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“All right,” I said; “suppose the characters exist in the author’s mind, like the events; where does the value of invention come in?”
“Where the value of any invention comes in,” he answered. “In its purpose or use. A wheel spinning aimlessly is worth nothing; the same wheel on a cart or a pulley changes destiny.”
“You can’t learn anything from fairy tales,” I persisted stubbornly.
He smiled. “Maybe you havent read the right fairy tales.”
Damn. I got very excited by a certain stylistic quirk that I noticed in this book. Mr Ward Moore had seemingly written the entire thing without using apostrophes. You might see above he has written the contraction ‘havent’. Unfortunately right above that line of dialogue, he gives narrator Hodge Backmaker ‘can’t’.
Well there’s that theory blown out of the water.
Eight years ago I was working with a woman from Texas who used to proudly claim to share common descent with George Bush and Queen Elizabeth. What I found odd was not the claim itself, but that it was obviously so important to her. Of course I say that as an O’Cuana and we have done anything to be proud of in a thousand years.
I say this as the notion of historical prestige is not something I guess I can understand. Moore with this book examines not just the premise of an America with an alternate history, but the importance of being able to draw descent from the respective sides of the Civil War conflict.
Hodge Backmaker begins his narration telling us that he was born in 1921, but that this is being written in 1877. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error – let me explain. The fortunes of the Backmaker clan are inextricably linked with the events of the Civil War, when the Union lost to the Southron forces. What ensued was a near half-century of economic ruin for the Yankee territories. A prevalent xenophobia for foreign nations became the dominant political rhetoric. What’s more while slavery was abolished, most citizens are so impoverished they agree to a system of indenture to corporations until they are too old to be of use. Moore even includes a few alternate history jokes. George Bernard Shaw died a little-known reverend. Carl Jung became a police chief.
Hodge is something of an anomaly, in that he sees no future in labouring to support his family and prefers to spend his time buried in books. He dreams of putting his love of reading to some good use, perhaps even becoming an academic in one of the dilapidated academies that still exist in the Union. To that end he sets off for New York with his fortune of three dollars in his pocket.
The countryboy from Poughkeepsie notices that the metropolis lacks the skyscrapers of Confederate ruled Washington, but remains a glamourous sight, with its airborn zeppelins and thronging multitude. Of course the awe-struck yokel quickly falls on bad luck, which sets him on the path to a meeting with a bookseller named Mr Tyss and the revolutionary Grand Army.
Moore’s novel is concerned not only with history, but with the notion of an objective observer of history. Hodge learns a new understanding of events from two men, Tyss and the Haitian Ambassador M’sieu Enfandin. The one insists that history itself is predetermined; the other that man is free to choose his destiny. Hodge himself lives frozen by indecision. In that his character is a sly dig at the pretence of historians to be unbiased spectator to events. Tyss mocks him for even desiring to be impartial, stating that his love of history is simply a desire to hide from action.
It is a very fine joke, made all the funnier by Moore then sending Hodge on a fantastical adventure that explains the riddle of the book’s opening lines. This is a gripping novel of ideas, one I am very surprised to have never heard of before. Much like Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle the book seeks to outstrip being merely an alternate history yarn, with far loftier themes in mind.
I also enjoyed how like Hamlet, Hodge is not the virginal prevaricator popular opinion might assume him to be. He’s actually quite the ladies man. He simply refuses to take responsibility for his actions, or indeed any commitments at all.
A thoughtfully written investigation of American history, with a sf glaze.
Before an envelope is opened, you don’t know what’s in it, and you aren’t committed to a course of action. So far as the contents of the envelope go, you’re an innocent. The contents may be true, false, incomplete, irrelevant, or stone-cold proof of wrongful intent. But whatever they are, they aren’t yet inside your head. They aren’t bothering you. They don’t affect your sleep, your self-perception, or your faith in the universe. But once the envelope is opened, the contents zap into your brain, where you have to deal with them.
Yesterday afternoon I was enjoying a nice glass of wine at a Christmas party and having a conversation with a very informative fellow on a topic I never would have suspected would be of interest to me. Namely insurance.
Hurm. Road not taken and all that.
Still there was something intriguing in how much day-to-day activities need to be protected against potential risk. Furthermore, insurance covers everything from corporate espionage to fraud, from white-collar criminals to terrorists. Fascinating stuff. Then I picked up this book by Mr Colin Harrison and oo look, synchronicity kicks in once again.
George Young is our hero, an insurance lawyer happily settled into a middle-class existence paid for by years working in the trenches of New York corporate law. He enjoys a loving relationship with his wife Carol, is a proud father to his daughter and likes going to Yankees games. He knows that in the greater scheme of things he was never especially successful, but in his time working for the firm Patton, Corbett & Strode he has earned a reputation for being a man who got the job down. He is also thankful for managing to survive the Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed.
It was Wilson Corbett who hired him for the firm and gave him the opportunity to make something of himself. Now his widow has requested that Young do one last favour for his former mentor. She is an old lady doubly haunted by the loss of her husband and the recent death of their son Roger, killed in a freak traffic accident moments after leaving a bar. She requests that Young find out what her troubled son was thinking about in the last few days of his death. Both the police and a private investigator named James Hicks have failed to give her any sense of resolution for the tragedy. So she has turned to Young, for isn’t he a man who can get results?
What he discovers is a case far less simple than it first appears. It emerges that Roger, broken by divorce and his failure to live up to the business reputation of his father, may have been involved in something quite serious. There are hints of fraud, an unusual relationship with a Czech hand model and even Hicks tries to convince Young not to continue with the case. Even his wife questions the extent to which he is willing to pursue the last wishes of a dying woman. What exactly is he getting involved in?
Folks I have a very simple system for reviewing these books. I have a collection of book-marks that I have amassed over the months. Every time I find a turn of phrase I enjoy, or an interesting passage, I insert one of the book-marks to spur on my review later.
This afternoon I ran out of book-marks.
Harrison’s writing is lean, smart and very wry. George and Carol are a great couple and it is a huge relief to read about an investigation where the male protagonist does not discard wife and family for some ephemeral goal. In fact Carol spurs on the plot at several points, whereupon Harrison notes ‘Now and then I am reminded that my wife is smarter than I am.’
Young is also a refreshingly self-aware investigator, anticipating the usual pitfalls of femme fatals and dangerous criminal plots without any of the insistent gullibility of some detective fiction protagonists. The story itself is tautly and intelligently told, with no John Grisham-esque fat on the bone. It is no surprise to discover that this book was originally published in serial form in the New York Times.
This is smart and intriguing fare from a genre that insists on mystery, but often delivers formulaic plotting. Recommended.