Thursday, January 15, 1998

Ronald Wright's A SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE

Written in 1998 for the Boston Review of Books

Time is what we are made of: every passing year makes us more aware of it. Time is also what novels are made from, no matter how aware of this the author chooses to make us. It is what gives a novel limits, and gives meaning to character and action. Finally, that sense of an invented world continuing after the cover has been closed can be among a book's most sublime aspects, the fading echo ever audible in our own imaginations, the ultimate collaboration between reader and writer.

Not, I believe, since Nabokov's Ada have we had a serious fiction so obsessed with the plural possibilities of time (in an utterly different way) as Ronald Wright's A Scientific Romance. This complex, extraordinary first novel arrives on our shores with plenty of accolades—a David Higham Award for Fiction from the U.K.; rave reviews from there and Canada. In its haunting sense of opportunity squandered, of being witness at the fall of the world, of love and friendship attempting to cheat time, of time itself as a river down which we drift, it is like no other novel I have read, written in a prose at once highly flexible, muscular, lyrical, full of pointed jokes and contrary tensions.

Wright comes to this novel with five books of non-fiction behind him. As historian he wrote the lauded Stolen Continents, which examines the invasion of the New World from the point of view of five "discovered" peoples. He has also written four books of travel—that curious, in-between form which demands some of the novelist's skills—set in Peru (Cut Stones and Crossroads), the South Pacific (On Fiji Islands) and Central America (Time Among the Maya) as well as an essay collection (Home and Away). As a British writer, educated in archaeology at Cambridge, who has lived for years in Canada while roaming the world, he brings a wide learning to a novel partly set five hundred years in the future—the overgrown, empty, devastated ruin of today. Only a man with Wright's training could have written this novel; for once we are in the presence of a future portrayed by someone who understands the forces that bring down civilizations and what it means to cut back the lianas, sift through debris, read clues.

To reduce it to a summary without giving too much away is not simple. The book is told by David Lambert, a London-based archaeologist, at first living and writing a few years from now. His narrative—like a message in a bottle floated across time as well as space—is addressed to two friends from Cambridge days: Bird (failed scholar, failed saxophonist, successful con artist and seducer) and Anita (lover they shared, brilliant Egyptologist, dead years ago, more than that I must not say). The tone of a letter—a diskette, in fact—flung out to long-lost friends permeates the narrative; indeed, the "adventure story" driving the book is carefully balanced by Lambert's moody memory freely roving the messy, dangerous three-way relationship.

I make a solemn vow before you now, in the summoned presence of both your shades, that I shall do the decent thing—do my damnedest to . . .confound our enemy, send him back to unbend his bony finger and rewrite his heartless works . . .[I'll] reverse across time's banks and shoals, run back and fetch the age of gold: the time when all of us had options left to play. And we shall live again, my love. We all shall live again!

In late 1999, when the book begins, Lambert is a specialist in Victorian machines at a London museum. A fellow scholar sends him a copy of a document purportedly from H.G. Wells, left with his solicitors. It recounts a love affair the novelist had with a young scientist named Tania Cherenkova (a protege of the famous Tesla), who helped advise Wells on his novel The Time Machine. Tania had wanted to continue the affair and, furthermore, she'd gone so far as to construct a time machine on her own principles which actually worked. According to a dubious Wells, he watched her disappear in it in 1899. The purpose of his document is to advise that she will be reappearing with it, possibly, a hundred years later, at the flat Wells had taken for their trysts.

Lambert, skeptical, checks out the strands of the story and is surprised to confirm what had initially struck him as a hoax. He locates the flat—an unrented slum—in time for the New Year's Eve of the millennium. Then:

A ball of light or fire had formed in mid-air. The light grew, filling much of the room yet fading as it did so, resolving into something dark and bristly—a sphere like a sea-urchin, a flattened ball of copper spines, vivid one moment, insubstantial the next, hovering and spinning, slowing down. Horsewhips of light arced from the spikes to walls and floor . . . .

But there is no Tania in the machine, only a few scraps of clothing that carry a whiff of her perfume. Is it possible that one can go forward but not back in time? Has she become consigned to a kind of temporal limbo, or oblivion, where Lambert (should he wish to return) may join her? This is only the first quarter of the novel; at this point it becomes very difficult to give away the story without spoiling it. Lambert knows, however, that he carries within him the ticking machine of a mortal illness. He has literally nothing to lose by launching himself five hundred years into the future, where he hopes to find Tania.

The main body of the book, aptly titled "After London," is unlike any time-travel story I know. Here is a horrific, fully-conceived future British Isles that has been extrapolated with relentless logic from our day. Forget overpopulation, forget space travel, forget the vision of two nations ruling the world. This is a future imagined by a man who has gone into what brought down the great empires of one, two, three thousand years ago. The London he foresees resembles a massive Tikal, a towering ruin in seething tropical jungle, for with global warming and more the Kew Gardens have burst out and covered a now-unpopulated country.

It is an unforgettable vision, and at the heart of the book is the way we follow Lambert—recording it all for his friends, like an archaeologist on the strangest dig of any lifetime, in his laptop computer journal—as he explores the fetid, empty, lichened, shattered and jungle-choked remains of the great city he left heartbeats and five centuries ago. We are with him every step of the difficult way as he tries to find out what happened to us, to our civilization, because it soon becomes evident to Lambert that the catastrophe ensued not too long from now. This is, as he says, "a guess made with inside knowledge (an advantage no other archaeologist has had)."

On his explorations—for he journeys up to Scotland, into Macbeth country—he is befriended by a deformed black panther he calls Graham who has, he realizes, never seen a human being. One of my favorite images of a book rich in such visions is of the sleek dark animal striding alongside Lambert across the ruined lawn of his former school. Among the book's many secondary pleasures are Lambert's cynical remarks about what we are doing to the world, now turned into wisdom by what amounts to colossal hindsight ("like all true pessimists, proved right in the end"):

Remember Teach a man to fish and you'll feed him for life? Well, he's fished the ocean dead and his twelve-year-old daughter's selling blowjobs in Bombay.

It is refreshing to read a new novel that is not full of revelations about, say, the static crappiness of suburban life, nor the wisdom and suffering of itinerant cowpokes as imagined from a writers' graduate degree program, nor a smart-aleck post-modernist fantasy of comic book heroes come to life. A Scientific Romance is, in fact, about as postmodernist as a story can be. Best of all, it is deeply pleasurable to read page after page of superb prose which, though never pretentious or putting on a learned dog, assumes that a reader is intelligent and takes that intelligence for granted. In this respect Wright's novel reminds me of James Buchan's High Latitudes, and made me wonder why U.S. novelists seem rarely able to spin a natural texture that assumes a reader can make the leaps (and catch some of the references) without sounding too clever by half.

There is probably no way that any of us will know if Wright has got it right. Unlike Orwell with 1984, or Huxley with Brave New World, he has protected himself by setting his prediction far enough in the future to have no one to answer to. The difficulty with foresight is that the parts which are not remarkably prescient in, say, Jules Verne (or even the science fiction of mid-century), look to future generations only hopelessly quaint.

Yet A Scientific Romance, for all it appears to be set centuries away, is really about what is happening now, and the course we are on for the next few decades. It is a disturbing and very moving book whose allegories continue to vibrate long after it has been put aside; a work of great beauty built on nightmare, the vision of a wounded man—of all mankind—consumed by a cruel immortality, "here at the quiet limit of the world."

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