Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August.

The history man cometh. Timey whimey. A throwaway lazy verbal dodge of a logical explanation by David Tennant's glorious Tenth Doctor has off late become the Get Out Of Jail Card for every writer who talks themselves into the baffling cul-de-sac of time travel stories. It is the "Reverse The Polarity Of The Neutron Flow" of this generation.
             Time travel is a difficult genre to write convincingly about. The second most difficult genre material to tackle. The first surely being stories about the comic book character The Flash. He runs fast. He runs very, very fast. In the name of Philip K Dick that man runs very fast.
              Timey whimey.
              Reverse the polarity.
              They are the literary bulletproof vests used to hopefully dodge the bullet points of logic. In most cases just dodging or deflecting the bullets that can kill your story stone dead.
               An entirely different strategy would be to embrace the complexity of such a story. To struggle with it as a determined scientist might construct and convince by strength of one's own intricately constructed  and reinforced storytelling. In short, damn good story telling that obeys the internal logic of a tale that most time travel stories confound. As in the case of The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August. It is a brilliantly complex yet utterly gripping exploration of an idea that you can explain briefly in a few choice lines and then wax lyrically about for a hundred more.
                Imagine it were possible for you to go back into the time-stream of your own existence. Relive the twentieth century over and over again. What advice would you give to your younger self? If such things were in fact possible what advice could you possibly give? Not even counting the big moments, you know;"do not buy those tickets for the maiden voyage of The Titanic" (if your time-stream extended back that far.) You know the kind of moments I mean, the game changers. Yet while we live with life altering moments all the time we are just not aware of the repercussions of taking roads not chosen. Foreknowledge would make all the difference. There are a hundred myriad moments that make up a single day of our existence , all of them experienced but not all remembered. Our timelines are as meandering and complex as as the nature of the human brain and the way it processes memory. The saved data that makes us who we are, that determines our personalities. change a single day in that timeline and we may alter the course and development of that personality.
               Factor in that you are always reborn in the same skin and at the same point of origin and well...
               Spoilers,spoilers,spoilers. To borrow from the life of The Good doctor once more.
               How does one discuss a time travel narrative without giving too much away about what has happened, what is happening, what will happen,how everything that happens or has happened will be affected by what...you see what happens when you pluck at the threads of a time travel story. Well, the threads that show. To Claire North's credit there are no dangling threads in this vast narrative despite it spanning lifetimes and hundreds of years. The ideas within the narrative are so well realised they spill over with their own potency. In that I mean you find yourself speculating, playing mind games in the theatre of operations of your imagination. at one point nearing the middle of the book I looked across the room and saw myself in a mirror reading the novel which also in its reflection caught a smaller mirror behind me showing the same thing from a slightly different perspective. Which meant a reflection mirroring a reflection infinitely regressing along my limited perspective.I thought; is this the only time travel it is possible to witness. Oh it is a joy when a book sparks imaginative impulses like this. It is the alchemy that occurs when a novel bursts and bristles with fantastic ideas and characters that feel alive and worth following. Harry August is just such a character as is his best friend/nemesis Vincent. The nature of their friendship and on-going rivalry is an addictive draw that pulls one deep into the actions at the heart of the book. She under stands the nature of male friendships so well, the warts and puppy dog tails and all. I suppose the emotional tug of war that can come when friendship sours is not just a male or a female preoccupation, it is a human thing. I however can only speak from my own viewpoint and I can identify with Harry August's dispassionate knowledge of what he must do and the emotional knowledge of what he wants to do. Claire North is a pseudonym which the author chose to use for her own reasons. None of them to do with gender but there is no denying she writes men so well.
               I imagine the author Clair North's work area must have been like a spider's web of post-its with character histories and plot developments, beginnings and endings, with strings and threads crisscrossing the room in the hope of weaving the recursive nature of the ever changing nature of the novel together. Or perhaps she has just been working on this for more than one lifetime.
               For all its SF trappings there are moments of genuine horror in this novel.Those who find they live their lives in a non-linear fashion may find that pain and suffering are not transient experiences. There is a certain mortal relief that comes with the knowledge all things will pass. We mourn the brevity of happy times and find the bad cannot pass quick enough. Adjust this to an eternal perspective and you begin to see horrific implications.
                This book is an outstanding debut with someone with not only a special understanding of the way time works but also the effect it has on the nature of relationships.
                Claire North what will you do next?
                Or have you already done it and we are just in your slipstream waiting for it to come round again...