In Arcadia Ego

PearsYou cannot quite tell from this image, that the 1 in the centre of the cover is a cut out, this is not a dust jacket. The cut out reveals a tiny part of an idyllic English landscape: a field of ripening barley, a few trees some distance away and a small boy standing waist deep, appearing to stroke the upstanding grains.

In a quite different book (Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace) I came across a Foreword by David Eggers (2006) in which he wrote this:

In recent years, there has been a few literary dustups – how insane is it that such a thing exists in a world at war? – about readability in contemporary fiction. In essence, there are some people who feel that fiction should be easy to read, that it’s a popular medium that should communicate on a somewhat conversational wavelength. On the other hand, there are those who feel that fiction can be challenging, generally and thematically, and even on a sentence-by-sentence basis – that it’s okay if a person needs to work a bit while reading, for the rewards can be that much greater when one’s mind has been exercised and thus (presumably) expanded.
But while the polarizers have been going at it, there has existed a silent legion of readers, perhaps the majority of readers of literary fiction, who don’t mind a little of both. They believe, though not too vocally, that so-called difficult books can exist next to, can even rub bindings suggestively with, more welcoming fiction. These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction, sometimes in the same week. There might even be – though it’s impossible to prove – readers who find it possible to enjoy Thomas Pynchon one day and Elmore Leonard the next. Or even: readers who can have fun with Jonathan Franzen in the morning while wrestling with William Gaddis at night.

My sentiments exactly. I make no excuse for praising Scandi Noir one week and Iain Pears the next, Pat Barker followed by Jussi Adler-Olsen with Antony Beevor thrown in for good measure every now and then.

Arcadia by Iain Pears is neither quite Thomas Pynchon nor Jonathan Franzen. He is a class apart, not least because he writes both this sort of novel AND detective fiction without a nom de plume, unlike many other writers.

Arcadia is not hard work but you really do have to concentrate. Three inter-connected universes, four main characters and an “ever-present now”. That is to say, either that there is no now, it is all past or future or that there is no past and no future for in these different worlds everything happens simultaneously, even though clearly some happened before and some after in apparent-time chronology. The prime mover is a psychomathematician called Angela Meerson, she has created a time machine of sorts which no one understands except her, the rest of the team think she has created something quite different; two other principals in the drama are Henry Lytten and his young friend, Rosie Wilson and then there is Jay.

Rather like the serpent with its tail in its mouth, the three interlinked universes have become overly complicated. Angela, thinking that her contraption was about to be subject to a hostile take-over has “teleported” herself to another time, 1960s Oxford. She has been here before as a translator for British intelligence during the war, her implants which exist in one of the other universes endow her with phenomenal linguistic abilities. At one and the same time, she has destroyed the data and all trace of her machine AND hidden a written copy disguised as an eighteenth century manuscript somewhere in the universe from which she has fled.

Meanwhile, she has also created Antherwold, the manifestation of an imaginary utopia in an unfinished book by Henry Lytten.  Its incompleteness causes untold complications when Rosie accidentally passes through the portal in search of Henry’s cat, Professor Jenkins.

Antherwold, to all intents and purposes, appears to be a post apocalyptic universe, after a nuclear explosion. The inhabitants appear to speak a sort of English but cannot read the text of an important manuscript, though when Rosie arrives she reads it perfectly easily, much to the Storyteller’s amazement. This is yet another narrative in which forgetfulness has played its part.  The Storyteller, who holds the remembered story of the world so that he can share it with all the domains, looks very like Henry Lytten and is called Henary, he is training Jay to become a Storyteller. This is partly because Jay fulfils the only part of the document he is struggling with that he has so far been able to decipher, for right at the beginning of the book Jay sees Rosie as she steps through the portal for the first time, but she backs out again before they have done more that exchanged a bow and a greeting.

There is lots to take on board here, and like so many similar works there are hidden references in the story that the well-read or educated reader will spot; and anyway even if they don’t, Rosie frequently spots them herself and makes a wry comment, on the lines of “here comes Robin Hood” or “now the Odyssey”. There is a lot of Shakespeare, the fact that Rosie’s name is actually Rosalind, that when she appears disguised as a boy at one point she is called Ganimed where she has adventures with Aliena in a forest and meets the man she loves while she is still dressed as a boy – sounds familiar? Henry Lytten has written papers on As You Like It, Antherwold is peopled with Shakespeare’s characters and, as it happens, with clones of Henry’s friends.

It is not an accident that there is a strong resemblance to Narnia and Middle Earth, both C S Lewis and JRR Tolkein get a mention as Henry Lytten has known and admired them both, but in his perfect world there will be no wizards, talking lions, hobbits and the like, Antherwold is a pastoral idyll on thoroughly English lines: there are cats and dogs, sheep and presumably goats, cows and horses and the inhabitants are decidedly human.

At the same time, Arcadia is an exploration of the parallel universe style of thinking, if it exists does it work alongside the world we perceive ourselves to be in, is time in this universe the same as time in another one, or is it like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, when he has had wonderful adventures with the Wild Things, he comes back home and “his supper was waiting for him, and it was still hot”?

This is also to some extent an apocalyptic novel. Iain Pears writes:

Still, what the man laid out was breathtaking in its ambition. Much of science now was dedicated to squeezing out extra resources, finding marginal improvements and efficiencies. Man could not go to the stars. Several centuries of effort and human ingenuity had got nowhere. Space was just too big, and no one wanted to set off on a journey so that their great-great-grandchildren could reap the dubious reward of life on some dead lump of rock a billion miles away.
On top of that the idiots of the early period of exploration had filled near space with so much debris that they had created a new asteroid belt, all but impossible to get through. Mankind had locked itself onto its own planet through sheer untidiness. Meanwhile, nothing stopped the constant expansion of humanity. […] As the amount of space to live in shrank, as the earth became exhausted, so the population continued to grow; now there were more than thirty billion people crammed onto a world which only supported and fed them through the constant, never-ending efforts of the elite, who organised and controlled everything with efficiency in mind.

Constant growth controlled by the state – another familiar scenario rears its ugly head.


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