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The Eye In The Door by Pat Barker (1993) 280 p.
The second novel in Pat Barker’s WWI Regeneration trilogy, The Eye in the Door takes place in early 1918, when the war is going poorly for Britain and the nation is gripped by a scapegoating campaign against pacifists and homosexuals, led by right-wing MP Noel Pemberton Billing. This novel focuses less on the real characters of Dr. Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon (though they’re still present) and more on the entirely fictional construct of Billy Prior, a young officer who was formerly treated for trauma at Craiglockhart and is now working as an intelligence agent for the Ministry of Munitions in London.
I enjoyed this novel a fair bit more than Regeneration, because it expands the scope beyond the corridors of Craiglockhart and examines more fully how the First World War affected British society. It’s particularly interesting that, as in Regeneration, there are no scenes actually set at the front; we see this landscape of muddy trenches and shell craters quite often, but only ever in dialogue and memories and flashbacks and nightmares.
This was a dreadful place. Nothing human could live here. Nothing human did. He was entirely alone until, with a puckering of the surface, a belch of foul vapours, the mud began to move, to gather itself together, to rise and stand before him in the shape of a man. A man who turned and began striding towards England. He tried to call out, no, not that way, and the movement of his lips half woke him. But he sank down again, and again the mud gathered itself into the shape of a man, faster and faster until it seemed the whole night was full of such creatures, creatures composed of Flanders mud and nothing else, moving their grotesque limbs in the direction of home.
Barker has no illusions about the war – it was a brutal and ugly and above all pointless waste of human life, conducted between malevolent empires. This may seem like an obvious thing to say when these books were written in the 1990s, yet even today there are idiots who think that soldiers in WWI were “dying for our freedom;” twisting the circumstances of a past war to fit the political objectives of our modern wars. Britain, like most Western countries at the time, was a deeply unfree and undemocratic society in which women couldn’t vote, homosexuality was a jailable offence and the Irish people (right on Britain’s doorstep – let alone the people of Africa, India and South-East Asia) were brutally oppressed.
The Eye in the Door shows us the ugly side of British society in those years – the conscientious objectors who were beaten or arrested, whose families were shunned and had human shit shoved through the letter boxes, whose sons were dragged into prisons and beaten and kept naked in winter with a folded uniform left at the base of their beds. A society in which, even though a desperate war was going on, London’s newspapers were full of news about a ridiculous with-hunt of “sodomites,” spearheaded by a man later certified insane.
I’m glad I stuck with this series; I’m still not a massive fan of Barker’s writing style, but I appreciate her determination to uncover every unsanitary corner of a horrific time in history, and to give a voice to the segments of society our current leaders would prefer us to forget, even today, when we should know better.
My sci-fi flash fiction piece Futures Market was published this week at Daily Science Fiction, and you can read it for free online right here.
Daily Science Fiction is a really neat idea for a sci-fi journal – you can sign up to them for free and they’ll email you a short science fiction or fantasy story every weekday, tending towards flash fiction but with longer pieces on Friday. Getting a story published at DSF has been a long-held goal of mine, so it’s nice to finally be in there.
The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman (2014) 401 p.
I read The Magicians, the first novel in Lev Grossman’s wildly brilliant fantasy trilogy, in 2012 when I was 23 years old and had been living in Melbourne for about a year. I read it at a time when I’d first moved out of home and moved to a new city, when I was first trying to actually start my career, and when I was gradually realising that the dream I’d been harbouring since I was very young of one day being a successful writer was probably not going to happen. Dream is the wrong word, probably; it was not something I aspired towards, but something I assumed would just happen. It went unexamined, and I was honestly embarrassed when it dawned on me sometime that year, as I was being thoroughly introduced to the Real World, that it was still glimmering away at the back of my mind when I was old enough to know better.
I mention this because it meant I read The Magicians at precisely the right time in my life. It follows the coming of age of Quentin Coldwater, a sulky nerd from Brooklyn who finds himself recruited into Brakebills, a secret school for magicians, and later discovers that he can visit the unexpectedly-real magical world of Fillory (a Narnia stand-in) that he grew up reading about. But only on the surface is The Magicians a book about what Hogwarts and Narnia would be like if they were real; more broadly, it’s a novel about failure and loss and ennui, about the quarter-life crisis post graduation, when what you’ve been dreaming about for so long is finally accomplished but turns out to be hollow and unsatisfying. It was a book that well reflected how I felt that year: not unhappy, but listless and discontented.
Goodreads is full of angry reviewers who were promised “Harry Potter for grown-ups” and failed to read anything beyond that. Also with reviewers whingeing, apparently without any self-awareness, that Quentin is “unlikeable” – not to come off as a literary snob, but that’s a sure sign of an immature reader. OK, no, there’s no way to write that without coming off as a literary snob. But come on, “unlikeable?” Even reviewers who praise these series can’t help but snipe at Quentin for taking so long to grow up; the archetypical man-child of Generation Y. But aren’t we all like Quentin, at least a little bit? This is why it always irks me when readers toss books aside because the characters are “unlikeable”: it displays a lack of honesty, and sympathy, and perhaps reveals fear. We might all wish to be Harry Potter, but odds are we’re more like Peter Pettigrew.
Anyway, a major part of why this subversive approach works so well is because Grossman, like so many of us, was raised on fantasy stories and has come to recognise the truth; not the simple, obvious truth that familiar narrative templates are an unrealistic way to expect your life to turn out, but that so many of us ostensibly acknowledge this while still being disappointed by it. I’m not just talking about Hogwarts and Narnia here; nobody actually thinks that’s going to happen. I mean every narrative – all of them, in every form. I knew full well, for example, that it was ridiculous to move to a new city and expect my life to be full of wise-cracking early 20s adventures with a tight-knit circle of friends like any number of TV sitcoms, but that didn’t stop me feeling gnawingly disappointed about it, suspicious that everybody else was having a great time and living up to their full potential, unable to relinquish the nagging feeling that my life was not all it could be. Grossman himself has a great autobiographical essay about a time right out of college when, full of stupid dreams and ideas, he holed himself up in a cabin in Maine to try be a writer and instead almost lost his mind.
On some level I still didn’t believe that I could be lonely, even though it was staring me in the face, all day and all night. I genuinely thought that because I wanted to be a writer, that made me different from other people: mysterious, self-contained, a lone wolf, Han Solo.
Narrative, in all its forms and genres, conditions us to expect life to unfold in certain ways: characters capable of development, significant arrivals or departures, experiences that teach us lessons for better or worse, problems that have solutions. As Choire Sicha puts it in a better review than mine over at Slate:
Momentousness, epicness, heroism, so common in young adult and fantasy fiction, are poison. They will make you wistful, falsely pre-nostalgic, soul-sick. Life isn’t that. The desire for the clarity of your own tale is infantile selfishness.
Midway through The Magician’s Land (after an excellent long segment involving a Neuromancer-esque magical heist perpetrated by a bunch of oddballs hired by a mysterious recruiter) Quentin discovers a memoir written by one of the Chatwin boys, the trilogy’s equivalent of Narnia’s Pevensie siblings. Spanning several chapters, the memoir shows what happens as he and his siblings are drawn fully and totally into a fairytale. It’s a nightmarish tragedy, particularly as his older brother becomes gripped with a fear that as he grows older he’s being gradually pushed out of Fillory:
“I know how you feel, I hate it when I’m not asked. But it’s not as bad here as all that, is it? I mean, Fillory isn’t everything.”
“But it is.” He stopped walking and looked me in the eye. “It is everything. What else is there? This? Earth?”
A second reason this approach works is because Grossman is genuinely a big ol’ fantasy nerd who loves this stuff as much as the rest of us. If Brakebills and Fillory and the Neitherlands were a purely academic construct written by a stern university professor, they would be dry and dusty places indeed. But Grossman’s fantasy, while picking apart the genre, also celebrates it:
Here was a great secret: whale were spellcasters. Jesus, the entire ocean was crisscrossed with a whole lattice of submarine magic. Most of the spells took multiple whales to cast, and were designed to bend and herd large clouds of krill, and occasionally to reinforce the integrity of large ice shelves.
And there was something else – something down there in the black abyssal trenches of the ocean. Something that wanted to rise. The whales were keeping it down.
The third and final reason this cynical, realistic approach to the genre works so well is because it doesn’t stay there; it doesn’t wallow in it. It’s easy to think, as The Magician’s Land expands the cast of viewpoint characters (many of whom are nowhere near as messed up as the original ones) and Quentin himself matures into a functioning adult, that the point of the first book has rather been forgotten. But that’s not the case at all. Outgrowing your childhood fantasies is a painful phase, but that’s all it is – a phase. Towards the conclusion of The Magician’s Land is a scene in which Julia shows Quentin a magical garden where “all the thoughts and feelings that had ever been thought and felt existed in the form of plants, blooming and green as they passed through people’s minds and lived in their hearts, and then drying up and turning brown and crisp as they passed out of mind, sometimes to bloom again in another season, sometimes gone forever.”
Here, still, we see the original theme of The Magicians. “Awe and wonder are harder to find than they once were,” Julia comments. Yet they soon encounter a small, strange and beautiful plant which Quentin recognises:
“This is a feeling you had, Quentin,” she said. “Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and hope and joy and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory, then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.”
“Someone must be feeling it now,” Quentin said. “That’s why it’s green.”
Julia nodded. “Someone somewhere.”
Though even now the plant shrank and dried and died again.
This is perhaps the Magicians trilogy neatly encapsulated. It’s a series about the damaging, dangerous power that hope and longing and expectation can have on us, especially in narrative form – but at the same time it exalts that power, that magic, as something which is still worth having. I’m grateful Lev Grossman wrote a fantasy series in which the magic is quashed and the dreams dashed, but I don’t for a second want it to be a new template for the genre, and neither does he. I don’t believe that any of us are the poorer for having gone through these raised and dashed hopes and dreams. It’s part of growing up. Grossman finishes the series not with a sad allegory about the death of starry-eyed excitement, but with a beautiful metaphor for being a writer, and a creative artist in general:
He’d come a long way to get here. He was very far from the bitter, angry teenager that he’d been in Brooklyn, before all this started, and thank God for that. But the funny thing was that after all this time he still didn’t think that that miserable teenager was wrong. He didn’t disagree with him – he still felt solidarity on the major points. The world was fucking awful. It was a wretched, desolate place, a desert of meanginlessness, a heartless wasteland, where horrific things happened all the time for no reason and nothing good lasted for long.
He’d been right about the world, but he was wrong about himself. The world was a desert, but he was a magician, and to be a magician was to be a secret spring – a moving oasis. He wasn’t desolate, and he wasn’t empty. He was full of emotion, full of feelings, bursting with them, and when it came down to it that’s what being a magician was. They weren’t ordinary feelings – they weren’t the tame, domesticated kind. Magic was wild feelings, the kind that escaped out of you and into the world and changed things. There was a lot of skill to it, and a lot of learning, and a lot of work, but that was where the power began: the power to enchant the world.
Read out of context these scenes seem trite, or even arrogant, but I can assure you that as a culmination of everything that’s happened over 1,500 pages, they’re deeply affecting. The Magician’s Land is a brilliant conclusion to one of the best fantasy series and coming-of-age stories of the past decade, and I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s hard to stress how much I enjoyed this trilogy, how invested in it I was, and how glad I am that I read it at the right time in my life. With which I still have no idea what I’m doing – but then, Grossman’s books are among the things that made me realise that’s OK.
Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson (1995) 352p.
I first read this in eleventh grade in high school, after randomly picking it off a list our English teacher presented to us in the hope it would be some kind of desert island tale. The island in question, of course, is actually Great Britain; Notes From A Small Island is a travelogue covering Bryson’s “valedictory tour” around the nation he made his home for nearly twenty years.
Any Australian growing up naturally develops a sort of hazy idea of what the UK is like, in the same way that anybody anywhere grows up with a hazy idea of what the US is like, but Notes From A Small Island probably filled in my mental map a bit more than Harry Potter or Monty Python films. Bryson travels by train across the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales, filling the pages with his usual wit.
I had never had a biscuit of such rocklike cheerlessness. It tasted like something you would give a budgie to strengthen its beak.
At the Old Times building on Gray’s Inn road, the canteen had been in a basement room that had the charm and ambience of a submarine and the food had been slopped out by humourless drones who always brought to mind moles in aprons.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are early on, when Bryson sprinkles his modern-day trip around Britain with memories of his early life there in the 1970s and 1980s, such as when he was involved in the Wapping dispute:
How odd, I thought, that a total stranger was about to pull me from my car and beat me mushy for the benefit of printworkers he had never met, who would mostly despise him as an unkempt hippie, would certainly never let him into their own union, and who had enjoyed decades of obscenely inflated earnings without once showing collective support for any other union, including, on occasion, provincial branches of their own NGA. Simultaneously it occurred to me that I was about to squander my own small life for the benefit of a man who had, without apparent hesitation, given up his own nationality out of economic self-interest, who didn’t know who I was, would as lightly have discarded me if a machine could be found to do my job, and whose idea of maximum magnanimity was to hand out a six-ounce can of beer and a limp sandwich.
These anecdotes dry up later in the book, and Notes From A Small Island loses some of its lustre as it becomes simply a journey through Britain’s hotels, restaurants and train stations. Bryson’s tirade against modern architecture also becomes tiresome, even for a reader who agrees with him entirely, as I do. Although on the subject of agreement, I was interested to see that apparently even in the 1990s there was popular backing for the bizarre idea that upon the Queen’s death, Prince Charles should bow out and pass the throne directly to the younger, more attractive and more popular Prince William. I agree with Bryson:
It seemed to me to miss the point. If you are going to have a system of hereditary privilege, then surely you have to take what comes your way no matter how ponderous the poor fellow may be or how curious his taste in mistresses.
Bryson’s attitude towards Britain can sometimes be overly sentimental. It’s clear that he loves this country, to the point where he sometimes verges upon British exceptionalism. It is utter nonsense to argue that people in other countries don’t know how to queue, or that they don’t laugh or smile as much the British. I sometimes wonder how much of this perceived difference between nations in the English-speaking first world (Britain, Ireland, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) is due to generational differences – since kids in today’s generation all grew up watching the same American TV and spend plenty of time on the internet speaking to people from all over – and how much of it is due to the fact that people who think there are vast differences between the US and Britain have never been to, say, China or Africa.
Notes From A Small Island is a solid Bryson book. Like many of his other books, it can become repetitive and focus a little too much on the banal experiences of travel, and if his sense of humour is not your cup of tea than you might find him cynical or ill-tempered. But I enjoy him a fair bit – it’s easy, funny reading.
When people asked me how long Kristie and I were moving to the UK for, I’d usually say “indefinitely,” which was technically true. I have European citizenship, so I can stay here forever if I so please, and while Kristie is on a two-year visa you never know what might happen with employment sponsorship etc. What I meant was that I haven’t decided what I’m doing with my life or where I’m going to settle down at all.
But we’ve been in the UK for about six or seven weeks now, and secured employment and a place to live, and although you should avoid making long-term judgements based on a short experience, I think we’ll both return to Australia eventually simply because our standard of living there was higher. It’s hard not to feel, as an Australian in London, that you’re late to the party; even the BBC has noted that the one-way flow of young jobseekers has reversed in recent years. One reason for this is that Australia is no longer the cultural backwater it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A more important reason is that the economic advantage has been flipped; it is now much, much easier to make a buck in Australia than in Britain.
Part of this is London, of course, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world. We wouldn’t be haemorrhaging cash anywhere near as much if we lived in Bristol or Birmingham or Glasgow. But just for comparison’s sake:
Rent in London: £974 ($1,769 AUD) a month, for a room in a sharehouse in a nice house (with a garden) with nice housemates, including bills, relatively close to the city but in a bad neighbourhood. This is split between me and Kristie, so my share is actually £487/$884.
Rent in Melbourne: $900 AUD a month for a room in a sharehouse in a nice house (with a garden) with nice housemates, not including bills, much closer to the city, in a fantastic neighbourhood. Critically, though, Kristie and I didn’t live together in Melbourne; if we’d shared this room it would have been $450 AUD each.
Rent is the hardest part, the thing that makes your mind go to dark places if you start imagining what you could afford back home (or elsewhere in England). Pay is also painful; I’m doing the same job for the same company that I was in Melbourne, and earning somewhere around $42,000 AUD a year (pre-tax), whereas in Melbourne I was earning around $55,000 AUD a year pre-tax.
Of course, we moved to London for a life experience, not to miserly count out our precious dollars. I just find it interesting to compare. People have notions about places being cheap or expensive, and you can throw around how much it costs for rent and what the exchange rate is like, but the only meaningful comparison is how much things cost as a proportion of one’s wage, i.e. how many minutes did you have to work to earn that discount case of Budweiser you’re lugging back from Sainsbury’s. I thought New York was incredibly cheap compared to what everyone told me to expect, but I probably wouldn’t if I was living there and earning $2 an hour.
So that’s what I mean, when I say that we’ll likely treat this time like every other visa-bound Australian does – as a jaunt overseas with a time limit on it. In Australia I could afford to own and insure a motorcycle, I ate out and drank out regularly, and I still saved money without particularly trying to. London, on the other hand, is hard. Surviving here is easy, but living is hard. When you’re a kid imagining the things you might do in your life, money is never a factor, but that’s because kids are idiots. I don’t regret coming here and I’m not unhappy here, but there is simply no question that we had a better standard of living at home. This is why, incidentally, young British people have it better at the moment – because they get to have their overseas experience by going to the land of milk and honey, whereas we have to come up to a continent that’s only just recovered from recession. It will also be quite funny if, in two years time, Kristie and I go back to Australia and the mining boom has ended and/or the Abbott government has driven the economy into the ground with unnecessary austerity.
My parents both asked me, separately, what I liked about London. I don’t want to come off as a whinger. It’s not so much about “liking” things, as though you’re picking out a suburb to live in. It’s about travelling elsewhere, broadening your horizons and experiencing new things. I may have been better off in Melbourne, and I certainly wasn’t unhappy there, but I also felt like I was stagnating and that my late twenties were approaching and I needed to change things a bit. Change is good. Change is healthy. Five years ago in August I was teaching English in Seoul; four years ago I was dragging Chris around south-west China; three years ago I was working in a bookstore and living with my best friends in a delightfully crappy sharehouse in the western suburbs of Melbourne. If I’d stayed in Melbourne this year it would have been largely the same as 2013. Kristie and I could be living in a spare room below a tapdancing studio in Zone 7 and working at McDonalds and be miserable and I still wouldn’t regret coming here. You only get one life, and more importantly you only get one twenties.
I’ve only been to London once before, in autumn, when it wasn’t particularly rainy but it was nice and crisp. London in summer feels wrong; it doesn’t conform to its stereotypes. It actually reminds me of winter in Perth, but the other way around – it’s so clearly ill-equipped for the temperatures of this season even though it comes around every year. Many buildings aren’t air-conditioned, despite London’s ambient temperature often passing 30 degrees. A lot of tube lines aren’t – TFL claims it can’t be done, even though we put a a man on the moon in 1969. After six months of summer (aside from a brief interlude of freezing nights in the western US) I’m kind of over it. Bring on autumn.
I had this notion that big cities were full of busy, bustling people – that a suburban bumpkin like me would step out onto the pavement and immediately be bowled over by a businessman with a briefcase, that I’d get swept away in the crazy torrent of human traffic. It’s actually quite the opposite. In both New York and London, the thing that irritated me more than anything else was the agonising walking pace. They’re both cities of slow-paced dawdlers – people just sauntering along a subway corridor as though they’re out for a Sunday stroll, rather than stuck in a sweaty, suffocating, 38-degree crush of humanity. What I suspect happens is that in a crowded place everybody gets stuck behind the weakest link. For every elderly woman and French tourist wandering along and stopping to consult their maps, there are six or seven impatient people like me stuck behind them, trying to squeeze past, fondly remembering the days of small-town life where you can actually get where you’re going in a hurry.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (1984) 296 p.
I’ve been trying to read more non-Tolkien fantasy lately. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tolkien-inspired stuff, it’s just that it dominates the genre so completely. Mythago Wood, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, fits the bill fairly well. It’s a story about Steven Huxley, who returns home at the end of WWII to the country house he once lived in with his brother and father. Huxley senior was obsessed with Ryhope Wood, a patch of primeval forest at the edge of their estate, and Steven’s brother Christian has continued his work. Ryhope Wood, of course, turns out to be something fantastic – a place where dreams and myths come true, a place much bigger on the inside than the outside, a dangerous place of magic, and so forth.
The general concept is that Ryhope reaches inside the subconscious of its visitors and makes real the myths and fantasies they have tucked away in there, so it becomes a sort of repository for all of England’s legends – Robin Hood, druids, Royalist partisans, Arthurian knights, etc. Holdstock calls these legends made flesh “mythagos.” The crux of the story revolves around all three men – Steven, Christian and their father – becoming obsessed with “Guiwenneth,” a red-haired Celtic mythago, and about the Steven’s journey into the forest to find her after she is kidnapped by Christian, who has given himself over to the forest entirely.
It’s not quite the book I thought it would be – it’s fairly post-modern, analytical, Jungian. That sort of thing. What might have been an interesting idea in theory unravels because of Holdstock’s fascination with his own anthropology lesson. The plot is unfocused, and relies far too heavily on a poorly-written “romance” between the protagonist and Guiwenneth. The final third of the book, revolving around his journey into the forest to find her, comes completely off the rails and just feels like a trudge through Stone Age tribal warfare and shamanistic story-telling. I wanted to like Mythago Wood, but from the halfway point onwards I realised that wasn’t going to happen, and it became one of those unfortunate reading experiences where I was counting the number of pages left.
My short story “What Manner of Creature?”, a horror story taking place on a British navy ship in the Pacific Ocean in the early 19th century, has been published in the fifth volume of Canadian magazine Postscripts to Darkness. “What Manner of Creature” is a horror story which take place on a British navy vessel in the Pacific Ocean in the early 19th century, and is accompanied nicely by the above illustration by Sebyth.
PstD is a pay-only magazine, but it comes in a very tasteful bundle with lots of other tales of the weird and uncanny. You can visit the PstD store to order a hard-copy for $18 Canadian, including shipping, or buy a $5 PDF.
“What Manner of Creature” is a specific type of horror story which I tried to disguise. I felt I made it a little too obvious, in the end, but had a number of early readers who didn’t twig at all, and were nonplussed by the ending. So in the event that anyone actually reads this and then reads the story, let me know if it was too obvious or not obvious enough.
Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (1889) 179 p.
Three Men In A Boat is a humourous novel from the 1880s detailing the trip that three young, wealthy, Wooster-style gadabouts take from London to Oxford, up the Thames by rowing skiff. The novel is actually based on Jerome’s honeymoon, I believe, with his wife replaced by two friends to make the novel more amusing. It’s a perennial classic which has never been out of print, and it’s easy to see why. Jerome has a surprisingly modern writing style, and the book feels undated to the point where the appearance of horse-drawn carts feels anachronous. It also never stopped feeling odd when Jerome would compare the peacefulness of bygone eras with the hustling, bustling modern world of “the 19th century.”
It reminded me, inevitably, of the shaggy dog story travelogues of Mark Twain, though Jerome is far more readable than Twain. They follow the same sort of style – firmly tongue-in-cheek, constantly diverted by anecdotes, and with the strong sense that neither man would let the truth get in the way of a good story (although Jerome at least classified his as fiction). It’s not without its flaws – certainly some of the amusing stories can become long-winded and unfunny, as was the style at the time, and the humour is curiously interspersed with patches of sentimental writing in which Jerome genuinely appreciates the beauty of the Thames. Nonetheless, Three Men In A Boat is a short and pleasant novel which remains one of the more accessible pieces of writing from the 19th century.
Chocky by John Wyndham (1968) 154 p.
Chocky was the last novel John Wyndham wrote before his death (although a semi-finished one called Web was published posthumously) and for some reason I never read it while I was in high school – although I remember flicking through a copy at the library and not being intrigued enough to properly read it, just as I wasn’t intrigued by The Trouble With Lichen. I suppose it’s because unlike his classic big four novels, neither of these deals with an apocalypse, a post-apocalyptic setting, or (in the case of The Midwich Cuckoos) an apocalypse averted. I really am ashamed of my teenage self, because Chocky is as imaginative and captivating as any of Wyndham’s better-known works.
Matthew Gore is an ordinary eleven-year-old schoolboy in the London suburbs whose parents become somewhat concerned when he develops an imaginary friend named Chocky, carrying on vocal arguments with a voice that only he can hear. Not only is he a bit too old for an imaginary friend, but Chocky appears to be teaching him some advanced scientific and mathematical concepts, and asks strange questions of her own. Matthew begins to draw local landscapes with spindly, distorted figures, as if seen from another viewpoint. To a science fiction reader it’s obvious from the first chapter or so that Matthew has developed a telepathic link with an alien intelligence, but Chocky is nevertheless an eerie and unsettling novel, narrated from the point of view of Matthew’s concerned father.
As in any Wyndham novel, there’s a wise character who cottons on to what’s happening before anyone else does. And as in any Wyndham novel, it also feels quite dated, although it’s fortunately not as unwittingly sexist as The Midwich Cuckoos; though Chocky is narrated by Matthew’s father, both his parents have an equal footing in responding to the issue (even if the mother is often portrayed as unreasonable). But as I mentioned in my review of The Midwich Cuckoos, it’s hard to fault Wyndham for being a product of his age. Brian Aldiss, writing the introduction to this 2010 Penguin edition, describes it as “an antique charm.”
In any case, this is where the similarities with his previous books end. As I said earlier, Chocky is not an apocalyptic novel, and it also seems to reject Wyndham’s thesis (presented to a greater or lesser degree in all four of his most famous novels) that two foreign intelligences will inevitably fight to the death. Readers of Wyndham’s previous novels will certainly feel a bit of frisson when Chocky asks Matthew (more than once) exactly where Earth is, and comments that it’s a lot nicer than where she’s from. I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice to say that Chocky is one of Wyndham’s more optimistic stories. The final line in the book – which is actually an image – is surprisingly and deeply affecting, and works on multiple levels. Chocky is an excellent novella, which is perhaps not as great as Wyndham’s more well-known novels – but then, that’s a high bar to set. Essential reading for any fans of science fiction.