One of my holiday gifts was Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things, and I finished reading it the other day.
Is it possible for a book to be both compelling and repellent? Both bizarre and familiar? Both pedestrian and exotic?
I suppose so, since all those words seem to come to mind as I think about The Book of Strange New Things.
Faber's story tells of Peter Leigh, a young Londoner in some near-future time, who has somehow volunteered for, or applied at, or been chosen by, but at any rate is now associated with, an anonymous corporate entity named USIC, which has put Peter into a spaceship and sent him somewhere else.
It's not really clear where the else is, or why USIC wants to be there, or what's actually happening on that place, except that Peter is now there, along with some other people.
Oh, and Peter, you see, is a minister.
You might think that Peter is there to minister to the other USIC staff on this faraway place. But no, Peter is actually there to minister to the indigenous population: the aliens.
These aliens are not human beings, although they are sufficiently similar to allow for comparisons, and for communication, and for interactions. Happily, by the time Peter gets there the aliens (whom Peter comes to call Oasans) have learned a small amount of English, and during the course of the book their English improves as Peter talks to them and reads to them from The Book of Strange New Things (which is the term the aliens use for Peter's King James Bible). Peter even learns a few works of the alien language.
So that's what the book is about. That, and Peter talking with the other USIC staff, and exchanging emails with his wife, Beatrice, who has remained back in England.
Yes, Peter has left his wife in England and has climbed on a spaceship to some other place. No, I don't buy that for one moment. That's just one of many confounding things about this book.
Another very disturbing thing about The Book of Strange New Things is that it has no ending.
Well, of course, the book ends; there comes a point when there are no more pages to turn and you have finished reading it.
But the story doesn't conclude; it doesn't resolve; it doesn't answer. You just go reading along in the book and then, even though the book has raised all sorts of disturbing and infuriating questions and problems, it just stops. You don't find out what happens; you don't learn the outcome. Infuriatingly, near the end, when Peter gives a speech that seems certain to explain What He Has Learned, he gives the speech to the aliens, in the alien tongue, which is not explained at all, so you have no idea what he has said (although the aliens seem very satisfied by what he tells them).
It's like a sonata which breaks with form and doesn't return to the tonic at the end: it's unsettling and it leaves you all anxious and perturbed.
Usually, when I finish a book, if it was a book worth reading, and if I have paid a fairly reasonable amount of attention, I have some idea what the book was "about": what issues was the author concerned about, what questions are under debate here, where does the author stand on the key topics.
Not so with The Book of Strange New Things.
Of course, it is broadly clear what Faber is interested in: his main character is a minister, the title of the book is the alien's description of the King James Bible, and the book, overall, is divided into four parts:
- Thy Will Be Done
- On Earth
- As It Is
- In Heaven
So obviously the book is a reflection on faith, on belief (Peter's wife, after all, is named "Bea Leigh"), on humanity and its relationship with religion, and on our purpose in life.
But does Faber actually have an opinion on these matters? If he does, he keeps it well-hidden. It seems he is content to tell a tale, to raise questions and pose problems, but he is not trying to take us in any particular direction in these discussions.
Early in the book, Beatrice says to Peter, "I have a vision," and she proceeds to tell him what it is:
I see you standing on the shore of a huge lake. It's night and the sky is full of stars. On the water, there's hundreds of small fishing boats, bobbing up and down. each boat has at least one person in it. None of the boats are going anywhere, they've all dropped anchor, because everyone is listening. The air is so calm you don't even have to shout. Your voice just carries over the water.
And then, at the end, Peter reflects on his experience. A bit.
he looked around several times at his church silhouetted against the brilliant sky. No one had emerged from it but him. Belief was a place that people didn't leave until they absolutely must. The Oasans had been keen to follow him to the kingdom of Heaven, but they weren't keen to follow him into the valley of doubt. He knew that one day -- maybe very soon -- they would have another pastor. They'd take from him what they needed, and their search for salvation would go on when he was long gone. After all, their souls dreamt so ardently of a longer stay in the flesh, a longer spell of consciousness. It was natural: they were only human.
Is Faber trying to speak directly to us here? Is he frustrated that we are not keen to follow him into the valley of doubt? Is he deliberately unwilling to tell us anything that might pass for an answer, since he knows that our experience with his book is just transitory, and our search will go on when he is long gone?
Is it OK if our boat isn't going anywhere, as long as we are listening?
I'm not sure, and I'm not sure, in the end, what to tell you about The Book of Strange New Things. I'm quite glad I read it, but I think I'd find it very hard to know whether or not to recommend it to anybody else.
Maybe it's just the sort of book that you have to happen onto on your own, and then on your own you have to decide what it is, and what to make of it, and how you will feel about that when you are done.
So on we go.