01 March 2016

Books: Arcadia By Iain Pears (2015)

As far back as his 1997 debut, author Iain Pears books are driven by the past. I remember when An Instance of the Fingerpost was released. It looked impressive, got some good reviews and was right up in my wheelhouse, a historical murder mystery. Alas, for reasons I truly can’t remember, I never got into the book.  I tried, and even kept the book for years in storage hoping to try it again, only I never have. ,

Now why Arcadia? I’m not sure, again. Perhaps it’s to appease my guilt at not reading any of his books, or maybe the premise seemed a bit interesting. Perhaps in the nearly 20 years since that books release, I’m reaching to mind more complex tales with deeper meanings. Perhaps it’s because this novel’s narrative, much like the works of David Mitchell, has stories that are nested within each other, with different storylines that are intertwined. Or that the books appeal lies in its jumble of genres (as the author noted its “a spy story, a fantasy, a historical novel, a romance, a mythology and a work of science fiction…a meditation on literature and narrative, or just a lighthearted romp”) and was curious to see how it all dovetailed together. My choices in reading, I guess, while sometimes predictable, are also sometimes chosen at random.

We start in 1960 with Henry Lytten, a retiring spy who –to counter his boredom- creates the land of Anterworld, a fictional universe designed to be much like the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, but not as complex and deep. In this world the Storyteller is the most significant person of all and students spend decades studying The Story, memorizing it, understanding its commentaries and giving out interpretations to the people. Then it shifts some 200 hundred years into the future where the brilliant Angela Meerson –a psychomathematician- is working for what is a third-rate scientific organization on some isolated island off the English coast. She has created a machine that is designed to transport people to parallel universes to alive overcrowding in this time. Instead, however, she’s discovered she’s invented a time machine. Much as today, Angela understands her device can be perverted into something horrible and fearing that corporate overlords will allow it to fall in the wrong hands, she transports herself –and all the prominent data on the device-back in time, arriving in 1937. After some difficulties with her arrival, Angela begins setting up her machine again, but on a smaller scale. But she is having difficulties creating and stabilizing her experimental universe. During the years, she’ll become friends with Henry Lytten and work for MI5 and when she discovers that Henry is creating this story, she sets up her device in his basement and using what is in Lytten’s mind, creates a pocket universe called Anterworld. But while all seems to be going as planned, a 15 year-old friend of Henry, Rosie stumbles upon the pergola in basement and steps through, and sets in motion something that Meerson never planned on.

Author Pears deliberately creates a complex novel that takes on old school fantasy and marries it with the popular dystopian tales of today and adds a John le Carré (who makes a cameo appearance in the book) like-spy story to set it in the real world of 1960. The plot reminds me of old style Doctor Who, as well, especially the villains of the future (think Planet of the Ood of recent years and for a lot of old school fans, some of the bad guys that pullulated the 1970s Doctor Who serials of Jon Pertwee).

Further research on this title, I found out the original intent of this story was about creating an app for IOS devices. In a piece he did for the British Guardian newspaper, called "Why You Need an App to Understand My Novel," Pears explains he wanted "to make my readers' lives as easy as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure. Once you do that, it becomes possible to build a multi-stranded story … where each narrative is complete but is enhanced when mingled with all the others; to offer readers the chance to structure the book as best suits them."

He adds: “I undertook the project because I had reached the limit of my storytelling in book form and needed some new tools to get me to the next stage. I have always written novels that are complex structurally; in An Instance of the Fingerpost, published many years ago now, I told the same story four times from different points of view; The Dream of Scipio was three stories interleaved; while Stone's Fall was three stories told backwards. All worked, but all placed quite heavy demands on the readers’ patience by requiring them to remember details often inserted hundreds of pages before, or to jump centuries at a time at regular intervals. Not surprisingly, whatever structure I chose there were some who did not like it.”

I’ve not seen the app, and was unaware of its existence and this novel until I saw it at the bookstore and added to my queue at the library. So while the book does not fully have a linear aspect, I did find it fun to try and figure out how all the strands of the tale would eventually come together. It takes some time to understand, and does require the reader to remember certain details, but as something different, as something that seemed designed to challenge the readers notion of standard fiction, Arcadia does that wonderfully.

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