Iain Pears’ fifth novel arrived in 2015 on the arms of an app. We all know that publishers are always keen on the next big thing and that shrewd authors with an eye on maintaining a career in what is by any reckoning a field given to vacillations will throw their collective weight behind anything that even hints of the future. The danger inherent in this approach is that, for every reader whose ears will prick up at the slightest mention of tech, there is a reader for whom such talk will alienate. Now, the question is: are there more of the techier sort than the alienated sort? And that’s a question that is both moot (because even though hey, you and me read and we’re great, obvs, the vast majority of people in the UK and the world do not read, books at any rate) and distracting because what we should be talking about here is a new story written by Iain Pears. My own feeling is that the app provoked this debate and largely got in the way. If you check out the app, as well designed as it is, it’s just the book, albeit the book in a form you can make your own way through, charting your own path (if that feels revolutionary to you, do make sure to check out BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, published in, ahem, 1969). So let’s park talk of the app and talk instead about the book. Arcadia. By Iain Pears.
“Imagine a landscape,” Arcadia begins. Although it may not be immediately apparent, this is a great start to the novel because the imagination plays a large part in proceedings here, as will become evident in a moment. We picture a rural idyll. A young man called Jay is sent on an errand by his mother who is working in the fields along with the rest of her community. As is the way with boys of Jay’s sort (think Jack in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’), the gloriousness of the day has him slurping from a nearby brook and observing the birds who are days away from their migration. At which point, he witnesses a bright light that gradually takes the shape of a fairy. “He almost laughs out loud in relief and astonishment.” And then we step back because we are actually being told this story by Henry Lytten, a professor in a pub with his friends. The group gather every Sunday and share their humble attempts at fiction. Lytten has been trying his hand at fantasy, in the vein of his old colleague JRR Tolkien, except Lytten’s aim is to fashion the perfect society and so there are no dragons and no orcs. Rather he has fashioned a society much like that in Jim Crace’s excellent novel, The Pest House – and if you’ve read The Pest House, you’ll have an idea where this book leads in time.
Lytten lives alone and has little company except for a young girl (I say young girl, she’s fifteen) called Rosie who comes to feed Lytten’s curmudgeonly cat, Professor Jenkins, each enjoying the fresh perspective provided by the other, Lytten to the extent that he based his fairy visitor upon Rosie. And here, bare pages into the book, we glimpse the first twist of Pears’ Escher-like plot: for Rosie pays a visit when Lytten is not at home and Professor Jenkins is proving elusive. She wanders into the basement and finds a strange pergola through which she can spy – is that another world? She steps through and, temporary befuddlement aside, meets Jay. So far, so vaguely Philip Pullman eh? But Iain Pears is not in the business of trading in second hand echoes. He’s a far more ambitious writer than that. So let’s flash forward into a William Gibson-like future upon the isle of Mull in the north of Scotland where a small research laboratory has made a kind of breakthrough. Possibly. Although there is disagreement as to the nature of the breakthrough. Have they discovered time travel? Have they opened a door to alternate dimensions? (It’s also worth adding that we don’t really know it’s the future, it’s not made explicit with the kind of tagline you actually do get in William Gibson novels, instead you gather from what you see and hear. There is a confusion, though – again, the kind of temporal confusions you get in books where past and future collide – in that Angela Meerson is a character in the lab and we know she is a long-standing friend of Lytten, back in Oxford 1960).
The gist of our first brief foray into the future world is that Angela is a kind of rogue genius, wayward and difficult to manage but given to incredible bursts of creative energy. Her boss, Hanslip, is putting out feelers to encourage more investment and Meerson is powerfully opposed to such interference – to the extent that she wipes all of her data and disappears in such a fashion that there is a vast power outage that has planes dropping from the sky. She reappears in Germany in 1936 and we follow her as she makes her way first to France and then to England, befriending Lytten along the way and circuitously becoming involved with the Secret Service. Meanwhile, back in her future, Hanslip sends two operatives Chang and More on her trail, Chang arriving in Oxford in 1960 and More remaining in his own time to hook up with Meerson’s daughter.
But what about the world through the pergola? Well, that rumbles on too. Jay is taken on as a Storyteller, one of the highest honours in the land, studying at the right hand of Henary (who we come to discover is a sort of Lytten manqué) – but even here, in this simpler world, there are rumbles of unease and plans to grab power that recall nothing quite so much as the more political side of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (and again, Pears being a commercial writer with his eye on the prize, such echoes are of distinct import). In some senses, Arcadia is a gentle read – in that the world he (or rather Lytten) fashions is gentle, in some respects. It is also a book that veers into YA territory a little as a result of the fact that two of its leads (Rosie and Jay) are young (although Pears ameliorates this somewhat by the introduction of both sex and death). Arcadia is easily as compelling, though, as An Instance of the Fingerpost (Pears’ outing some years ago into period Victoriana) and, despite all of the other books we have mentioned so far, recalled nothing quite so much as GW Dalquist’s Dream Eaters trilogy (another fictional outing that warranted far greater sales that it achieved – and which also, curiously enough, featured a character called Chang – we wonder if Pears is a secret fan of those books too, we’d like to think so). The novel is also unafraid to stir a little world ending havoc into the soup too (and if we’re throwing around references and connections, which we seem to be, then that aforementioned Crace novel The Pest House is a good one to circle back to, with a little smidge of Alan Moore’s Watchmen thrown in for good measure – we’re thinking of those few scant pages post the death of Rorschach).
Any Cop?: If it isn’t obvious, then, Arcadia is a book we got along with tremendously well, a book we’d recommend to readers who like to hop, skip and jump into fantastical realms, who enjoy the more outré books of (another reference, sorry) David Mitchell, who like a story they can wallow in, escape to, lose themselves in. If the future still has a place for chunky, comforting soul food like this, it won’t all be bad.