Adam Roberts, BÊTE.
(Forgive me referring to the author by first name. Calling him ‘Roberts’ feels a bit weird, and nothing in the whole world is worse than feeling ‘a bit weird.’)
I’ve now read three of Adam ‘ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR’ Roberts’s novels: Yellow Blue Tibia, which is (among other things) a queer little love story wrapped in a weird spoof on SF; By Light Alone, a queer little love story (among other things) wrapped in a near-future eco/poli thriller whose central SFnal conceit is, as the bird on Brontitol would say, ‘utterly ludicrous’; and now this, a queer little love story (among other things) wrapped in what is either (1) pieces of three or four or five novels huddling close for warmth or (2) a novel of almost meanspiritedly rapid and severe tonal shifts, except that near as I can tell Adam doesn’t have an ounce of meanness of spirit to him. It’s the best of the three I’ve read, by a large margin, and the most lovable, though — as ever with Adam’s fiction — liking it is always complicated.
The opening is a very funny little setpiece about a bitter English farmer named Graham killing a talking cow. The middle is a rhapsodic account of Graham’s yearlong sojourn in a forest; this virtuoso performance reminded me, in its English way, of VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but on a much different temporal scale (and without VanderMeer’s mycophobic hysteria). Bête‘s end is narrated, sort of, by a fox. One piece of the story is Graham’s account of falling in love with a woman who then dies of cancer; a couple of pieces have Graham funnily, but then not at all funnily, struggling to integrate with a society that’s moving on to a place it (and he) can’t possibly understand — an extraordinarily intelligent and moving depiction of a conservative response to shifts in the meaning of identity, by the way.
There is, of course, a conversation in a holding cell between Graham and two treehugging weirdos, one of them developmentally complicated in a way that seems to be characteristic of Adam’s books, or of, I think, what jazz musicians would call his ‘conception.’ The scene is funnyish, but by that point the whole book is so unsettling, so conceptually rich and unpleasant, that I wasn’t particularly in the mood for laughing. Graham makes a reference to the movie Skyfall which seems plottily significant in a way I can’t begin to understand (I never saw the film), which irks me. The book is stuffed to the gills with puns, popcult, and scholarly language spilling from the mouths of nonscholars. It’s so thoroughly Adam’s book — as personal as I took the rendering of parenthood in By Light Alone to be, but warmer too, not least by dint of its extreeeeeeeme Englishness — that I actually felt closer to him while reading, which isn’t the sort of aesthetic effect you expect from Adam’s notoriously cerebral books.
And there is a funny foreigner who speaks in improbable funny-foreigner-English, which reminded me of the small portion of Darkmans I read, not to mention the autistic fellow in Tibia. His tirade about bête-apocalypse is compelling the way a brilliant fan-theory about Lost is, but in conversation his voice, no more stylized than that of the other grotesques and oddballs who fill the book, seemed subtly out of tune to me.
Adam’s constant direct address to (warning: credentializing use of words ‘intertextual’ and ‘imaginarium’ coming up!) the whole sort of general SF intertextual mishmash, the geeky collective imaginarium of it, can be distancing for those of us who aren’t also SF historians or at least obsessives. (Adam is both.) Yes, obviously Animal Farm and the ‘meet the meat’ scene from Restaurant, but on every page you’ll come across something shaped like an intertextual reference — to geek culture, to prog/classic rock, to Premier League football, to the misshapen body of SF itself — which, even if you don’t catch the reference itself, gives the setting a feeling of mythohistorical depth. The way early-21C jargon pops up and is ironized or ‘problematized’ recalls Riddley Walker, kinda, as does the fact that the ‘natural’ landscape is much more vividly evoked than Adam’s somewhat abstract-dreamlike built world, which has a bit of a ramshackle old-Doctor Who quality. This is, as they say, Menippean satire after all, and TK TK SHAGGY SPECULATIVE NONBINDING NONSENSE FOLLOWS while Adam invests his forests with a very specific English quality of (let’s say) compressed timelessness — American forests are chiefly understood as having been ancient before ‘we’ got here; the English have coexisted with their forests for continuous millennia, so the trees (for me, anyhow) figure as observers of human civilization rather than reminders of the topology of Deep Time — well, the bits with more than two people feel like scenes from a radio drama (or comedy) rather than Interesting Literature like the tree bits.
This review and I are scattered. I left it for a while, not sure what I wanted to say. I’m still not.
Look, I liked Graham. (A lot, the bastard.) I liked Adam’s almost antagonistically tone-shifting narration. I liked the England (I just typed ‘Endland,’ and I like that too) which the book dreams into being. I liked that the book gave off not a single whiff of the writing workshop, unlike some other overpraised SF I’ve read in the last year. I liked the cat, the Lamb, all the maddeningly clever prepostery of it. I liked maybe coining the term ‘prepostery,’ though maybe it should be ‘prepostory’ instead. And then at every turn there was some cognitive prickle which seemed…again, not meanspirited, but rug-from-under-me-pulling. I thought it was one sort of story and it turned out to be not just another sort of story altogether but indeed five or six levels of ‘another sort of story’-ing away from the sort of story I’d initially thought it was. Which makes it both a complexly lovely story about a man trying to manage holding onto (and letting go of) the things he’s lost, and a goddamned thorny Novel of Ideas whose basic premise upset me in ways so deep I don’t even want to mention them now, here, likely the only time I’ll ever write at any length about this book.
I’ve said this before and will say it again: you should read Adam Roberts. He’s working on a high level, and getting better as he goes, too. He deserves a big audience.
And Bête should be a TV miniseries, obviously.