rei had left the island, the marriage was over, and so Laney went into hiding, hiding out in the cardboard box buried deep in Shinjuku station.

Laney now devotes himself all day long to being the unfiltered ‘eye’ through which all the data in the world passes, via DatAmerica. And he sees a massive change coming. And the change is something to do with Cody Harwood, Machiavellian CEO of Harwood Levine, the most powerful PR company in the world.

The Man with no name

He wears a long coat, a loden coat. Round-lenses glasses which hide his eyes. He was in the military. He wastes no movement or word. He is ‘Lean and concise’ (page 220). He follows the Tao. He believes only in the moment.

We meet him in a chapter where he is tailed onto the Bridge by a couple of lowlife drug addicts. When they try to mug him he kills them both with silent movement of his hands, holding a super-sharp knife, too quick to see or defend from. He is watched by the muggers’ young mute hanger-on, known as Silencio because he doesn’t talk. No name takes Silencio to a diner and buys him fruit shakes and, when the boy is fascinated by the old wristwatch he’s wearing, gives it to him.

In the middle section of the book we see the man with no name in his spartan hotel room performing his secret assassin exercises, or sharpening his super-sharp assassin’s knife in ritualised movements. Despite the cheesiness of all this I couldn’t help finding it at the same time everso ‘cool’, as it is designed to be.

Fontaine

Fontaine is ‘an angular black man whose graying hair is twisted into irregular branches that hang like the arms of a dusty houseplant in need of water’ (page 159). He is harassed by his two wives Tourmaline and Clarisse. He keeps a popup second-hand shop on the Bridge, specialising in gadgets, wristwatches a speciality. It was Fontaine who cobbled together a home-made stairlift up to the shack belonging to a man named Skinner, up on a higher level of the favella, and whic Chevette, who lived with much older Skinner, used to use to take her bike down to ground level to carry out her job as a bicycle courier, all of this described in the first of the trilogy, Virtual Light.

One morning Fontaine notices Silencio’s nose pressed against the glass. He lets him in and, after some initial nervousness about whether he’s a burglar, lets him stay, starts buying him meals, lets him sleep out back – not least because Silencio lets Fontaine have the awesome watch which the Man with No Name gave him.

Soon Silencio gravitates from staring at Fontaine’s watch collection to being given a pair of eyephones and scanning at speed through all the watches available at all the auctions round the world. Silencio starts to talk but all he does is repeat the technical specifications of the watches he’s looking at.

Chevette

In the previous novels we met Chevette-Marie Washington in her capacity of bicycle courier and carer for the ageing Skinner, who had taken her in and fed her when she was young and homeless. Then she had an affair and lived with rough tough Berry Rydell for a while. As this novel opens she is living in a house rented out to students on the coast of Los Angeles. The house is fenced off from the beach where there has been some kind of disastrous unnamed chemical ‘spill’.

Chevette’s main housemate is Tessa who’s Australian and a media sciences student at USC (page 32). Tessa wants to make a documentary about the Bridge using Chevette as a way in to its closed and secretive society. She regards the Bridge as ‘interstitial’, an adjective Chevette takes the piss out of for the rest of the book.

Tessa’s recently been playing with a camera on a small drone. Chevette has barely woken up before she and housemate Tessa spot a man snooping round the house. It is Carson, Chevette’s ex-boyfriend, smooth, handsome, in the media working for a show called ‘Real One’ (everyone works in TV in these novels). He was Chevette’s boyfriend till the night he hit her. She moved out and went into hiding in this abandoned beachfront property. Now he’s found her.

So to avoid Carson, the women sneak out the back way and round to Tessa’s van. She’s already packed. Chevette never unpacked. They slip into the van, fire the ignition and spurt away. Whither? Well, Tessa wants to make a doc about the Bridge so they head north, to NoCal and San Francisco.

Plot developments

These days Laney phones his mate Rydell at regular intervals. He instructs Rydell to contact his attorney, F.X. Tong, which he does via videoglasses. Rydell has a knackered pair given to him by the cashier at the Lonely Dragon, Miss Praisegod Satansbane (page 11). The ‘shades’ are originally from Brazil so when Rydell touches the instruction panel in the wing of the shades he often gets a street map of Rio and everything in Portuguese, but nothing’s perfect.

Through a bad connection Tong gives him instructions to use the ATM in the branch of the Lucky Dragon near the start of the Bridge, then go to the GlobEx franchise at the back, use the identity code Tong gives him and collect a package. All of which he does. The package is a couple of feet long, six inches square and very heavy. Rydell carries it further onto the Bridge, finds an anonymous popup hotel and greasy spoon, the Ghetto Chef Beef Bowl, which rents him a tiny room, really only a horizontal pod.

There’s more. Laney calls Rydell and tells him to go to a particular computer accessory shop and pick up some cables. It’s called Bad Sector and staffed by an enormous Chinese youth with an irritating under-moustache. He devises little robots which toddle around the shop counter and hand out and receive goods to and from customers.

Back in the pod Rydell finally unwraps the package to discover it contains a metal object like a thermos flask, figures out how to attach the cables, powers it up and… out appears a hologram of the emergent digital being from the previous novel, Rei Toei, beautiful, immaculate, seductive, very intelligent, and Rydell is entranced.

Chevette and Tessa arrive in San Francisco and park the van by the Bridge. They stroll around and into a bar where, by quite a big coincidence, there’s Buell Creedmore who is about to perform with ‘legendary’ guitarist Shoats. Before the performance has even begun, Chevette sees, by an even bigger coincidence, her feared ex, Carson, walk in,

Laney phones Rydell again, tells him the world is going to end. Well, the world as we know it (page 166). Laney is convinced the crisis will crystallise around a dude named Cody Harwood, a lean, rich head of a major public relations firm.

Separately, Laney becomes uneasily aware that someone is watching him when, in the dataflow, he is watching Harwood. He is shocked when two fellow hackers from Mexico City tell him it is Harwood watching him watching Harwood, because Harwood has himself taken the experimental drug 5-SB and so gained heightened awareness of the flows of information through the world’s datasets.

Laney’s informants from Mexico (Rooster and Klaus) tell him that Harwood is rich and has interests in a range of mega corporations including Nanofax AG of Geneva:

‘Nanofax AG offers a technology that digitally reproduces objects, physically, at a distance.’ (page 195)

So we know that Harwood has taken 5-SB and so has advanced nodal apprehension, and is installing Nanofax modules in every Lucky Dragon store, because he has a controlling interest in that franchise as well (page 209). But what’s he ultimately up to?

We see Harwood ordering minions to keep monitoring Laney and to find whoever it was who collected the package Laney had FedExed from Japan i.e. the thermos device which contains Rei Toei. Remember the two street hoodlums who the Man with No Name silently knifed earlier on? Now Laney phones Rydell and tells him to go to the crime scene. Why? Because it will trigger the next stage, though Laney doesn’t know what.

Rydell is tailed So Rydell goes along and, sure enough, Harwood has minicams monitoring the scene so immediately uses facial recognition to identify Rydell and access his entire past history. Harwood dispatches some toughs to tail him. Cut to Rydell being tailed for a few blocks across the Bridge, particularly by some guy in black with a scarf. He thinks he’s cleverly evaded them when he turns a corner and is punched so hard in the side by an enormous dud that he feels some ribs break. The big guy is shaping up for another punch when he goes quite, blank-faced, falls to his knees. The Man with No Name is behind him, has stabbed and killed him.

The bar with no name The Man with No Name marches Rydell away but as they pass the nightclub (with no name) Rydell takes the opportunity to nip inside. He arrives just as Buell Creedmore is finishing his set with Tessa and Chevette (Rydell’s ex) also there. So at about this point the reader sees the plotlines led by the various characters finally coming together. Even more so when, to provoke no-name, Rydell activates the thermos (which he carries everywhere with him) and Rei Toei appears in the middle of the crowded bar to everyone’s astonishment.

Shootout But at that moment the band ends its performance, Chevette leaves the light and sound console where she’s been with Tessa, goes down to the main floor to capture the mini-drones Tessa’s been using to film the performance when, to her amazement, she is spun round and punched really hard in the face. It is her ex, Carson the woman beater. He advances on her to hit her again but is pulled round and punched hard by… by Rydell, her other lover!

Dazed Chevette is amazed. But Carson gets to his feet and punches Rydell hard in the ribs and we know they’re broken so Rydell squeals with pain. At which point he is pushed out the way and Chevette sees the guy with the scarf who had been tailing Rydell and has now arrived in the bar, step forward and shoot Carson with a silenced gun. Now she knows she’s in some kind of dream.

Tessa, from up in the lighting control booth, turns the lights out in the bar and there’s a stampede, people getting hurt. Rei Toei is like a genie, a stream of white light tormenting the shooter while Rydell in great pain lifts Chevette and helps her to a side door which they kick open and emerge into a street filling up with screaming punters. Chevette runs, Rydell limps after her, then both of them are stopped by the magical appearance of the Man with No Name carrying the thermos, which Rydell in the general panic had forgotten.

Fontaine’s Next thing we know they are beating on the locked door of Fontaine’s watch shop. Fontaine wakes (it’s the middle of the night) and reluctantly lets them in. In fact – we realise with a start – it is meant to be only 24 hours since the Man with No Name killed those two muggers on the bridge. Anyway, Fontaine recognises Chevette as the pretty young thing who lived in an apartment above his and who looked after Skinner before she left for LA. And the Man with No Name calmly recognises Silencio, who is also woken up by the noise, as the boy he took to the milk bar and gave his watch to.

So the gang’s all here. All the major characters have been brought together, with 40 pages or so of the novel left to go. So what is this Big Thing which we’ve been promised throughout the text?

The Man with No Name explains that Harwood has hired mercenaries to capture Rydell because he knows he has something important to Laney but isn’t sure what. Also, that the mercs will kill anyone who stands in their way. He asks for Fontaine’s gun and explains he’s going out to kill as many of the mercenaries as he can, that everyone else should remain holed up in Fontaine’s shop, and disappears through the door into the night.

There’s a shootout. The Man with No Name, inevitably, kills two of the mercs because that’s what Clint Eastwood types do. Rydell, crouching in Fontaine’s inner room, asks Fontaine if he has a weapon and the latter discloses a vicious chain-gun, owned by Fontaine’s lawyer (a paranoid refugee from the African Union) which he has hidden in a wall recess. They get it out, Rydell steps into the shop proper, someone fires off a bevy of automatic rifle, Ryfell aims in that direction and fires the chain gun which fires razor wire at high speed. It converts anyone in its way into hamburger. So that is the messy end of the third mercenary.

Cut to the head merc headphoning Harwood who instructs him to set the bridge on fire. Back in the shop the Man with No Name arrives and hands the gun back to Fontaine. Rydell takes a call from Laney on the Brazilian shades, Laney tells him the bridge is being torched but to leave the thermos / Rei Toei on the bridge. He plugs the thermo device into a power socket and Rei appears, a shimmering beautiful slender woman. She says hello to Rydell but then addresses the Man with No Name and tells him his name is Konrad. And that he still carries a torch for a slender blonde, Lise, who he lost back in the day. Aah. So the cold-hearted killer is a softie after all.

Out of nowhere Tessa arrives trailing drones with cameras, riding on a big three wheeler driven by Elmore, the skinny lighting guy from the club. Chevette and Rydell clamber onto it but can’t persuade Fontaine or the Silent kid to join them. Elmore turns the bike and roar off towards the San Francisco end of the bridge.

But they soon run into crowds fleeing the fire and get knocked off the bike. Tessa disappears, Rydell grabs for Chevette and loses the chain gun down a sewer pipe. Oops. Chevette leads Rydell to the steps up and to the little funicular train Fontaine made up to Skinner’s home-made apartment.

Meanwhile Laney has co-opted his friends in ‘the Walled City’. These are dissident Chinese hackers who were kicked out of the actual walled city when Hong Kong was handed back to China but created a digital alternative for nerds and hackers everywhere. Mustering their support, in cyberspace Laney suddenly finds himself face to face with Harwood. The latter is suave and debonair and insouciant like the baddies in all James Bond movies are. He is not sure what is going to happen and he disappears down into the flow of data.

Meanwhile Rydell and Chevette emerge onto the roof of Skinner’s pad only to be ambushed by the man with the black scarf, leader of the mercenaries. He pistol whips Rydell and then points the gun to kneecap him but Chevette begs him not to and he doesn’t. Instead he steps into the mini-glider he’s had stashed up here all the time. But as he steps over the edge of Skinner’s roof into the night sky, Chevette runs forward and with Skinner’s knife rips a long tear in the fabric, rendering the glider utterly useless and the mercenary plunges straight down, hitting pillars and stanchions like all the master baddy’s henchmen in every James Bond movie and cheap thriller movie ever made.

Chevette runs back to big strong Rydell (‘my man!’) and helps him sit up groggily. Now the smoke from the fire engulfs them and they start choking but at that very moment a helicopter bearing a vast load of ice cold water hoves into view just over them and dumps hundreds of tonnes of water onto the Bridge.

Meanwhile back at Fontaine’s shop, Rei Toei had told Konrad to plug the thermos into the eyephones Silencio uses. He enters cyberspace and Rei is with him. She tells him to follow the watch, the last watch he could see, and Silencio with his advanced obsessive feel for watches and nothing but watches follows it across the cyberverse and is suddenly in a small room in the bowels of a castle where he meets Harwood who is astonished to see him. Then some of the avatars from the Walled City appear and we know they have used Silencio’s skills to track down Harwood to his hiding place.

Meanwhile, back out in the real world, a black kid, Boomzilla, who we met much much earlier when Tessa and Chevette paid him to mind their van, he is in the Lucky Dragon branch nearest the Bridge, watching the crazy action, huge fire, fire engines everywhere, then choppers dropping vast amounts of water, anyway all this mayhem only slightly delays the first ever use of the Nanofax gadget.

Boomzilla watches a little speech being given saying the original Lucky Dragon statuette will be inserted in the Singapore headquarters and then rebuilt in every Lucky Dragon franchise around the world. Except that the light pings and out of the microwave-looking device unfolds a naked Japanese girl, slender and black-haired, smiles at everyone and runs out the front door.

Back on the Bridge it’s dawn. Rydell has spent the night with Chevette in the heavy duty sleeping bag the mercenary had used on Skinner’s roof. Very warm and cosy. He gets up, butt naked, pads to the edge to have a pee. There’s a hovering drone with Tessa’s voice blaring at a sleepy Chevette, that she, Tessa, got loads of footage during the fire, she’s got a contract to make her documentary (TV again).

Eventually the drone buzzes off. Rydell climbs down a layer and is surprised to find Buell Creedmore holed up there. He too climbed up to escape the flames. Well, the venue’s burned down, and Buell whines that his career is over. In what is probably meant to be a comical moment he reveals he ain’t a good ole boy country-and-western dude after all, he grew up in suburban New Jersey. And he starts crying.

Rydell climbs back to the roof and realises he is overwhelmingly in love with Chevette.

Cut to Konrad, the former Man with No Name, catching a cab to TransAmerica, the main mega corporation run by Harwood. Here he presents himself and is strip searched and handcuffed and accompanied to the lift by seven goons, as per Harwood’s instructions. But his weapon is in the belt buckle at front of his trousers. By the time the lift arrives he will have killed all of them. Because like the assassin / ninjas / superheroes of so many Yank movies, he is invulnerable.

Yamazaki has brought Keith Blackwell, the enormous Australian head of security of the pop singer Rez, who featured heavily in the previous novel, to rescue Laney. They go down to the cardboard city in the bowels of Shinjuku railway station and Blackwell razors open Laney’s carton. But he isn’t there.

Fontaine returns from the Red Cross stands at the end of the Bridge. Stuff is still being cleared up but there’s more media vans than emergency services. Silencio has been sweeping up the broken glass outside the shop and doing a good job. You get the sense Fontaine will adopt him. He reminds me of the mute boy sweeping up main street in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 coming-of-age movie, The Last Picture Show. This novel is written in Gibson’s cyberstyle, but it overflows with very traditional, down-home, American sentimentality.

And sure enough, in the final chapter, in the last scene, Silencio starts to talk!. He appears to be in charge of the shop now. And another boy brings in a ruined watch. And in a token of the future, the boy asks Silencio if he can watch the weird device fix his watch. They place the damaged watch onto ‘the bed’ and watch it sink into it as a coin into mud. Within its womb molecules work and within nine minutes the watch will emerge utterly restored good as new. The future is now.

Thoughts

Well, number one, it is a major achievement to think in these terms, to conceive of plots which revolve around dataflows and nodal points within cyberspace. Most people were struggling to adapt to the dial-up versions of the internet in 1999 while Gibson had already perfected a way of creating entrancing fictions out of it.

And Gibson’s highly engineered prose poetry is phenomenal. He has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve to keep it pumping – short phrases, omitting subjects of sentences, slang, streetwise allusions to keep you constantly on your toes. Modern thriller basic tricks.

  • Fontaine looked at Rydell. Pursed his lips. Nodded. (page 234)
  • Hole there the size of a saucer, and getting bigger. (page 261)

Short sentences. Leave out subject. Makes it hipper. Cool style.

But… but… although the book has countless clever angles and is written in a highly stylised, tech savvy, thriller style… key scenes include a fight in a bar and a shootout around a shop where the good guys have been pinned down by the bad guys. It feels like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) or the familiar rundown seedy future wreckage of a movie like Escape From New York (1981). In other words, at numerous places the actual storyline and events feel hackneyed, clichéd, and filled with the over-familiar tropes of ten thousand American action movies.

Paint it black

And black. Everyone wears black. Of course they do, because it’s cool. Rydell wears a black t-shirt. Chevette is wearing black jeans and a black sweatshirt. The lead mercenary wears a black leather coat and a black scarf. Two other mercs were a black leather jacket and a black armoured vest (page 241). The skinny drug addict who runs the lights at the club where Buell performs and then the fight breaks out, he wears a black meshbacked cap and a black t-shirt (page 246). Everyone wears black because black is cool and fashionable, what people wear in fashion shoots, in edgy ads, in movies like The Matrix. It’s the only colour Lou Reed wore and Gibson is the Lou Reed of science fiction.

World-shattering claims, tiny cast

Gibson’s novels use the rhetoric of world-changing worldshifts. But in the end the stories only involve about fifteen characters (the speaking parts in this one are Durius, Rydell, Buell, Shoat, their girlfriend Maryalice, Tessa, Chevette, Konrad, Fontain, Silencio, Elmore, Laney, Carson, Harwood, lead mercenary).

Not only that, but they are all sane. What I mean is they’re all cut from the same basic thriller cloth, they all think with the same rational clarity, they all act with that thriller directness and logic (with the possible exception of the Man with No Name who is, therefore, the most interesting character). When the fire starts Fontaine briefly alludes to the feral kids growing up on the Bridge but, when you stop and think about it, there is absolutely no reference to the psychological impact of growing up in the Bridge favelas. In fact when you stop and reflect, there is pretty much no psychology in any of these novels. All the characters are capable and competent, good at fighting, handy with guns, behave like cardboard characters from action movies. Nobody panics, goes to pieces or doesn’t know what to do.

Compare and contrast Gibson’s fiction with the stories of J.G. Ballard who specialises in characters who collapse into private psychoses, weird private visions, and whose stories create in the reader a sense of being seriously adrift, trapped in a world completely at odds with the usual one (The Drought, The Drowned World, High Rise, Concrete Island).

There’s never any sense of the genuinely strange in Gibson – with the one shining exception of the way he describes characters like Laney experiencing cyberspace, plugging in and suddenly being amid canyons of gleaming data, the ‘grey fields of light’ (page 254). Now that is new and vivid and wonderful.

But a lot of the rest of the action could come from a standard Jack Reacher novel, with rough, tough manly hero (Rydell) saving his girl (Chevette), forging a brief friendship with the black dude (Fontaine) helped by the mysterious stranger (Konrad) and in which the baddy is, as always, the unscrupulous rich (white) head of some mega-corporation.

Rei Toei may be a cool invention, an entirely digital being, but every time she appears she is, for the first second, butt naked and very beautiful (as Chevette notices with intense jealousy first time she appears to Rydell). Beautiful, naked young Japanese girls. Hardly subverting action movie clichés, is it, or the basic stereotypes of all action narratives, whether in thrillers, movies or graphic novels or comics.

In that respect, far from feeling out there and experimental, most of Gibson’s fiction feels fantastically familiar from any number of Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise action adventure movies. Die Hard With A Laptop.

Also, Rei Toei may be a cool invention, the first entirely digital being and yet…what does she actually do? What does she change or make happen? It feels a lot like Gibson can come up with these great ideas, images, digital symbols but then… really struggles to make them relevant to the real world, to come up with a plot which justifies the hype.

Oh, and the Big Thing, When The World Changed, The Thing Which Was Going To Change Everything which was heavily trailed throughout the novel, designed to keep the reader on the edge of their seat?

As so often in a Gibson novel, it doesn’t, in fact, happen. Nothing changes. The world does not come to an end. Cody Harwood seems to be trying to pull off some scam but we never understand what it is. So now an American convenience store franchise is going to be able to do 3-D printing? Hmmm. Not world shattering is it?

Instead a young, thin, naked Japanese girl steps out of a microwave. Maybe we’re meant to interpret this as the advent of a New Era in Human History because we’ve invented teleporting. But, in fictional terms, it pales into insignificance next to the classic tough guy Rydell holding his babe Chevette round the shoulders as dawn broke over the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge, shucks.

A month or so after reading the book all I really remember about it is the Golden Gate Bridge being set on fire and the shootout at the shop, both of them hard-core 1970s action movie tropes.


Credit

All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1999. All references are to the 2000 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

Idoru by William Gibson (1996)

Arleigh’s van smelled of long-chain monomers and warm electronics.
(Idoru page 201)

Virtual Light, the first novel in William Gibson’s ‘Bridge trilogy’, made me fall out of love with Gibson. Once I’d realised the tough ex-cop hero of the book, Berry Rydell was, underneath all the sci-fi add-ons, basically an avatar of John McClane from the Die Hard movies or Jack Reacher, i.e. a rough, tough hero of the type found in all airport thrillers, I found myself noticing on every page, barely disguised by Gibson’s gee-whizz, cyberpunk style and settings, all the clichés of the American thriller genre.

However, I think Idoru is by way of being a return to form, combining Gibson’s street-smart, cyberpunk attitude and jive prose style, with passages of genuinely visionary writing about the experience of cyberspace and virtual reality, passages as strange and poetic and haunting as anything in Neuromancer. I liked it, though with a few reservations, which I’ll explain at the end.

Plot summary

It’s a few decades into what was then the future, maybe about 2010, after a fictional mega-earthquake has devastated Tokyo and San Francisco, leading to the abandonment of the Golden Gate Bridge to thousands of squatters who’ve built a shanty town on it (which is why these three books are known as the Bridge trilogy).

Colin Laney has a natural talent for spotting patterns and nodes in information. He gets a job at Slitscan, a downmarket scandal TV channel, ‘descended from reality programming’. His boss is an intense woman named Kathy Torrance, who has jaded views about celebrity, namely that celebrities deserve to be made famous then crushed by media outlets like hers. A typical Slitscan ‘story’ is the revelation that a popular band, the Dukes of Nuke ‘Em, uses Iraqi fetal tissue to remain youthful looking, supposedly a shock-horror revelation although, in this cynical world, the story leads only to a surge in the band’s record sales and a bout of hangings and executions in Iraq among the officials responsible.

Laney is employed to scour DatAmerica (which appears to be the corporate version of the internet) for links, connections, ‘nodal points’, assembling clusters out of the vast oceans of data which hint towards news and gossip which the TV channel can use.

But Laney quits the job at Slitscan after a job wrecking someone’s reputation goes too far, and he finds himself staying in an expensive hotel, ‘the Chateau’. Here the security guard, Rydell (who we recognise as the hero of Idoru‘s predecessor, Virtual Light), recommends an opening he knows about out in Tokyo, which turns out to be a tip he heard from another character from Virtual Light, the Japanese sociologist Shinya Yamazaki (still making notes in his electronic notebook with a lightpen as he did in the earlier novel) who’s now working for a new employer.

So, on this recommendation, Laney the node detector flies out to Tokyo and is met by Keith Alan Blackwell, an enormous Australian with one ear missing and a body criss-crossed by scars. Laney is tired, jet-lagged and wants to know what the job is about.

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, a teenage girl, Chia Mackenzie from Seattle (page 85) also flies out to Tokyo. She is an advanced user of plug-in digital reality programs, a favourite being ‘the sandbenders’ (the hand-made product of a commune she describes on page 138) which she plugs in, then puts on the eyephones and whoosh! she’s walking around Venice in the moments before dawn, accompanied by her ‘Music Master’, a thinly disguised digital David Bowie. So she’s a teenage pop music fan.

Mackenzie is a big fan of the band Lo/Rez which appears to consist of two people, Lo the Chinese guitarist and Rez, the half-Irish singer (page 94), famous for their album, Dog Soup. Lo/Rez have a worldwide fanclub among pubescent girls and Chia is a member of the Seattle fan club. In the opening chapter we find her and a couple of girlfriends all jacked into cyberspace and discussing the scandalous news that singer Rez has declared he wants to marry a virtual woman, nothing more than a system of programs. One of the girls, Kelsey, has access to her dad’s frequent flyer account and so she buys Chia a plane ticket to Tokyo so she can go over there and find out what is going on and report back to the rest of the teenage Lo/Rez fans.

On the plane to Tokyo Chia is befriended by a suspicious-looking woman, a fake blonde with hair implants, one of which she pulls out and inserts in the DNA control which is now common at these airports of the future.

The blonde calls herself Maryalice (page 47), hands Chia a suitcase to take through passport control for her, and then disappears: clearly there’s something dodgy in the case, clearly Chia is very naive. Without her realising it, Maryalice also slipped something into Chia’s hand luggage, a cigarette carton-sized metal object

The narrative is carefully structured. The Laney and Chia plotlines alternate neatly like a tennis rally throughout the book. But there’s also extensive use of flashback to fill in backstory. It is a nicely engineered text.

Laney has barely unpacked before he’s met and is taken out for drinks and sushi by the enormous Blackwell, with skinny little sociologist Yamazaki in attendance and so, in a series of flashbacks, Laney tells his backstory i.e. the job at Slitscan and why he quit.

We learn Laney quit because he was tasked with finding out about a young woman, Alison Shires, who was having an affair with a famous movie star, and so was a ripe target for a Slitscan scandal program. But Laney’s supernatural ability to scope data had made him increasingly fearful that Shires was going to kill herself, till one feverish night he went round to her apartment, let himself in (being a data hacker he knows all her security numbers) only to find her slitting her wrists. Laney stops her, patches the wrists up, but trips and bangs his head which stuns him long enough for her to get up, walk into the kitchen and shoot herself.

The cops come quickly, but more importantly so do representatives of a media outlet called ‘Out of Control’ which makes TV programmes about TV programmes and want to screw Laney’s employers, Slitscan.

Upset by how they set him onto Alison Shires but gave the poor woman no help, Laney agrees to stiff his old employers. So the Out of Control people put him on a contract, give him lawyers to help with the cops, and put him up at the luxury hotel, ‘the Chateau’, packed with their staffers and lawyers and producers. So this is how he comes to meet Rydell, the hero of Virtual LIght, now reduced to working as a security guard there (page 69) and who, when he learns Laney is a digital whizz, gives him the tipoff about the job in Japan.

On the plane flight Maryalice had told Chia about her boyfriend Eddie, and he meets them at the airport and they offer Chia a lift into town and then invite her up to their apartment. From the whole treatment, I’d be astonished if Chia doesn’t get caught up in some criminal scam… and indeed, it’s only at this point, about a quarter into the book, that we discover that Chia is, indeed, only 14-years-old, not a young woman at all, but genuinely a naive child (p.86).

Back in the bar, Blackwell finally explains who he is to Laney. Blackwell is chief of security for the world-famous band Lo/Rez which we’ve heard so much about (page 72). Somebody has ‘got at’ Rez (maybe the Russian ‘Kombinat’, which appears to be a name for Russian organised crime) and Blackwell wants Laney to use his node analysis skills to find out who (page 73).

Meanwhile, Eddie and Maryalice take Chia up to their apartment above a bar, which turns out to be more like a warehouse, stuffed with cartons and a bank of monitors managed by a Japanese named Calvin. When Eddie and Maryalice lock themselves into the office and start having a row, Calvin whispers to Chia asking if she’s ‘part of it’ and when she says, ‘No, part of what?’, he hustles her out of the apartment, into a talking elevator, tells her how to get to the nearest tube station and the hell away before it’s too late.

So off scoots Chia and uses a public digital docking port to contact a Tokyo member of the international fan club for Lo/Rez (like the Bay City Rollers of my youth, like the Take That fans of a few decades ago). She hooks up with a local member and goes to her house. This local fan is Mitsuko, aged 13. Hmmm. So this plotline is about teenyboppers, about gushy teenage girls. The two girls pop on earclips which translate from English to Japanese and the reverse so they can talk to each other.

We learn more about ‘the Sandbenders’, virtual tech built by a commune in Oregon: to use it, you slip silver thimbles over your finger and thumb tips and affix wrist straps, put on eyephones and then you are in the virtual reality program of your choice, in Chia’s case, a beautified version of Venice, empty of tourists, just before dawn (page 89).

Idoru On page 92 we discover what an idoru is. It means ‘idol-singer’ in Japanese. This particular idoru is a virtual woman. A digital creation. Unreal. She is named Rei Toei. She is a ‘personality construct’, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers (as Yamazaki explains it on page 92).

Chia is invited to a meeting of the Tokyo chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub, which confirms more than ever that it is a fanclub of teenage girls, linked in hyperspace, dedicated to revering Lo/Rez. There is some cultural relativity stuff comparing American and Japanese fans i.e. the Japanese, even though schoolgirls, are formal and considered and first of all give Chia a thorough history of the creation of their ‘chapter’, then politely turn to her to give a similar history of the Seattle ‘chapter’. However, being a crude Yank, Chia ignores all that and blurts out her question about Rez – ‘Is it true he wants to marry a virtual woman?’

By this stage it is crystal clear that the Chia storyline and the Laney storyline are both about Rez and the virtual woman, and the reader can see that they will, at some point, converge.

It’s worth noting that the characters jack into cyberspace more in the first fifty pages of this novel than in all of Virtual Light put together (one of the weaknesses of that book) and that when they do, the descriptions of their cyber-experiences are brilliant, in a way Gibson patented and excels at. The description of the haunting empty cyber-Venice; or the meeting place the Tokyo chapter have created (since none of them are physically in the same room), a pagoda created from digital data; and the way the half dozen teenage girls in it have created their digital avatars, all this is vividly and brilliantly done.

After Chia’s left the Tokyo fanclub meeting, she has has a separate online meeting with a friend from the Seattle chapter, Zona Rosa, who lives in Mexico City and is famous for her bad temper and for the vast private cyber-program she’s created, an Arizona desert-type environment complete with lizards and cacti.

Anyway, this Zona tells Chia that someone is snooping after her data and has contacted their mutual friend Kelsey, the girl who used her dad’s frequent flyer points to buy Chia’s plane ticket. I.e. the standard thriller trope ‘Someone’s after you!’.

But the cyber-environment is brilliantly described: it’s cool how Zona’s encryption program is represented by a lizard she at first is holding, then places on the lapel of her jacket to signify that she’s turning up the security settings. That’s the kind of vivid realisation of the codes and protocols people create in this cyberworld which Gibson really excels at, which he made his own.

Back to Laney who now understands who’s hired him and why. Blackwell takes him back to an office full of other digital techs and monitors etc, introduces him round, then asks him to jack into the system, being DatAmerica, the world’s largest set of cyberdata, and look for Rez’s personal data.

With his eyephones on, Laney sees random artefacts, binoculars, a palm tree by the sea, a link fence around a stone fort. He’s been sent in to find digital traces of Rez, but can see nothing. In fact it’s eerily void of digital traces…

Meanwhile, Chia meets Mitsuko’s 17-year-old brother Masahiko. He is a digital denizen, an otaku (‘a Japanese term for people with consuming interests, particularly in anime and manga’, in Masahiko’s case a consuming interest in virtual reality hacking) who spends most of his time curating ‘the Walled City‘ a secretive digital community.

Laney returns to his hotel to find a fax (a fax!) from Rydell telling Laney a bunch of techs and staff from Slitscan came to the Chateau searching for Laney, seem have discovered that Rydell has rung him a few times in Japan, so they left and told one of the garage attendants they were going to Tokyo, presumably after Laney, it’s not really clear why.

I.e. more or less the same thriller trope as we just saw applied to Chia, namely ‘They’re coming to get you!’

Meanwhile, Matsoku takes Chia on a subway ride, then through umpteen streets, past hi-tech Tokyo buildings and adverts to track down ‘the Monkey Boxing Club’. Why? because it was in this club that Rez grabbed the DJ’s mic and announced to the world that he intended to marry an idoru, a virtual reality woman. They interview the disgruntled wiry DJ (Jun) who tells them that Lo/Rez’s people promptly bought up the club and closed it down, making all employees sign non-disclosure agreements.

Remember the roomful of techs Blackwell introduced Laney to, before he put on the eyephones and entered the matrix and tried to find traces of Rez? Well, one of them now turns up at his hotel, a slender young woman named Arleigh McCrae (page 129).

In line with the book’s extensive use of flashbacks, Laney proceeds to tell her the story of why he was dropped like a hot potato by Out of Control. He was lazing by the pool at the Chateau when his minder, Rice Daniels, arrived with a wise old lawyer, Aaron Pursley, who gets Laney to confirm that when he was at a federal orphanage in Gainesville from age 12 to 17 the authorities experimented on him with an experimental new behaviour drug, 5-SB. Well, long-term studies of this drug now show it is connected to male patients becoming psychotic stalkers. I.e. if it comes to a lawsuit between Slitscreen and Out of Control, the latter’s lawyers will be able to assert that Laney didn’t go to see Alison Shires to protect her but because he is a fame-obsessed psychotic due to his early drug experience.

Laney has to admit that all these facts are correct, at which point the lawyer packs up his bag and leaves – and within hours Laney, his evidence now worthless for the TV show, finds his contract with Out Of Control has been terminated and the company ceases to pick up his hotel bills (pages 131 to 134). He’d been dumped. He’s on his own. It was at this point that Rydell, knowing the situation and having, in fact, experienced something similar himself, made the suggestion about the job in Tokyo…

Back in the present, Arleigh takes Laney out for a drink (to a downstairs bar themed after American chewing gum) and gives him the backstory of Blackwell. Turns out Blackwell rescued Rez when he gave a concert at a high-security Australian gaol and was kidnapped by Italian inmates. Blackwell, also an inmate, got into the cell where Rez was being held and killed three of the Italians with a tomahawk before the other two fled, Blackwell released Rez and handed him over to the authorities. Rez’s lawyers got Blackwell released from prison a few months later and he’s been Rez’s bodyguard ever since.

Remember how Maryalice, as well as making Chia take her bag through customs, slipped a hard rectangular object into her hand luggage? When she rediscovers this, Chia is in two minds about whether to dump it at the various locations she visits, but doesn’t… The reader rightly suspects a lot of the plot is going to be about this mystery object…

Now Chia and Masahiko are on a tube train going to meet someone at a restaurant when Masahiko receives a message on his tablet warning him that Russians are at the restaurant (above which he and his sister live) asking after them. Masahiko suspects it’s the Kombinat, the Russian criminal underworld who have been mentioned off and on throughout the novel.

In a gaming arcade they meet a mate of Masahiko’s, Gomi Boy. Gomi Boy explains that he and Masahiko have both got responsibilities to maintain ‘the Walled City’, and that, when they heard enquiries were being made about Chia’s cashcard, Gomi Boy went to Masahiko’s and removed his computer, for protection.

Gomi Boy says that a bit later Eddie and Maryalice’s car turned up at the restaurant where they were going to meet (Chia remembers the description of the car, it’s a Daihatsu Graceland). Gomi Boy asked some nearby skaterboys to report if anything else unusual happened and they phoned 20 minutes later to report a smaller car turning up and three bulky Russians getting out and going into the restaurant.

To summarise the story so far

We now know that Eddie and Maryalice are after Chia and the Russian mafia are also asking after her. By now Chia is really, really scared and wants to go home. But she can’t ‘port’ or call her friends from a public portal, she’ll be traced, similarly she cannot now buy anything with her cashcard, which has also been traced and tagged. She’s stuck.

Rock bands with teenybopper fan clubs, bars with silly themes (right at the start there’d been a Kafka-themed bar, then the one plastered with bubblegum brands), noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets and showing off smoking. Brilliant though the cyberspace descriptions are, many aspects of the plot strike me as not really being fiction for adults. Surely it’s teen fiction? Young adult fiction?

More plot developments

This dawning suspicion was reinforced by the next scene, in which Masahiko and Gomi Boy decide it’s a smart move to check into a Tokyo love (i.e. sex) hotel, because it’s a good place to port and or use cashcards anonymously.

(The hotel is humorously named the Hotel Di, presumably after Princess Diana, but with the same kind of tuppenny pun on the verb ‘die’ that you get in James Bond movie titles.) This prompts a passage about a 14-year-old girl (Chia) opening various cupboards and discovering various sex aids, dildos and rubber vaginas, sitting on the bed and it starts to move up and down etc. All this, I imagine, was intended to be comic, but in 2021’s neo-Victorian moral climate, came over as distinctly dubious.

Meanwhile, Blackwell takes Laney and Arleigh to a club which was created within days of the catastrophic Tokyo earthquake, atop a ruined building, with the lights turned out, and ironically titled ‘The Western World’. And it is here that Laney, Blackwell and Arleigh sit down with half a dozen Japanese minders and finally meet Rez himself and, even more impressively, his hologram girlfriend, THE idoru of the title.

The descriptions of virtual reality are more frequent and vivid in this than the previous novel and now we discover that a particularly disconcerting aspect of the idoru is that, when Laney looks at it, just looks, he feels like he’s falling into a vast bottomless pit of pure information: the idoru has a hypnotic, vertigo-inducing effect on the digitally sensitive like Laney. THis is weird and strange and imaginatively persuasive.

Back to Chia and Masahiko in the love hotel. Chia is plugged into the net and we get more super-vivid descriptions of Chia moving through a number of virtual realities, including Masahiko’s room, Zona Rosa’s huge desert landscape, then back to the Venice which is her own personal playground. But she senses something is wrong and when she takes off the eyephones, discovers Maryalice sitting on the bed pointing a gun at her. Oops. They’ve tracked her down.

Cut back to the party at the ‘Western World’ nightclub. Laney goes for a pee, sees a hulk he thinks must be Russian mafia combing his hair in the men’s loo, and has only just returned to the dining room when all the lights go out, there’s screaming, people are knocked over, Laney falls down, is picked up by a member of Lo/Rez – drummer Blind Willy Jude. Jude turns out to have a handy pair of infrared goggles which he pops on and guides Laney through the stampeding crowds and broken glass to the concrete steps, down the thirteen flights of stairs back down to ground level.

On the way they collect Arleigh and Yamazaki and, as they emerge into the street to find cops surrounding the building and phoning for helicopters, they are joined by Rez. So he’s alright, hasn’t been kidnapped or anything. Arleigh gets her hands on the TV crew van and they all jump in.

Cut back to Chia in the room at the love hotel, who has a perfectly civilised conversation with Maryalice who puts down the gun – and it turns out it was a joke cigarette lighter, anyway. Maryalice lights a cigarette, rustles around in the fridge looking for margarita and explains what she got Chia to smuggle through customs in her bag for Eddie.

It is a ‘nanotech assembler’, the thing they program to make all the nanotech skyscrapers sprouting up all over earthquake-damaged Tokyo. To be precise, it is a ‘Rodel-van Erp primary molecular programming module C/7a’ (page 211).

Usually, these things are tightly controlled, but Eddie bought this one and wanted it smuggled into Tokyo so he can sell it to the Russian Kombinat. Chia realises this is the thing in the carrybag she’s been toting all over Tokyo and begs Maryalice to take it please – but Maryalice says it’s too late, the Russians are coming for it and Eddie will stand back and let them kill everyone who knows about it. Sorry, babes.

Meanwhile, Arleigh is still driving the crew van with the guys who escaped from the fight at the Western World. She takes them back to the hotel where she and Laney are staying. Laney, Arleigh, Rez, Yamazaki go to her room and wait for Blackwell to arrive, which he soon does, telling Rez he’s dumb to marry a hologram, but Rez insists she is the future. Exhausted, Laney slips out their room and slopes off to his one, opens it only to discover… bloody Kathy Torrance from Slitscan TV sitting at the end of his bed watching a porno. What the devil is she doing in Tokyo?

Cut to Chia in the love hotel, where she and Masahiko jack into cyberspace and meet people from ‘the Walled City’ which turns out to be a community of very advanced hackers. One, ‘the Etruscan’, gets money for Chia from her father’s secret bank account.

Zona arrives (online). Chia reveals to all of them what she hadn’t so far mentioned, namely that she has this contraband in her bag. Masahiko whips out the nanotech assembler, scans it and confirms that it is the latest version of nanotech assembler, very illegal, automatic life sentence for all of them.

There follows a detailed explanation of the origin of ‘the Walled City’ as a place whose denizens wanted to preserve the freedom and anarchy of the original internet before governments started putting up restrictions, ‘an outlaw place’ (page 221). The descriptions of Chia floating through random surreal hyperspace, and investigating the canyons and rooftops of the Walled City are brilliantly evocative.

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room. Kathy Torrance explains that Slitscan TV have cut and spliced Laney’s face onto the body in the porno, which is of a man who appears to be raping a girl. She says they’ll make it public and also publicise the notion that the 5-SB drug made him a psychotic stalker i.e. destroy his reputation, unless he agrees to spy on Rez for Out of Control. He’s trapped.

Cut back to Chia in cyberspace. Zona, with typical aggression, tells Masahiko and Gomi Boy they must attack, also mentions she’s sensed some intruder in her desertworld. Chia says she also has glimpsed the same in Venice, and takes them all into her Venice recreation. She sees her Music Man walking towards them, but then the Venice scenery slowly gets blanked out with snow and they see that the figure walking towards them is… the idoru!

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room with blackmailer Kathy Torrance. Yamazaki phones him repeatedly from down in the car park, they’ve got things set up for him to go into cyberspace and explore Rez’s files with the addition of the fandom data, hundreds of thousands of teen girl thoughts, ideas, observations.

Laney tells Kathy he’ll think about her offer but she says there’s nothing to think about. So, deeply troubled, Laney catches the lift down to the car park, limps to the van where the techies are fixing things up, jacks into cyberspace and… encounters the idoru.

She was there before him. She shows him a small gig Lo/Rez did when Rez lectured the audience about ‘new modes of being‘. This phrase has been repeated several times throughout the novel, it is a leitmotif.

Cut back to Chia, as she talks to the idoru in Venice while Zona sulks. (It’s a joke among the Seattle chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub that Zona Rosa, based in Mexico City, is wildly aggressive, but Chia has told her to shut up and so she shrinks to the size of a burping frog.) All this is weird and brilliantly described and jogging along nicely when someone takes Chia’s eyephones off and she discovers that Eddie the scary crim has got into the love hotel room. He stuns Masahiko with a stun gun, then turns and asks her, ‘Where is it?’

Cut back to Laney in the car in the underground car park. He has only just starting exploring cyberspace with the idoru when he is tapped on the shoulder by Yamazaki, removes his eyephones and is introduced to Michio Kuwayama, Chief Executive Officer of Famous Aspect corporation, who developed the idoru program.

Kuwayama invites Laney into his Land Rover in the car park, close the doors so the others can’t overhear and the idoru appears between them, a shimmering phantom. The idoru explains that she is already united with Rez, they are becoming a new mode of being. Kuwayama-san explains that this is about Futurity, they are creating futurity.

Cut back to Chia in the hotel bedroom with Eddie and an evil Russian named Yevgeny. From their conversation we learn that the Russian mafia guys knew that the teenage girl who Maryalice picked up on the plane and used as a mule (Chia) was involved with some rock band, so they’d only gone along to the party at the Western World to find out more. It certainly wasn’t some sinister kidnap plot, as Blackwell had feared, and they hadn’t expected it to turn into a huge fight and incident. As a result of all this confusion Yevgeny doesn’t trust Eddie at all.

In the middle of all this exposition, Maryalice (who had been passed out on the bed, having drunk the hotel fridge’s entire supply of miniatures) sways up off the bed gripping her little toy gun, pointing at Eddie who thinks it’s real and forcing him and the Russian back into the bathroom.

But Maryalice makes the mistake of firing it and, since it is a toy, all that happens is a little cigarette lighter flame comes out – at which point Eddie goes ballistic and grabs her and starts hitting her. So Chia grabs the stun gun Eddie had used on Masahiko and stuns him, with the result that both Eddie and Maryalice start shaking with electric shock.

Masahiko had slammed the bathroom door on the Russian, but the latter is very strong and starts to turn the metal doorhandle, so Masahiko lets go and Chia zaps the doorhandle with the stun gun, too. Very exciting fast action!

Masahiko and Chia are debating what to do when the doorknob turns again and the Russian emerges, having used one of the rubber vagina sex toys stored in the bathroom to insulate his hand (incongruous comedy). Just as he steps menacingly towards the two kids, the main door opens and Blackwell arrives, accompanied – to Chia’s delight – by Rez himself! Blackwell takes out his trademark tomahawk (the one he murdered the Italian kidnappers in prison with and has carried ever since) and we suspect the Russian is not long for this world.

But what follows is not the massacre gunfight you might have expected, but a civilised negotiation. All sides establish that the thing in Chia’s bag is the nanotech assembler. The Russian reluctantly admits his people were hoping to use it for expensive buildings and factory creation in Russia. Blackwell tells Rez not to believe it, that they only want to build drug factories.

But at this point there is a surreal development. The characters inside the room become aware that someone has announced on social media that Rez has died in the love hotel and has told all Tokyo’s teen nymphet Lo/Rez fans to go and pay tribute, light candles and hold a vigil. Looking out the window Blackwell et al see it’s true. There’s now a vast concourse of teenage girls outside the hotel and growing by the minute.

At the self-same moment, Laney, plugged into cyberspace from the car park of his hotel gets the same message. He tears off his eyephones and yells to Arleigh that they must drive to the Hotel Di as quickly as possible, so Arleigh yells at the other techs and team members to guard all the kit and she and Laney set off on an exciting high-speed drive across Tokyo.

What had happened is that Zona, back in Mexico but tuned into the cybercall with Chia, so that when Eddie tore off Chia’s eyephones the call continued and Zona saw everything that happened. Zona was previously legendary for her high cybersecurity and had kept her identity totally secret but, seeing her friends in big trouble, she had taken the risk of revealing her identity by contacting the Tokyo branch of the Lo/Rez fanclub and telling them (the fiction) that Rez had died, and to organise the vigil, and then broadcast it to as many people as she could reach.

Hence the crowds of pubescent girls assembling outside the hotel which are becoming such a public nuisance that everyone learns that police helicopters and cop cars are on the way.

At this point all parties in the hotel room realise there’s no way they can have any kind of fight and get away with it, so Blackwell and the Russian in a surly truce, Rez and Chia and Masahiko, take the elevator to the car park just as Arleigh arrives in the crew van. They all climb aboard and then drive carefully through the hordes of weeping Japanese teenage girls, get free of them and hack it back to the hotel.

Coda

And that is the end of the main plot. That’s the story. The last few chapters are brief and tie up loose ends:

Laney confesses to Blackwell that he’s being blackmailed by Kathy Torrance, so Blackwell says ‘Leave it to me, I will have a very personal conversation with her’. Among other things we have learned during the course of the book that two of Blackwell’s techniques involve a) nailing people’s hands to the bar or table b) chopping their toes off one by one. Seems probable he won’t actually have to do that to terrify Kathy so much that she drops the blackmail attempt.

So Laney is in the clear, he has fulfilled his job and a one-page chapter finds him in bed with Arleigh, they’ve clearly had sex, they’re an item and later that night he phones Rydell, who tipped him off about this whole job in the first place, to tell him everything turned out just fine.

Chia has the longest chapter. Rez pays for her to fly back to Seattle first class and we have a fairly lengthy look into her mind and feelings and see her maturing, growing up, realising the reality of her pop star crush is very different from her fantasy. On one level, the novel could almost be interpreted as a teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.

The most problematic thing about the ending is the marriage of Rez and the idoru. I haven’t managed to bring it out so far, but in the later phases of the book there were references to the way Rez believed the nanotech assembler could facilitate his marriage to the idoru. That this would happen somehow via the creation of shiny new high-rise buildings out in Tokyo Bay.

I’ve read this passage several times and I remain mystified what this actually means in practice. It feels very like a kind of imaginative sleight-of-hand whereby Gibson evades any sort of logical ending and gives us this semi-mystical one except that, unlike the conclusions of all three Sprawl trilogy novels, is not so much mind-blowing as just puzzling.

Worldview details

Gibson supplies hundreds of vividly imagined, incidental details which contribute to the sense of a totally convincing futureworld, including:

  • overnight there are rumours of rocket attacks and chemical weapons in the former Financial District, doesn’t bother any of the characters, suggesting they live in a semi warzone (page 51)
  • fridges talk, tell you what’s inside them and to close the damn door (page 53)
  • logging into the virtual world to contact friends or whoever is called ‘porting’ – ‘I have to port’ (page 75) because you plug into a ‘dataport’ (page 77)
  • a revolutionary new technology of nanobuildings which literally build themselves by tiny elements of the building intelligently replicating, like watching a candle burn but in reverse – ‘They are like Giger paintings of New York’ (page 81) watching them ripple and move makes Laney feel queasy
  • toilets flush then disinfect themselves with UV light (page 78)
  • elevators talk, well, you tell them where you want to go (page 78)
  • Chia’s phone uses GPS to locate people she’s calling (page 85)
  • Masahiko interacts with the Walled City program via a slender rectangle, much like a modern tablet
  • ‘meshbacks’ is a general term for what we call chavs
  • cigarettes are banned in America and the authorities have gone back through movies and digitally erased them (page 156)
  • the Kombinat seems to be the name of the government in Russia which is actually a mafia government (page 157)
  • cars drive on gasohol, leaving an oddly sweet polluting smell behind

Cyberpunk prose

Gibson writes highly finished, stylised, jazzy, jive prose, no doubt about that – he takes the hard-boiled prose style of the 1940s noir writers, Hammett and Chandler, itself subsequently pared down and refined by generations of American airport thriller writers, and then mixes it with his own highly distinctive combination of high tech jargon and low-life street life. Imagined tech is mashed up with multimedia imagery, skyscraper and 4-by-4 consumer products, neon signs, shiny chrome hotel rooms, black Range Rovers; the text keeps presenting vivid contrasts between the precise spec of high-end, shiny products and streets full of broken glass from the great earthquake, patrolled by hoods and skaterpunks.

It’s a dazzling mix which Gibson handles with extraordinary verve and confidence, creating hundreds of examples of vivid, chrome poetry.

The rain was running and pooling, tugging reflected neon out of the perpendicular and spreading it in wriggly lines across sidewalk and pavement. (page 161)

Blackwell thunked the door behind him, then opened the front, should’ve-been driver’s side door and seemed to pour himself into the car, a movement that simultaneously suggested the sliding of a ball of mercury and the settling of hundreds of pounds of liquid concrete. (page 161)

‘Who owns the building?’ Laney asked, watching Blackwell float up the stairs in front of them, his arms, in the matte black sleeves of the drover’s car, like sides of beef dressed for a funeral. (page 164)

Here is a description of Chia’s first shadowy encounter with ‘the Walled City’ in cyberspace, which brilliantly conveys Gibson’s vision of it as shifting shapes and images, more sensed than ‘seen’:

Something at the core of things moved simultaneously in mutually impossible directions. It wasn’t even like porting. Software conflict? Faint impressions of light through a fluttering of rags. And then the thing before her: building or biomass or cliff face looming there, in countless unplanned strata, nothing about it even or regular. Accreted patchwork of shallow random balconies, thousands of small windows throwing back blank silver rectangles of fog. Stretching either way to the periphery of vision, and on the high, uneven crest of that ragged facade, a black fur of twisted pipe, antennas sagging under vine growth of cable. And past this scribbled border a sky where colours crawled like gasoline on water. (page 182)

Gibson can write this kind of thing by the mile and I find it beguiling and entrancing – he creates real electronic dreams.

He uses another characteristic effect – the pregnant pause, the ominous intimation, the hint that something momentous is hovering just out of range of eye and mind which recurs again and again in Gibson’s novels, giving them a constant sense of mystery and threat:

Between stations there was a grey shudder beyond the windows of the silent train. Not as of surfaces rushing past, but as if particulate matter were being vibrated there at some crucial rate, just prior to the emergence of a new order of being. (page 137)

Reservations

Fiction about and for teens?

Although it’s about other things as well, the weight of the novel feels dominated by the story of a teenage fan of a famous rock band. The amount of time Gibson devotes to describing the Seattle club of teenage girl fans and the Japanese fan club, and then the way the novel climaxes with all those teenage girls crowding round the Hotel Di… it felt like they… It helped to make it feel like Idoru is, at bottom, a book for teenagers or young adults.

Embarrassed teenage attitude towards sex

This sense of it not quite being a book for adults crystallises in the couple of chapters featuring sex. When Chia and Masahiko explore the ‘love hotel’ room, her discovery of the various rubber sex aids is played for laughs. ‘Yuk,’ she says, wrinkling up her nose at the rubber vaginas or extra-large dildos. So the reader sees adult sex urges and aids through this young teenager’s basically virginal, innocent eyes.

This makes the short scene right at the end which finds Laney in bed with Arleigh feel strangely… out of place. Grown-up sex somehow doesn’t fit into this book. The narrative is much more at home with made-up rock bands and their teenybopper fan clubs, taking us to bars with silly theme bars (the Kafka-themed bar, the bar plastered with bubblegum brands, the ‘Western World’ bar, notable for having a large plastic replica tank in the middle of the dance floor, and so on).

Teenage environments

It’s a book of noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets, who show off by smoking (banned) cigarettes. Even the main adult character, Laney, is himself immature, naively impressed by swanky hotels and shiny cars, impressed in the way a gawky teenager would be.

Dated rock music

Another issue is Gibson’s taste in music. His novels feature rock bands with silly names like Chrome Koran (isn’t that a terrible name?) or Dukes of Nuke ‘Em (a ‘hideous ‘roidhead metal band’).

But it’s not that these are silly names, it’s that the entire idea of ‘rock’ music seems rather retro nowadays, in 2021, a time of female singers (Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele) and rap artists from Kanye West to Stormzy. Gibson’s obsession with rock bands feels a bit dated.

Digging deeper into this theme, there are references to:

  • Chia’s Music Master hologram being modelled on David Bowie (he’s not actually named but there’s a reference to his unmatching eyes, which is a famous Bowie factoid)
  • the way this hologram refers to the Procol Harum song Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)
  • the way Rez is referred to in a BBC music documentary as ‘the next Hendrix’ (p.131)

All these old references remind the reader that the third novel in the Bridge trilogy is named All Tomorrow’s Parties after the Velvet Underground song sung by Nico and released way back in 1967.

Hendrix, Procol Harum, Nico. They’re all from over half a century ago. That’s old, in fact it’s Dad Rock. So it’s a paradox that Gibson, who made a reputation for inventing the cyberfuture before it happened is, in this central respect, a central theme to all his later novels, so deeply conservative.

The odd centrality of old-world television

The numerous descriptions of what Laney and Chia see when they jack into cyberspace are genuinely visionary, beautiful and compelling. But back out in the real world (when they’re not jacked in) it’s an oddity that a key element in the plot is, surprisingly, Television.

Some people might find the satire about TV programmes which make a living dishing the dirt on celebrities, and then another TV programme which makes a living dishing the dirt on programmes which dish the dirt on celebrities, amusing and witty satire. But taking the mickey out of TV for being mostly trash feels very dated to me, reminds me of those Clive James TV shows from the 1980s which took the mickey out of Japanese TV, and the scores of programmes which have copied this simple idea.

Nonetheless, television companies and programmes are a surprisingly big component of many of Gibson’s books.

Thus the previous novel, Virtual Light, opens with Rydell being taken up by a reality TV show and the climax of that book relies on the fact that Rydell is again taken up and his story told by the same TV show – Cops in Trouble – whose lawyers spring him and his beautiful assistant, Chevette, from gaol, make them sign exclusive contracts, and make them media stars for a few weeks.

Similarly, in this novel, the central theme of the opening hundred pages is Laney’s experience working for another reality TV show company, Slitscreen, complete with a supposed exposé of its trashy, exploitative values.

My point is that this is all very old media. Rock bands and television, Hollywood producers and lawyers. I know a whole load of futuristic details have been bolted onto it, and I know a key element in the novel is the repeated and brilliant evocations of cyberspace, and yet… somehow, the core vibe feels very nineteen seventies.

A teenage coming-of-age novel?

In the end, the marriage of idoru and Rez doesn’t really come off. I read the last passage a couple of times, but still didn’t understand how they were being united in what was basically a property development project. Here’s Chia reflecting on her experiences:

But mainly it was the City taking up her time, because Rez and [the idoru] were there, shadows among the other shadows but still you could tell. Working on their Project. Plenty there who didn’t like the idea, but plenty who did. The Etruscan did. He said it was the craziest thing since they’d turned the first killfile inside out. Sometimes Chia wondered if they all weren’t just joking, because it just seemed impossible that anyone could ever do that. Build that, on an island in Tokyo Bay. But the idoru said that that was where they wanted to live, now that they were married. So they were going to do it. (pages 291 to 292)

All the way through, characters including Rez refer optimistically to ‘new modes of being’ and Rez refers to his partnering the idoru as an ‘alchemical marriage’, but when it comes down to it, in these last pages, Gibson fails to give us any sense at all of what that actually means.

Whereas the absolute final chapter, an extended reflection on Chia’s feelings once she’s safely back home after her Big Adventure, is much more effective at somehow encapsulating the book’s essential adolescence.

It is fitting that the novel ends not with the evanescent idoru concept but with the much more solid and traditional trope of Chia, the adolescent girl, feeling she’s grown up a bit now and is no longer so in thrall to the Lo/Rez mystique, having seen the reality of his life, of adult life.

This final chapter helps crystallise your sense that the novel is less ‘a vision of a dystopian future’ (as the blurb on the back puts it) and far more a rather sweet, teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.


Credit

Idoru by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

Virtual Light by William Gibson (1993)

Yamazaki crossed to the smooth curve of cable that interrupted the room’s floor. Only an oval segment of it was visible, like some mathematical formula barely breaking a topological surface in a computer representation. He bent to touch it, the visible segment polished by other hands. Each of the thirty-seven cables, containing four hundred and seventy-two wires, had withstood, and withstood now, a force of some million pounds. Yamazaki felt something, some message of vast, obscure moment, shiver up through the relic-smooth dorsal hump. The storm, surely; the bridge itself was capable of considerable mobility; it expanded and contracted with heat and cold; the great steel teeth of the piers were sunk into bedrock beneath the Bay mud, bedrock that had scarcely moved even in the Little Grande. (Virtual Light, page 182)

The Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s prose

Gibson is a science fiction author but incorporates a good deal of noir, pulp, thriller and other genre tropes as well as, occasionally, rising to genuinely ‘literary’ complexity of psychological affect. I just read Michael Crichton’s debut novel, The Andromeda Strain, and that has a very straightforward plot, a thriller mapped out across five days, written in extremely clear and lucid prose, written so a 9-year-old could understand it. There are occasional demanding passages describing scientific theories around biology, extra-terrestrial life and so on, but these also are written with the clarity of a school textbook. Clarity is the aim.

Gibson by contrast, is noted for the cool, streetwise, technologically savvy and drug-wired prose style which he invented for his so-called Sprawl trilogy – being Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988).

All three of those novels concern ‘street’ people, hustlers, living among the shanties and hi-tech canyons of a futuristic society, living lives full of violence and drugs, and in all three these hustlers are slowly introduced to the higher levels of society, to the professional middle classes, then to billionaires, and so take us on a journey of discovery to uncover the real workings of their post-war society (the Sprawl trilogy is set 50 or 60 years in the future, after World War III).

Another feature of all three Sprawl novels is you’re never really sure what is going on – even when I reached the semi-apocalyptic endings of all three novels, I wasn’t completely sure what had just happened. Since I felt the same about his collaboration with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine, which also rises to a kind of visionary apocalyptic climax, I concluded that this is a consistent element of Gibson’s approach: that key aspects of the narrative are kept mysterious, giving you the feeling of something ungraspable, just out of reach.

This is one way in which his books might be said to be ‘literary’, in a way the utterly obvious and unmysterious Crichton never is. Everything is explained in Crichton; big important things are not explained, in Gibson.

The Bridge trilogy

Virtual Light is the first of what developed into a new set of three novels, the Bridge Trilogy. How are the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies different? Well, the Sprawl stories were set about fifty years in the future, in around 2035 (they were written in the 1980s), after World War III, when everyone has access to advanced digital technology, and hackers make a living ‘jacking into’ cyberspace in order to carry out hit and run raids against the vast data icebergs of the future corporations which run everything.

The Bridge Trilogy is set in the future, but not so far into the future nor in so different a society. To be precise, it is set only ten years or so after the first novel was published – in what was then the ‘future’ of 2006.

There have still been society-changing events: a mega earthquake (which seems to be named Little Grande) has divided California into NoCal and SoCal (first mentioned page 8) resulting in a steady stream of new volcanoes up in Washington state (p.32). The President is a black woman (p.9), the air is toxic from all the polluting vehicles, skin cancer is a problem, everyone wears a lot of suntan cream (p.14) (see a full list of characteristics of the Bridge world, below).

Why is it called the Bridge trilogy? Because a central feature is that San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge broke during the earthquake, and has been transformed by homeless survivors into a huge, futuristic shantytown. For some of the old-timers who ‘colonised’ it, like Skinner, it’s a place to end their days, but for others like the fresh young heroine of the book, Chevette, it’s all they’ve ever known.

She looked up, just as she whipped between the first of the [concrete] slabs, and the bridge seemed to look down at her, its eyes all torches and neon. She’d seen pictures of what it looked like, before, when they drove cars back and forth on it all day, but she’d never quite believed them. The bridge was what it was, and somehow always had been. Refuge, weirdness, where she slept, home to however many and all their dreams. (p.122)

Given that the trilogy is named after the bridge, it’s notable that the bridge, as such, doesn’t feature that much in the plot, although it is woven in as a key setting, being the temporary home of Chevette and featuring the scene where a bounty hunter comes looking for her there.

The word ‘bridge’ possibly also has a metaphorical sense in that the entire trilogy is a ‘bridge’ from the present (well, the 1990s when Gibson wrote them) to the hyper-digital future envisioned in the Sprawl trilogy of the 2030s and ’40s.

All manner of cool references are slipped into the text about this cool future, which combines a maximum of stoner, drug, derelict street savvy with the highly-armed, gun expertise of Judge Dredd. Thus there is a lot of talk about Glock machine guns, knives, flick-knives, stunguns, SWAT stun grenades and many more weapons. This is meant to be a semi-dystopian future but a) the fact that it is set in what is now our past and b) its obsession with guns, just reinforces my sense of what a screwed-up, hyper-violent society America is, now.

The cool gun expertise alternates with cool references to a new designer drug, ‘dancer’.

Seriously tooled-up intruders tended to be tightened on dancer, and therefore were both inhumanly fast and clinically psychotic. (p.9)

From the get-go Gibson is master of a street savvy, whip-smart, post-Beat prose. Here’s a paragraph from the first page:

The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night. (page 1)

A lot is going on here, but to pick three obvious points:

  1. It’s poetic prose, designed to be savoured and reread for its sound alone.
  2. ‘The sewage flats’? This is the one and only time they’re mentioned in the book so they take their place alongside hundreds of other details which are thrown away, unexplained, and from which the reader uses their imagination to construct the functioning and appearance of this futureworld (see the list below).
  3. ‘lodged in the lens of night’ is a self-consciously poetic and imaginative image. The book is full of them. It is a self-consciously stylish book, on all levels (in its prose style and setting and characters and plot).

Cops

However, having said all this about Gibson’s zippy prose style and slick future-vision, the reader quite quickly realises the novel is about a cop, Berry Rydell, who’s become a kind of private security guard. An American novel about a cop-turned private detective? Actually this is a very old trope, going back to the noir novels of the 1930s and 40s, to Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler…

And then, as the novel progresses, we watch as this tough private eye rescues the attractive young woman from the bad guys and whisks her off to safety while he tries to figure out the Right Thing To Do.

Hmmm, in this elementary respect, the basic plot structure of Virtual Light seems far from experimental or new – it is, to some extent, a cyberspace update of film noir tropes and characters and plot.

So: we learn that Berry Rydell, born 1983 (p.14) is an ex-cop from Knoxville, Tennessee, who was cashiered out of the service after shooting to pieces a drug-addled maniac who was holding his wife and kids hostage and demanding to speak to the president. He’s managed to get a job with a private security firm named IntenSecure in Los Angeles, alongside a ripe collection of freaks and allergy monkeys… Here’s a plot summary:

Plot summary

Berry Rydell is fired from the Tennessee police force for shooting a hostage-taker, the demented Kenneth Turvey.

Rydell is in his twenties looks like Tommy Lee Jones (p.81) i.e. ruggedly handsome.

The notoriety Rydell wins from shooting Turvey and being sacked leads to him briefly being taken up by the sexy presenter of a TV show, Cops With Problems, Karen Mendelson (p.16) who flies Rydell out to LA and up to her swank penthouse apartment for a few weeks of expense account living and wild sex, before a new and better story comes along, she dumps him and has him escorted from the apartment by security guards who work for IntenSecurity Corporation, a ‘rentacop’ outfit.

That’s what gives Rydell the idea of applying for a job there. He gets one driving a vast 6-wheel ‘Hotspur Hussar’ around the houses of the rich up in Benedict Canyon who’ve paid for security checks (to be precise, he is employed in ‘the residential armed-response branch’ of the IntenSecurity Corporation p.48), alongside a skinny streak of piss named Sublett, who grew up in a trailer park dominated by his born-again Christian mother, watching old movies and harangued all day by TV evangelists.

One evening Rydell and Sublett follow instructions beamed from ‘the Death Star’, the nickname they give to the Southern Californian Geosynclinical Law Enforcement Satellite (p.11).

But it’s a hoax; someone has hacked into the system in order to make Rydell think a robbery and hostage situation is taking place at some luxury home. So Rydell rams the huge truck through the house’s security gate, across the Japanese garden and through the living room wall, and is staggering into the house with his machine gun when… an LAPD helicopter descends over the wreckage and arrests him; the children were off with their father somewhere; there was no hostage situation; the wife was having kinky sex (PVC and handcuffs) with the Polish gardener. As a result she sues IntenSecurity for physical and emotional damages, and they suspend Rydell from all duties: it’s another screw-up.

Cut to San Francisco. Here Chevette-Marie Washington (p.120), who long ago escaped from a juvenile detention centre outside Beaverton (p.125), is a bicycle courier. After making a drop (or ‘pull a tag’ as they seem to call it) at the Hotel Morrisey, she bumps into a drunk in the elevator who takes her up to a party hosted by someone called Cody Harwood, where she spends 15 minutes feeling seriously out of place, gets hit on a by a slimeball with a wet cigar then, on the way out, pushed up against the slimeball by the dense crowd while his attention is distracted talking to a hooker, something is sticking out his pocket and so, on impulse, Chevette nicks it, and is out the apartment door and over to a service elevator, down to the car park, unlocks her bike and is off into the city within minutes…

This turns out to be the core of the plot. Without realising it, Chevette has stolen a very expensive pair of sunglasses. Why? Because they are Virtual Light shades, see below.

Chevette lives high up on the Golden Gate Bridge with a broken-down old man named Skinner in a shack he’s built high up amid the cabling. In the years since the earthquake, thousands of homeless people have constructed a shanty town in the sky, building home-made apartments which have slowly crept up the struts and along the cables of the old bridge till it looks like a giant crustacean, covered with Gothic excrescences.

Skinner is regularly visited by Yamazaki, a Japanese sociologist who is writing a study of how the bridge was colonised and so interviews Skinner because he was one of the ‘pioneers’ of its settlement. T, this being a handy prompt for a series of flashbacks or retellings from Skinner of how it all happened. Yamazaki is not, however, an impressive or powerful figure;  when we see Yamazaki from Chevette’s viewpoint, he is ‘the Japanese nerd… the college boy or social worker’ who always looks lost.

LA Back in Los Angeles, Rydell – having been suspended from work by IntenSecurity – is told by his immediate boss Juanito Hernandez about a job opportunity, working for a freelance security operative, Lucius Warbaby, up in San Francisco. Rydell needs a job so he flies economy up to Frisco sitting next to a sweet old lady who goes on about having to arrange for her husband’s brain, which is in cryogenic storage, to be moved to a better facility. The wacky old future, eh.

Rydell is met at the airport by huge black Lucius Warbaby and his gofer, Freddie (both described on page 80). Freddie’s loud shirt is covered with images of guns, Warbaby has a brace on one leg and walks with a cane. He is the size of a refrigerator but stylish and dignified.

San Francisco Chevette works for Allied Couriers. She’s called in for a grilling by her boss, Bunny Malatesta (p.94) who asks why she checked in to Hotel Morrissey security (on the job where she strayed into the party) but never checked out. The hotel is following it up because the heat is on about the missing shades. In fact, Bunny tells her, the heat is turned up because the owner of the shades has been murdered.

In the next scene Rydell is with Warbaby when he meets two SF homicide cops who are investigating the self-same murder, of Hans Rutger Blix (p.102). The cops are Russians, Svobodov and Orlonsky. Warbaby is a big man but precise and punctilious and polite; he has beautiful handwriting (p.163). He reminds me a bit of the Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon.

Chevette’s courier colleague, a beautiful black man named Samuel Saladin DuPree (p.129), or Sammy Sal, gets her to admit to stealing the shades. She shows them to him and he explains that the shades are Virtual Light sunglasses (p.113). They interact directly with the optical nerve without needing actual light. Sammy explains they’re fairly common among professionals, like a hologram.

In fact Warbaby has a pair which he uses when he takes Freddie and Rydell to the crime scene – the hotel room where Blix was murdered – and further explains that the VL shades have ‘drivers’ in the lenses and frames which affect the optic nerves directly (p.120).

Freddie takes Rydell shopping to ‘Container City’, comprised of loads of derelict cargo ships and their containers with stairways strung up and between them, very trash futuristic, maybe like the final scene in the movie I, Robot.

A character named Loveless, a hired thug, arrives at Skinner’s shack on the Bridge with a gun. Chevette is up on the roof with Sammy. Loveless doesn’t see Sammy but orders Chevette to climb down and back into Skinner’s shack. He handcuffs Skinner and Yamazaki with funky futuristic handcuffs made of flexible plastic which tighten if you struggle against them.

Loveless has come looking for the stolen shades. Chevette lies and tells him they’re in the pannier of her bicycle so he forces her down ladders towards the rigged-up lift which takes them down to road level. Here Chevette cleverly arranges for the bike’s electric defence mechanism to give Loveless an electric.

Sammy has silently followed them both down to street level and now bops Loveless on the head but not hard enough. He just has time to hand Chevette back the shades (he’d been holding them up on the roof when Loveless appeared in Skinner’s apartment) before a dazed Loveless staggers back to his feet and pumps Sammy full of lead – Sammy simply disappearing backwards between the cables off the bridge and falling to his death. Shocked, Chevette just turns and runs.

Meanwhile, Warbaby and Freddie arrive with Rydell at the base of the bridge and send him onto it to find Chevette, they being scared by exaggerated stories of its voodoo, cannibalistic inhabitants.

To ensure drama, a heavy rainstorm comes on and in the thick of it Rydell stumbles across Chevette standing in the rain. He tails her as she staggers along the bridge in the rainstorm and comes across her one-time boyfriend, Lowell, and his ghoulish sidekick Cody, sitting atop a container.

Rydell tails the three as they head off to a bar, humorously named Cognitive Dissidence. Rydell goes into the warm fug of the bar after them, taking a place at the bar and ordering a beer while he ponders what to do next. But into this bar suddenly arrives one of the two Russian homicide cops Warbaby had introduced him to soon after he arrived in SF, coming in huge and silent and with a drawn gun. He orders Chevette to come with him but then…all the lights go out.

In the darkness the fat lady who operates a dancing hologram which is a feature of the bar, makes it dance all round the Russian’s head, giving Rydell long enough to make it across the bar, scoop up Chevette and carry her kicking and screaming to the stairs out of the place. Unfortunately, he runs straight into the other Russian waiting at the top of the stairs who stops them. Rydell and Chevette are both disarmed and handcuffed and forced to trudge under the watchful guns of the Russians to the San Francisco end of the bridge.

Here Warbaby and Freddie, who commissioned the Russian heavies, are waiting for them. They unhandcuff Rydell and are beginning to explain what’s going on when there is another dramatic surprise: one of Chevette’s friends who we’d been very briefly introduced to a bit earlier, a big bear of a man incongruously named Nigel, seeing Chevette taken away at gunpoint, now attacks everyone on a heavyweight bike, ramming the Russian with the gun, grabbing him and banging his head against the hood of Rydell’s car.

As the others set about dealing with this Nigel, Rydell drags Chevette into his Patriot 4 x 4, kick starts it and they skid off, Warbaby raising his cane which turns out to be a concealed gun and shooting out the Patriot’s rear window, but then they’ve turned a corner and are escaping!

Chevette directs Rydell to Haight Street, where they drop the Patriot (which is promptly stolen) and hide out in a tattoo parlour, pretending to take their time in the waiting room deciding on a joint tattoo, while they calm down.

When they eventually leave the tattoo parlour, in a striking coincidence, who should stop and ask the way but the nice old lady Rydell had chatted to on the plane up here, Mrs Danica Elliott, who has hired a big white camper van to drive back to LA in. She asks Rydell if he can drive since she is completely lost. So he and Chevette get in and drive nice and slow out of town. Eventually they’re so tired they hand the driving back to Mrs Elliott and go to sleep in the bed in the back of the camper.

BUT – when they wake up the camper is stationary and Mrs Elliott is gone and who else but Loveless, the hired killer, is waiting for them! I had a sinking feeling that he might have murdered the old lady (one gets sick of all the murder and carnage in American novels) and so was relieved to discover she was herself an IntenSecurity operative put in place to tail and watch Rydell.

Loveless now proceeds to explain The PLOT. The Virtual Light shades Chevette stole contain the blueprint for the comprehensive rebuilding of shattered San Francisco by foreign investors. These are based in Costa Rica (which has been mentioned a number of times as the location for stored data in the same way Switzerland is for huge foreign bank accounts in our day).

The rebuilding project has to be handled carefully because the local Americans might object, but the core issue is that big corporations want to buy up the land the new city is going to be built on. So if the plans get out, all sorts of other actors (for example, the state) might buy it up instead. Thus the precise plans must be kept secret because inconceivably vast fortunes stand to be made or lost.

And it all comes down to possession of the shades. Blix was a courier tasked with delivering them to the right person in San Francisco, but instead let himself be distracted, getting drunk at that party and then stupidly losing them (when Chevette picked his pocket). Loveless had been tasked with shadowing Blix and when the latter lost the shades was only too happy to murder him, not just killing him but slitting his throat and pulling his tongue out to make it look like some South American drug killing.

While Loveless is talking he gets thirsty and orders Chevette to get him a drink from the camper’s fridge, nice and slow. Out of his sight, Chevette slips into Loveless’s drink an entire stash of the designer drug dancer, and hands it to him. Thus, as Loveless carries on explaining The Plot to Rydell and Chevette, he starts to sweat and hallucinate, and ends up firing his pistol manically. Rydell and Chevette throw themselves out the doors, and hide while Loveless runs off shooting wildly. Then they jump back into the camper and make off at speed.

Rydell and Chevette stop to get directions from an old-timer at a derelict Shell gas station. Rydell had used a phone they picked up in their adventures to ring the only person he trusts, Sublett, who we met back at the start of the story – only to discover Sublett has quit his job at IntenSecurity and gone home to his mother’s trailer on a wacky Christian base camp. Looking at the map Rydell realises it’s fairly close by, so Rydell and Chevette drive there and bluff their way in by pretending to be extreme born-again Christians.

There follows extended satire about TV evangelists, in this instance a fictional one named the Reverend Fallon. This actually feels quite old now, very 1980s. No-one cares about TV evangelists any more, compared to the power of the internet, social media, Facebook, the Russians and President Trump.

Rydell devises A Cunning Plan. First he calls Chevette’s ex, Lowell, and puts the frighteners on him to get him to give them access to the digital online place known as ‘the Republic of Desire’. Then he ascertains that one of Sublett’s nerdy friends in the born-again caravan park, Buddy, has a set of eyephones. He pays Buddy to use them, then Chevette watches as Rydell puts them on and dials into early cyberspace.

Rydell has got details of how to dial into the Republic of Desire and here, in cyberspace, sees three weird figures, a woman made of TV shows, a man mountain and a kind of Tyrannosaurus Rex with human hands. These three entities instantly access Rydell’s records and read everything about his life and history, are bored and are leaving the call when Rydell asks them whether any of them lives in San Francisco and likes it the way it is. This gets their attention and Rydell goes on to explain how the plans stored on the Virtual Light sunglasses reveal how San Francisco is going to be handed over to foreign developers and changed out of all recognition. That gets the three digital warriors’ attention.

Together they cook up a plan which dominates the last thirty pages of the novel, which feels like a scam or heist in the style of Ocean’s 11.

Chevette dresses as a courier and enters Century City II, the luxury condo where Rydell had briefly lived with top lawyer Karen Mendelson when they had their brief affair. Soon as Karen Mendelson opens her apartment door, Sublett pushes her and Chevette back into her apartment.

Meanwhile Rydell has recruited the three hackers in the Republic of Desire to help him. The man mountain figure refers to himself as the God-Eater, but they could be anyone, anywhere, Rydell reflects ruefully. Rydell makes his way to Century City II, where he’s arranged to meet Warbaby at 3pm. He watches Warbaby and Freddie and the two Russian hoods (the Bad Guys) arrive in two separate cars, then enter the mall. He follows them up inside, then phones the three hackers in the Republic of Desire again. The narrative explains that they decided to ‘help’ because they don’t want to see San Francisco over-developed and also it presented a new technical challenge, which amuses them.

What happens is: the hackers take control of SF police in order to fly armed drones into the mall which tell Warbaby, Freddie and the Russians to get on their faces. This is because the system has been hacked to identify them of being terrorists planning to blow up the entire mall.

But where’s their hired goon, Loveless? Seeing he hasn’t come along with Warbaby, Rydall guesses he must have gone straight to Karen’s apartment. Rydell dashes up there and arrives just in time, just at the split second Loveless emerges from hiding and raises his little gun to Chevette’s temple planning to take her hostage or just to shoot her. And that’s the moment Rydell hits him with the capsicum spray he carries round with him like mace gas only much worse.

Epilogue

Then – The Payoff. The cops arrest the five baddies, Warbaby, Freddie, the two Russian hoods and Loveless. Then a whole fleet of Karen Mendelson’s lawyer friends arrive, including the legendary lawyer Wellington Ma, and these media operators immediately see the TV potential of the story and so sign up Chevette and Sublett to tell their stories. While Chevette had been in the apartment with Karen she’d shown her how to play the Virtual Shades, so Karen has seen the development scams which were planned and is able to retell it to her lawyers and the cops. Rydell et al are in the clear, and a good TV show will be made about it all, and the baddies will be brought down. Rydell et al will be arrested but the head lawyer from Cops in Trouble tells him they’ll get bail within the hour and then they can start working on the documentary and then the made-for-TV movie.

In other words – despite the futuristic sci-fi trappings – this feels, in the end, like an American crime caper: the goody is a cop with a heart of the gold, the young girl assistant has nice ‘tits’ (as Rydell puts it, more than once) the baddies are crooked property developers, foreigners and blacks – and everything will be sorted out by shit-hot LA TV lawyers.

Ultimately, feels more like an episode of LA Law than genuine science fiction.

Features of Gibson’s futureworld of 2006

  • the President is a woman named Millband (p.17) and is black! (p.183)
  • there’s a vaccination against AIDS (p.18) seems you need certificates of vaccination to show partners before having sex (p.21), the origin of the vaccine is just one individual, J.D. Shapely, who was found to host a benign version of HIV which eradicated the malign version (see below)
  • cops wear air-conditioned helmets with plastic visors
  • ‘gyms’ offer injections of Brazilian fetal matter and having your skeleton ‘reinforced’
  • Italy is no longer a unified state, people come from parts of ‘what used to be Italy’ (p.40) (cf Canada, below)
  • Chevette’s motorbike has a recognition loop you slip your hand into to unlock it (p.44)
  • swimwear is designed to keep off dangerous UV rays and to keep out the dangerous poisons in the sea
  • the ozone hole is a problem (p.46)
  • a virus has destroyed palm trees (maybe all trees) (p.50), later identified as ‘some Mexican virus’ (p.273)
  • five dollar coins, suggesting inflation (p.58)
  • Thomasson is a generic name Gibson’s invented for pointless yet curiously art-like features of the urban landscape (p.61)
  • the big nations of the world (Russia, Canada, Brazil) have fragmented into numerous mini-states (p.71), Canada has broken up into five states (p.242)
  • the Cease Upon The Midnight movement and other self-help euthanasia groups prefer peaceful suicide to having your brain put in a cryogenic store (p.79)
  • it’s been illegal to manufacture cigarettes in the US since 2000 (p.101)
  • the Sword of the Pig movement (p.108)
  • after the earthquake there seem to have been waves of disease or ‘plagues’, which Gibson lists on page 117
  • New Zealand appears to have been occupied by Japanese armed forces who have to suppress resistance movements (p.190)
  • much is made throughout the book of posters and image of AIDS survivor J.D. Shapely dotted around San Francisco and, at one point, Yamazaki channel surfs to a BBC documentary which gives an extremely thorough biography of Shapely (pages 190 to 192). Shapely was a gay prostitute who ended up in prison where they discovered he had AIDS but it didn’t kill him; in him HIV had mutated to a strain which was a) benign b) ate the original virulent strain. Thus a vaccine was made from his version and was administered to everyone in the world.

Funky phrases

So rich in slang and neologisms, American writers.

  • inner trivia banks (p.14)
  • telepresence rig (p.15)
  • Thiobuscaline (3,5-dimethoxy-4-butylthiophenethylamine) – a lesser-known psychedelic drug (p.16)
  • bunny down (p.75)

Conclusion

My opening comments reflected my memories of the Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s place in science fiction. As I read on into this novel I came to realise it is far less a science fiction book than a techno update of the long lineage of noir cop crime thrillers; that Gibson’s hard-nosed cop with a heart of gold has more in common with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow, or Deckard in the movie Blade Runner or John McClane in the Die Hard franchise than with more standard science fiction; i.e. that Rydell is an avatar of a very familiar type, the tall, handsome, strong cop or ex-cop, rough around the edges, prepared to bend the rules, but basically a good guy.

Similarly, although Chevette is a ballsy, street girl, an urchin, a reform school runaway, she, also, has a heart of gold and has to be rescued by Sir Galahad, thus fulfilling a thousand-year old stereotype. And – sigh – she, of course, starts to fall for him.

  • She wondered if maybe she wasn’t starting to fall for Rydell… she had to admit he had a cute butt in those jeans. (p.261)
  • She was starting to really like him… (p.276)

Rydell reminds me most of Lee Child’s creation, Jack Reacher, another knight errant who combines physical prowess with basic moral rectitude (although, admittedly, Reacher didn’t make his debut till 1997, four years after this novel was published).

They all supply the reader with the same basic pleasure, which is they’re rule-breakers and naughty boys who are, at heart, good boys really. No matter how much they bend or break the law, it’s always in a good cause. And they all combine a bunch of characteristics most men wish they had – size and strength and physical prowess, expertise with guns, all kinds of practical know-how with cars and gadgets – and their basic decency wins over even the most initially independent or resistant of women.

To quote a seventy-year-old tagline, ‘Men want to be him; women want to be with him’ (James Bond memes)

In other words, the setting of the Bridge trilogy is novel and creative, and the hundreds of details Gibson works into the novel certainly convey a great fullness and plausibility to his fictional world. But the basic narrative structure is very, very old.

Nothing dates as fast as the future

One last thought: setting the novel closer to the present day, paradoxically makes it more dated. In the far future (well, the 2030s when Neuromancer is set) anything goes. But if you set something in the near future, you have to be more measured and realistic with your predictions and chances increase that whatever you predict will be wrong.

Thus some of the baddies in the book, like Warbaby, get their information via faxes; computers are used a bit but nowhere near as much as they turned out to; there are one or two remote phones but not many – in other words Gibson did not accurately predict the full impact of the great transformative agents of our time, the internet, increasingly lightweight personal computers, and mobile phones.

And his cultural references feel dated, as well. As in the Sprawl novels, many things have a strong Japanese flavour i.e. the inclusion of the Japanese character Yamazaki and repeated references to a catastrophic earthquake that’s taken place in Tokyo. But in the years since 1993, Japan has slipped out of the cool cultural and economic position Gibson gives it:

Japan’s economy has struggled with deflation since its bubble economy peaked in 1989. (Investopedia)

Japan has, since the turn of the century, in terms of culture and economy and products and even art, increasingly been replaced by China.

Also Gibson’s pop culture references have aged. The entire concept of rock music, which is referenced throughout the novel, seems old now. The character Sublett has an obsession with the movies of David Cronenberg, which might have marked him off as at the cutting edge of pop avant-garde in 1993, but not now, in 2020.


Credit

Virtual Light by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

John Christopher on the changing face of science fiction (2003)

Christopher’s preface

When his young adult novel The White Mountains was reissued by Penguin in 2003, John Christopher was asked to write a new introduction to it. The resulting preface is only eight pages long and mostly explains a bit about the book’s conception and execution. But it also includes quite a passage describing how science fiction developed during his lifetime, which I think is worth publicising and pondering.

Christopher tells us that he was a well-established author of a dozen or more novels for adults when he received a letter from his agent telling him a publisher was asking whether he would consider writing a novel for children.

But what sort of book was it going to be? The publisher obviously wanted science fiction, but I was getting tired of destroying the world – by famine or freezing or earthquakes – and I was no longer interested in exploring the universe outside our planet. There was a reason for that.

When I was the age of the boys and girls for whom it was now proposed I write, I’d been very excited about the possibilities of space travel, but those had been different days. In the early thirties we knew just about enough about the solar system for its possibilities to be a magnet to the imagination. The moon might be cold and dead, but the planets offered scope for dreaming. Mars, for instance, was colder than our earth and had a thinner atmosphere, but possibly not too cold or airless to support life.

And Mars had those canals. An Italian astronomer called Schiaparelli, looking through his telescope in the nineteenth century, said he had seen canali on Mars’s rust-red surface. In Italian that just means ‘channels’, but it got translated as ‘canals’, which was much more intriguing. Maybe in that thin but breathable atmosphere there were long waterways, built by an ancient race of Martians, dotted with Martian cities that were lit by day by a smaller sun and at night by the magic gleam of two low-lying moons. An ancient race, because one might suppose that on that chillier planet the process of life’s evolution had been in advance of ours. Apart from being older, the Martians might well be wiser and able to pass on to us the fruit of their knowledge. Or, if they were so ancient as to have become extinct, the ruins of their cities might still be there to be explored.

Then there was Venus – closer to the sun and much hotter than the earth – with its permanent blanket of clouds. What might lie beneath the clouds? Perhaps a planet in an earlier period of evolution, as Mars was in a later one. Something like our own Carboniferous era, perhaps. Did tropical swamps teeming with dinosaurs and hovering pterodactyls await the arrival of our first spaceship?

Because that was something else we felt confident about: early experiments with rockets had already made the eventual conquest of space more than plausible. It could happen in our lifetime, and with it bring unthinkable wonders. It was a bit like being in Elizabethan England, reading stories about what might be found in the new world which was opening up on the far side of the barely explored western ocean.

But in three short decades everything changed. By the 1960s we knew more about the universe and the solar system – but what we’d learned was much less interesting than what we’d imagined. We knew that Mars was not just cold but an altogether hostile environment, Venus a choking oven of poisonous gases. The chance of any kind of life existing on either planet – or anywhere within reach of our probing rockets – was incredibly remote.

A couple of years after I wrote The White Mountains, space itself was finally conquered. The landing on the moon was televised around the world, timed to coincide with prime-time US television viewing. That meant the early hours of the morning in the Channel Islands, where I then lived. The boy I had been at fourteen would never have believed that I couldn’t be bothered to stay up to watch.

I had seen the future, and found it disappointing: so what remained? Well, there was the past. The colour which had bleached out of our interplanetary speculations was still bright in human history and there was life there, and romance and action… The publisher wanted the future: I was more interested in the past…

The Tripod trilogy reconciles future and past

Christopher then goes on to explain how he conceived a way of combining the two, the publisher’s request for science fiction with his own disillusion with science fiction tropes and growing fondness for past history, by imagining an earth set in the future and which has been conquered by futuristic machines, the tripods (very similar to the Martians of H.G. Wells’s War of The Worlds) but the invaders have realised the best way of controlling human society is to take it back to the Middle Ages, by creating small rural communities of serfs obeying the local lord of the manor who in turn owes fealty to the king who is himself guided by the tripods.

And hence the odd atmosphere of Christopher’s Tripod trilogy, which combine futuristic alien masters with a society which is thoroughly feudal and medieval in feel.

Disillusionment with space travel

So much for the origins of this particular novel, but the point of quoting his words in full is to convey Christopher’s eye-witness testimony to how young science-fiction-minded writers’ attitude changed massively between, say, 1930 and 1970.

The just-enough knowledge of the solar system which he describes in the 1930s is the imaginative backdrop to the Flash Gordon, space rocket and ray gun, bubble gum sci fi stories of the 1940s, 50s and on into the 60s. It explains the early space fiction of John Wyndham, two of whose novels are set on a Mars where humans can breathe the ‘air’, can settle and meet the native ‘Martians’, as they do in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the first of which was written as long ago as 1946, and as they do in thousands and thousands of other travelling-to-Mars and colonising-Venus stories.

I wonder if we could delve deeper and locate just when that sense of disillusionment kicked in. Immediately after the Second World War science fiction received a boost from at least two specific inventions: one was the atom bomb, with its ramifications for new ‘atomic power’ which imaginative writers speculated could be turned into engines which could power spaceships across the solar system; the second was the practical application of rocket technology by the Nazis, who developed their big V1 and V2 rockets, both of which are prototypes for the countless cigar-shaped rockets to the moon, to Mars or to Venus which infest the science fiction magazines of the period.

And behind specifically sci fi-friendly inventions there lay the enormous psychological boost of America’s post-war economic boom, when cars and bras got bigger and bigger, the consumer revolution of fridges, washing machines and so on, which fuelled the widespread expectation that pretty soon gadgets would be developed to solve every household or lifestyle problem – including ones for teleporting round the planet or jetting off to the stars.

Is it possible, I wonder, to date precisely when the sense of disillusion which Christopher so eloquently describes, began to kick in? Or did it happen to different people at different times? I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s and remember watching Tomorrow’s World with James Burke who also covered the Apollo moon landings, and there was still plenty of optimism about building a space station and using it as a jumping off point for Mars and all the rest of it.

J.G. Ballard was a relatively lone voice when he declared in about 1973 that the Space Age was over. That seemed a mad thing to say but what he was specifically referring to was the fact that the later moon landings were not covered live by American TV because ratings fell off. By the last moon mission, the Apollo 17 trip of 1972, the moon landings and the TV series that presented them to a worldwide audience, had been cancelled.

People were bored. Although we then went on to decades of the space shuttle and the creation of the international space station (the 1980s and 90s) Ballard was, I think, right to realise that these developments no longer captured widespread popular attention. They relapsed into being the special interest of a diminishing band of fans, with occasional flare-ups of wider interest whenever a rocket or shuttle blew up (January 28, 1986) or the occasional landing of a little buggy on Mars (as with the current Mars rover mission).

Anthropomorphism and Western chauvinism

But more than just shedding light on the trajectory from optimism to indifference about space travel in the mind of Christopher and by extension his generation (he was born in 1922), this passage also tells us something else about the sociological shape of the human imagination.

What I mean is the incredibly anthropomorphic nature of the speculations Christopher found so exciting. He expected there to be cities, or ruins of cities, or ‘wise old civilisations’ which could teach us newbies the secrets of the universe. Or maybe Venus would be at the other end of the evolutionary scale and just like earth in the age of the dinosaurs.

Either way you can see how these are obviously entirely human, anthropomorphic imaginings.

Digging a bit deeper, the notion that there might be ‘ruins’ on Mars is not only anthropomorphic but very Anglocentric. The 1920s and 30s were a great era for finding ruins of lost civilisations, crystallised by the publicity surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. But the point is that these, along with discoveries made along the Silk Road in Asia or aboriginal holy sites in Australia, or Inca and Aztec sites in Central America, or the imperial cities of Zimbabwe or Chad, these were all discoveries made by Europeans and Americans, and so became part of our culture, the relics were brought back to our countries and became part of our colonial ownership of the rest of the world.

The ruins might be in Central America or Asia but they were made by white men, written up in white men’s journals for white men organisations and popularised through the newspapers, tabloids and magazines of the West, percolating down to schoolboys like Christopher and his contemporaries as controlled and ordered and structured into heroic narratives of Western exploration and discovery and understanding.

And it’s this ordered, directed, pro-Western structuring of narratives of discovery which underpin thousands and thousands of science fiction planetary stories from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Underpinned by the basic assumption that we earthlings, generally American earthlings, have a God-given right to colonise, inhabit, discover, communicate with, define and categorise and generally own the rest of the solar system if not the galaxy.

Which makes all the narratives which share this basic underpinning or ideological framework – no matter how disturbing their surface details and gaudy monsters might be – at their core, reassuring and comforting because they reinforce the notions of order and civilisation and morality and hierarchy and category which underpinned Western discourse (i.e. the aggregated total of the news media, scientific research, history and the humanities and all types of fiction) during that era.

Christopher’s young notions about the solar system and aliens were human-friendly and Western friendly.

Moving from adult to children’s fiction

In this respect Christopher’s transition from writing for adults to writing for children at just the time he did makes perfect sense, because the adult world, at the end of the 1960s, was ceasing to be the homogenous world of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and morphing into something else, something harsher and more fragmented.

Of course the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the vast calamity of the Second World War were physically and economically much more disastrous than anything which happened in the 60s and 70s. But the late 1960s and 70s saw the breakdown of the ideological, moral and cultural consensus which had dominated the West since 1945.

John Wyndham’s science fiction novels are ‘cosy’ because the protagonists all share the same values and worldview, even when they’re taking potshots at each other – to take a tiny example, Croker, the ostensible ‘baddie’ who staged the attack on Senate House in Day of The Triffids, later candidly admits it was the wrong solution to the plight of a world gone blind, and ends up becoming the leader of a new community. Deep down everyone is on the same side, believes the same things, shares the same values.

J.G. Ballard’s fiction represents, from the start, the collapse of this consensus. In Ballard’s early works the characters go mad, have psychotic breakdowns. To be precise, his characters’ response to some environmental catastrophe is to withdraw into private worlds and fantasies and to cease altogether to share values with anyone else. The moral consensus apparent in all Wyndham’s novels vanishes like morning dew leaving a ruined landscape of wandering psychotics – not psychotic killers, just people living entirely inside their own heads, to their own made-up values.

In the mid- to late-1960s, Ballard’s novels featured a lot of casual sex and violence and psychological breakdown which outraged the philistines and traditionalists. What is not so often commented on is that, as the 1970s progressed, the decade Tom Wolfe labelled the Me Decade (‘characterised by narcissism, self-indulgence, and a lack of social concern’) Ballard’s fictions came to seem prophetic of the widespread collapse of communitarianism and the rise of atomized individualism widely observed in that decade.

By the time Reagan and Thatcher were elected in 1979, although he’d carried on writing pretty much the same kind of thing, society had so completely transformed its values that Ballard came to seem like the prophet of smug, gated, amoral, rich sybarites, the subjects of his final (and, to me, deeply unsatisfying) novels, Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).

These all describe ‘transgressive’ behaviour among upper-middle-class professional types. They’re often described as satires, but they’re not, they’re more like shopping lists or role models for the era of the Sunday Times rich list and the never-ending series of lifestyle magazines which arose during the 1980s.

Thus to read in chronological order the novels of John Wyndham in the 30s, 40s, 50s, of John Christopher in the 50s and 60s, the optimistic techno-novels of Arthur C. Clarke from the 1950s through the 1970s, and then onto the stories and novels of J.G. Ballard is to watch the decline of Western optimism and consensus, to observe the death and burial of any sense of shared values and morals.

Now we are living in the aftermath of that collapse, with ever-increasing fragmentation of Western societies into angry tribes all convinced that they are the hard-done-by ones, and demanding restitution, justice and compensation from everyone else – the splintering of shared progressive ideas on the left into a welter of special interest and identity groups which itself mirrors the anger of right-wing communities who perceive their own white ethnic and traditional (cis-) gender identities under attack.

Sometimes reading the media, especially social media, feels like watching wild ferrets snapping at each other’s throats, against the darkening backdrop of the never-ending pandemic and the relentless environmental catastrophe of global warming.

We have come a long, long way from the innocently triumphalist vision of space-suited chaps rocketing off to colonise Venus and Mars. Now, far from colonising any other planets, it looks like we don’t even know how to hold democratic elections any more, and can’t agree what they’re for (this piece was written soon after the Proud Boys invaded the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021).

We certainly don’t know how to manage the planet we live on, let alone set ourselves up to ‘conquer’ and run others.


Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The Guardians by John Christopher (1970)

In the mid-1960s John Christopher switched from writing science fiction for adults to writing science fiction for teens or young adults as they’re called nowadays. The Guardians is one of the more successful of these teen novels. It won prizes – the annual Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for the German translation. I can see why. In clear, factual, no-nonsense prose Christopher vividly depicts the adventures of a fatherless young boy in a story which is both a scary adventure, but also strangely reassuring at the same time.

It uses familiar sci fi tropes: a) it is set in a future society which b) has been divided into castes or distinct groups c) is controlled by shadowy, all-powerful forces, but d) there is a cohort of keen young idealists setting out to overthrow it. If Christopher doesn’t investigate any of these themes in any depth a) this is maybe appropriate in a book aimed at 10 to 14 year-olds, and b) instead of depth what you do have is tremendous speed. It’s a short but fast-moving book, good to keep easily distracted teenagers’ attentions.

Lastly, unlike The White Mountains and some of his novels for adults which consist of long, gruelling journeys which end up wearing down the reader as well as the protagonists, The Guardians has a compelling symmetry and circularity to the storyline, and it ends on a pleasing note of excitement and expectation. It is a good novel for older children (11 to 14).

The Guardians

Future It is 70 or 80 years in the future. England is divided into the ‘County’, a rumoured land of leisure beyond the ‘Barrier’, and the ‘Conurbs’, the extensive urban areas in one of which lives Rob Randall. Rob’s been living in an apartment in a high rise with his dad since his mum died after a long illness.

Conurbs The Conurbs are packed. People live in high rise blocks and have access to futuristic gadgets. Monorails run at up to 200 kilometres an hour. Cars run on predetermined routes. There are portable lumoglobes.

Games The populace is kept entertained with bread in and circuses, in this instance the high-speed often violent Games held in massive Stadiums, including terraplaning where jet-propelled cars hurtle round a cambered track, occasionally crashing, to the cheers of the crowds. Crowds entering or exiting often turn into mobs, creating hysterical crushes.

China war The world is at peace as far as we know, except for a permanent war in faraway China, which people rarely talk about, and never seems to present any threat.

Library Rob gets caught in one of these sudden mob crushes on the way back from the library. The library is falling to bits, no-one goes there. A sign outside says it was opened as long ago as 1978 (thus setting the story in what was then the future). This is because in the Conurbs hardly anybody reads books or writes anything. Everybody watches holovision (HV) or dictates messages into handheld recorders.

An accident Rob pops by the Stadium to see his dad but is met by his friend Mr Kennealy who tells him his dad’s had an accident. He’s an electrician and touched a live wire. Mr Kennealy takes him back to his house for supper and to spend the night.

Conspiracy? That evening Rob hears Kennealy discussing his father in a conspiratorial way with some men who’ve come to visit, but can’t hear the details. ‘This is a dangerous business… We better all watch out.’ Was Rob’s dad’s death not an accident? Why? Was he part of some conspiracy? What?

Dad dead Next day Mr Kennealy takes Rob to the hospital where he is shocked to be told Rob’s dad has died. Kennealy takes Rob to his dad’s apartment to collect some things, including an old box Rob finds, containing his mum and dad’s letters and old b&w photos, and then back the Kennealy flat.

Leaving Mr Kennealy’s Mr and Mrs Kennealy discuss whether Rob could stay with them but the decision is taken out of their hands at his school next day when inspectors turn up and declare Rob must be sent to a state boarding school in Barnes. Rob goes back to the Kennealy’s to get his stuff. Keannealy tells him he’ll be ‘safer’ there. Safer? From what?

Barnes Boarding School It’s horrible. Extremely regimented, with fanatical rules about making your bed just so and presenting possessions for a weekly inspection. Rob, predictably, fails the inspection and is subject to a midnight bullying, ‘the Routine’ (hit on the forehead repeatedly by a rubber-tipped hammer) by the other boys. He is given an extended detention, extra work, and the precious books we saw him borrowing from the library at the start of the book, are taken away and burned.

Running away Early the next Sunday, Rob takes a small bag, makes his way between buildings to the school gates, out into the road beyond, catches a bus into central London (through Trafalgar Square with its glass column) and to a train terminus where he takes off his school blazer and bow tie (!) then spends almost all his money on a ticket to Reading.

Reading? Yes. When he read the dusty old love letters written by his mum to his dad, he learned that she originally came from The County, beyond the wall. Well, he’s got nothing to stay in the Conurbs for. Reading is only a few miles south of the border. He’ll go there and sneak across The Barrier and see if he can find a better life in the County.

Reading carnival When the monorail has whisked him to Reading in just 30 minutes (as if any train in England could ever run that fast!) Rob discovers there’s a Carnival going on, one of the many festivals which Conurbanites fill their time with in between watching violent competitions in stadiums or immersing themselves in twaddle on the holovision.

Rob is given a lift This is bad, though, because when he asks a guy for a lift to the north side of Reading, the guy helpfully starts asking around and someone volunteers to take Rob in a ten-seater ‘Electrocar’ and others offer to come along – with the result that he can’t just hope to be dropped and slip away. Damn! These volunteers ask him where he lives so he has to invents a street on the spur of the moment. After driving around north Reading in search of this non-existent address, the volunteers stop at a police station and most of them go inside to ask directions. Rob takes the opportunity to nip out the car but some of them see him running away, so there’s a chase through the Victorian terraces of north Reading.

Rabbit man Rob nips into someone’s back garden and into their garden shed. The mob arrive moments later and the owner gives them the wrong directions. Rob realises this is because he’s keeping rabbits in his shed, which is illegal. He’s a rough, working-class, ferret-faced man who, when Rob says he’s hungry, gives him some mildewy cheese in week-old bread, then tells him to hop it.

Through the Barrier Rob walks north as the buildings of Reading peter out into bare moorland and eventually stumbles on the legendary Barrier. Instead of being vast and electrified it’s only 12 feet or so high and, when he watches a squirrel scamper across it, he realises, not electrified at all. He walks along it, comes to a bit that’s come loose from the earth, digs for a while with his bare hands and wriggles underneath. He is in the County!

Horses He immediately notices the difference. Some men ride by on horses, wearing swords in scabbards and accompanied by hunting dogs while Rob hides. He walks on getting hungry and grubbing up some potatoes to eat raw. Oh dear, this recalls the protagonists of all the other Christopher novels I’ve read, who spend weeks on the run, hungry, cold and exposed to the elements

Mike Luckily this phase is relatively brief because after a night sleeping rough, he’s making his way through fields when a figure on horseback spots him and gives chase. Rob runs but (inevitably) stumbles and there’s an exciting moment when the horse rears above him, the sun behind the rider dazzling terrified Rob. Then it speaks and turns out not to be some vengeful Viking but a boy his own age named Michael, who is jolly decent.

Bunker Mike is astonished to learn Rob has crossed from the Conurbs and decides to help him. He takes him to an old disused concrete bunker (from back during the ‘Hitler war’, apparently) which is relatively dry and secure. Here Rob rests and over the next few days Mike brings him a huge amount of stuff, fresh food every day along with blankets and bedding, a torch and a little paraffin stove.

Mrs Gifford One day Rob is cooking up a nice little meal when someone stands in the doorway. It isn’t Mike and, once again, for a moment I thought it would be some horrible police / army / militia figure who would drag Mike off to prison, but it’s the opposite. It’s Mike’s mum, Mrs Gifford. She’s realised food and clothes have been going missing and watched Mike one morning. She briskly makes a decision to take Rob in.

Big house The Giffords are an old landed family, members of ‘the gentry’. They (Mr and Mrs Gifford, Mike and his younger sister Cecily) live in an enormous old mansion staffed by at least 20 servants. Mrs Gifford runs a tight ship, keeping the servants up to snuff, so that food is served on time, the horses are well looked after, everything runs like clockwork. Mr Gifford is a very passive, understanding man. After the initial introductions, he shows Rob his collection of miniature bonsai trees and there’s a couple of pages going into some detail about how to tend and nurture them.

County living The gentry live very well. There are regular luncheon parties, dinner parties, and bigger garden parties including one where Rob turns out to have a natural ability for archery. However, this big party is also risky. Having accepted him into their family, Mrs Gifford comes up with a cover story. Rob is renamed Rob Perrott and said to be the son of a cousin of Mrs G’s, raised by an old colonial family in faraway Nepal. After dinner party guests ask him about Nepal, Rob makes straight for the big Gifford library and reads all the books about Nepal that he can find in order to improve his cover story. The family stableman teaches Rob how to ride. Mrs Gifford teaches him how to dress, speak correctly and tip the servants. He is being turned into a gentleman.

Posh boarding school Eventually the time comes for school. Mike had been ill earlier in the year. Now he returns to school along with Rob. It is a very posh boarding school, a mirror image of the Barnes state school (just one of the many parallelisms between the two societies.

Conspiracy After various details of the school routine and settling in and lessons and so on, one night Mike introduces him to a bunch of older boys who, after cocoa and biscuits, fall to having a schoolboy-level debate about the rights and wrongs of the society they live in. The group is led by Daniel Penfold who takes the view that all the peace and plenty is the result of exploitation of the masses. Rob tends to the common sense point of view that most people appear to be pretty happy with the way things are. Rob notices that Mike takes Dan’s side. Later, Mike inducts Dan into a deeper secret, the fact that Penfold is the representative in the school of an organisation of revolutionaries actively dedicated to overthrowing this society.

Debates about revolution If this had been a John Wyndham novel, there would have been a long and penetrating discussion of the merits of revolution. Being John Christopher discussion and debate is much thinner: Mike says people need to be woken up and realise the system is rotten and based on exploitation of their apathy. Rob replies that most people are actually happy enough living as they do. You’ll have a hard job persuading people to throw away the comfort and security the currently enjoy, and for what? For a handful of high-sounding words bandied around by some disgruntled sixth formers.

Christmas at the end of the term the boys go home. Mrs Gifford has always shown a penchant for Rob. He now routinely refers to her as ‘Aunt Margaret’. Now she confides in him her concerns about her son: his school reports all say he’s falling short and not concentrating. Rob and Mike have been invited over to the Penfolds house for lunch and Mrs G expresses concern about the influence of Dan Penfold.

The Penfold household Christopher draws a sharp contrast between the two households and their inhabitants: where the Giffords are tall and handsome and Mrs Gifford is brisk and commanding, the Penfold parents are short and tubby and exercise no discipline over the servants, with the result that tea is served late and cold and, in a piquant detail, Rob’s shoes, which he leaves outside his door to be polished, are done so badly he has to do them again himself.

The revolution After Christmas, back to school and another term, but now with this added tension that Mrs G is unhappy about her son, Mike is distracted and aloof from Rob and Rob wonders what is going on. Back home after that term, Rob and Mike plan to go fishing for a morning before rising on to the Penfold place for lunch, but Mike makes excuses about having to go and see a man about a horse. When Rob eventually arrives at the Penfolds he discovers it in uproar. The Revolution has begun! That’s why Mike rode off that morning, to join it.

Protecting Mrs Gifford Rob rides straight to Mike’s house to discover all the menfolk have ridden off: the radio’s down, there are mad rumours of massacres in Oxford and Bristol, the Cherwell is said to be running with blood, mobs of Conurbanites are said to have stormed the Barrier. Rob saddles up to go and join the ‘vigilantes’ (probably better described as the militia) but all the men including Mr Gifford have left and Mrs Gifford begs him to stay and protect them, so he does.

The rebellion is suppressed The next morning Mr Gifford and the male servants return in a downpour. They tell Mrs G and Rob that the rebellion has been completely suppressed. None of those rumours were true, there was no massacre, no storming of the Barrier, nothing like that. Everyone is very relieved and life goes back to normal except that… Mike is missing! His parents are understandably concerned about what has happened to him.

Mike at midnight That night Mike slips into Rob’s room. He’s on the run. Sure, the rebellion was defeated and the servant class didn’t rise up as Penfold et al hoped they would, but he hasn’t given up. He describes how the rebels were outnumbered and outgunned. Theoretically guns are banned in the County, even in the Conurbs, but it turns out that, when they’re needed, the authorities had plenty to use. Plus helicopters flying overhead which released a fatal nerve gas onto the revolutionaries. Many died on the spot but Mike was out on the periphery and just felt very ill.

Escape In fact, far from deterring him, the brutality with which the revolt was put down has hardened Mike’s determination. He plans to go over the Barrier into the conurbs at Southampton. He makes Rob swear not to tell anyone, then they go down to the empty kitchen, steal some chicken and ham, then Rob sees Mike quietly mount his horse, Captain, and head off south, before going back to bed, his mind in turmoil.

Militia Next day a military patrol stops at the Gifford house led by a Mr Marshall and asks after Mike. He’s wanted. They must give up any information they have about him or face prosecution. Mr and Mrs Gifford say they know nothing and are sick with worry (worried parents; a very young adult fiction trope).

But the militiaman insists on arresting Rob. He is forced to come on horseback. At first he is terrified and the reader wonders what dungeon and tortures await. But then Rob is reassured when he discovers they’re going to the Old Manor, home of inoffensive old Sir Percy Gregory (page 141).

Sir Percy interrogates Bumbling old Sir Percy puts Rob completely at his ease, offers him coffee and cherry cake, asks a number of innocent sounding questions… and then springs a surprise. They know who he is. They know he is really Rob Randell who absconded from Barnes Boarding School made his way to Reading and crossed under the Barrier. They knew who he was within a day of Mrs Gifford finding him. Sir Percy gives a complete biographical sketch, including the dates and full names of both his parents (page 145). (This passage contains the kind of chronological information which gives all true science fiction fans a thrill, by specifying the dates of the action. We learn his father died in 2052, so if a Christmas has gone by the revolution and these scenes are set in 2053.)

The Guardians Who are ‘they’? They are The Guardians. English society was divided between the heavily populated Conurban areas full of proley families kept entertained by holovision, games and the occasional riot, and the sparsely populated County run by grand landed families with penumbras of servants, several generations ago. The division perfectly suits the majority of the population and has been preserved in a stable situation by the eternal watchfulness of the Guardians for 50 years or more.

An offer Throughout this piece of explication Rob has nervously been expecting to be told he will be sent back over the Barrier to Barnes. So he is thunderstruck when Sir Percy offers him the opportunity to become a Guardian himself. He is smart, he is resourceful, he has shown he can conceal his true identity and lie. He will be able to carry himself well either side of the Barrier. He is perfect for the role.

Gentleman’s agreement They shake hands on it. Sir Percy gives him a short-wave radio. All he has to do is report to them if Mike turns up. They don’t want him. They want the people he’ll lead them to, the ringleaders. ‘But what will happen to Mike?’ Rob asks. Oh, Sir Percy replies, he won’t be harmed. He will just have a small operation in the brain. It won’t change his memories or who he is. It will just stop him being rebellious. He will carry on living a privileged life, carry on fox hunting and archery and go to university. But with the rebel part of his brain snipped out. Sir Percy explains that this is a fundamental method which has been used to keep the populations in both societies cowed and quiescent. If by chance, young men continue rebellious despite the operation, then they are packed off to the war in distant China so they can exercise their testosterone in a safely distant arena.

Mrs Gifford reveals They let Rob go. He rides back to the Gifford House with the little radio. The Gifford family are relieved to see him. After dinner it dawns on him that he is safe, utterly safe. He has a home for the first time in his young life, a warm loving family, a life of luxury. But after Mr Gifford potters off to his greenhouse to grow Mrs Gifford surprises him with two revelations. First, she says she knows Mike was there the night before. When food goes missing from the kitchen it is reported to her. She accuses him of not telling her and her husband, but Rob says Mike pleaded with him not to.

Mr Gifford’s operation The second revelation is that Mike’s father has had that brain operation. He, in his youth, had the rebel part of his brain snipped out. At a stroke various facts fall into place. First, why Mr Gifford is so placid and content to potter among his bonsai trees. Second, that rebellion must be genetic: Mike has inherited his father’s restless streak.

A decision Reeling from this revelation, that night Rob comes to a decision. He decides he had been taken in, deluded, seduced by the comfort and luxury of this life. But it is not the real life, the whole thing is based on the neutering of the human brain to make people quiescent. He could acquiesce and lead a life of luxury, private school, university, then a life of fox hunting and harmless hobbies. Or he can make his way to the Conurbs, find Mike, and join the struggle to free humanity from its sedatives and delusions.

The novel ends with Rob leaving the Gifford house that night, heading south towards the Conurbs, with a backpack of supplies which includes a trowel for digging under the Barrier on his way to freedom.

Thoughts

The Guardians is a lot better than the first book in the Tripods series, The White Mountains. In both books 13-year-old boys are brought up in a future society which passively accepts philistinism and the submission to accepted conventions. So in both novels the boy protagonist ups stumps and goes on an arduous trek to freedom.

Christopher’s books suffer in comparison with his peer John Wyndham. They lack Wyndham’s psychological or intellectual depth. When the protagonist of The Chrysalids, David Strorm, rebels against his upbringing in a stiflingly conformist future society, it happens over a period of many years of thinking and learning, punctuated by key and highly dramatic episodes, and all accompanied by his slowly maturing conversations with Uncle Axel. You feel you have entered really deeply into David’s mind and experienced the difficulty of breaking away from family and convention.

Rob, on the other hand, goes to a rough school for a few weeks where he’s beaten up one night so he decides to run away. That’s it. It feels trivial and shallow, as if little effort went into imagining the psychological background and none at all went into really thinking about the issues involved.

Also, Christopher’s prose is pretty boring. It is plain and factual, unenlivened by metaphors or similes. Pages go by without any colour. Dull.

And, at least to begin with, I was dismayed when Rob sleeps in a ditch and is quickly reduced by hunger to eating raw potatoes plucked from a field, because that’s more or less what happens to the protagonists of the previous three Christopher novels I’ve read.

However, as you continue reading I think this book addresses and overcomes all these issues. Rob is quickly rescued from sleeping rough and quickly assimilated into a life of luxury (which is a blessed relief for the reader). And the lack of psychological or intellectual depth (for example, around the whole notion of rebelling against a conformist society) can perhaps be justified in at least two ways:

  1. Speed. What it lacks in depth, The Guardians makes up for in pace. At just 150 pages long, a lot of events and brief ideas are packed into a short exciting narrative.
  2. Target audience. Maybe it’s age-appropriate. Wyndham’s novels are all, ostensibly, for adults. In the foreword to The White Mountains Christopher dwells on the advice and guidance he was given by his American publisher which led him to comprehensively rewrite the middle of the novel. We know from his adult books that he’s not a great thinker, Maybe his publishers said, ‘Play to your strengths: put as little controversy or thought or ideas into the book as is necessary, at just the right level to get an intelligent 12-year-old thinking, and then get back to the action.’

And maybe the same thing applies to his bare prose. I went from reading this to reading a William Gibson novel and it was like going from a scratchy black and white silent movie to a modern CGI Marvel movie. Christopher’s prose is colourless. But, again, maybe that’s appropriate. Maybe the prose in a young adult novel should be as bare and functional as possible to let the story and the narrative take priority.

There is also the structure of the narrative. His previous novels were straightforward linear narratives describing gruelling journeys. However, The Guardians is notably more sophisticated than that in its symmetrical structure, in the way the hero introduces us to two very different societies, ending up alienated from both of them.

Not only that but it is aesthetically pleasing the way that privileged Mike is, of course, in many ways a mirror image of working class Rob. Mike has both his parents unlike Rob the orphan; he has been brought up in luxury and privilege, unlike Rob raised in a crappy council flat, and so on.

But the most obvious mirroring is that whereas Rob has escaped from the Conurbs into the Country, Mike wants to escape the other way. It isn’t particularly prominent, it feels a natural part of the plot, but the way the two boys echo and contrast with each other lifts the novel significantly above the level of a mere trek into something much more artful and satisfying.


Credit

The Guardians by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1970. All references are to the 2015 New Windmill Series hardback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

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