The New World
Chris Adrian & Eli Horowitz
Granta, £12.99 (paperback)
The New World opens grippingly by immersing the reader in the consciousness of Jane, a surgeon who has just been informed that her husband has died. The onomastic similarities in the names Jim and Jane indicate from the outset that they are as close as it’s possible to be. The problem is not only that Jim has died; his body has now become the property of a high-tech company. He has bequeathed his head to Polaris, a shady but prestigious cryonics corporation that maintains the brain active and conscious forever.
The novel charts Jane’s refusal to come to terms with her husband’s decision. Her defiance of Polaris embroils her in a palpitating plot to recover her husband’s mutilated body, like Iris before her in Egyptian mythology.
Jane’s revolt becomes both poignant and darkly comic in the context. She is initially forced to engage with Polaris and its emotionally inadequate loss management programmes on its own terms. She is asked to watch a documentary video that explains the vitrification process her husband’s head has had to undergo to maintain his consciousness. She is treated to ready-made, soulless slogans like THE FUTURE IS SO SORRY FOR YOUR PERCEIVED LOSS and is made to talk to a barely responsive machine called a mental anguish receiver. The humour in the novel goes from citric to waspish, but the narrative voice remains always firmly on the side of the valiant though increasingly damselized wife in distress.
The story cross-cuts between Jane’s tribulations and the fascinating dawning of Jim’s post-mortem consciousness as he awakens to his afterlife. The strangeness of this is rendered very masterfully by Adrian and Horowitz through the use of enigmatic parentheses and surreal imagery, giving the reader what feels like first-hand experience of the disturbingly pleasant afterlife masterminded by Polaris.
The latest collaborative effort of two up-and-coming American writers, The New World offers the best of both literary worlds. Horowitz’s previous collaborations on The Clock Without a Face, Everything You know is Pong and The Silent History have given him expertise in the practice of four-handed composition. In this seamlessly fluid narrative, however, it’s possible to detect the occasional touch of Chris Adrian’s style, even if his wilder streaks of stylistic and conceptual inventiveness are kept in check by the easily comprehensible narrative texture, at least in the first half of the book. Adrian’s arresting coinages spike the otherwise smooth beauty of the diction. In the very first paragraph, we are, for instance, treated to the evocative view of a “hair-helmeted blond lady”. Jane, the bereaved heroine, tries to look “funeral-casual” and has to bear the brunt of talking to a “train of perfectly sincere people who wielded their affectionate memories of Jim like heavy cudgels, all aimed directly at her face”.
Like Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, the novel first appeared in serial e-instalments, a medium that leaves the reader not only in a prolonged state of suspense but also in the dark as to how long the experience of the novel is going to last. Having a finite, tangible copy of this gorgeously-illustrated novel in your hands arguably gives you more control over the reading experience but still allows the authors to manipulate you. The novel is composed of three parts, entitled Cycles, but once you are immersed in the story you tend to quickly forget that what you are reading is under the ominous sign of Cycle 2 or 3.
The first half of the novel reads as a rather straightforward, first-rate, science fiction novel on a par with novels by the likes of Philip K. Dick. The potential problem with the second and third sections is that their mode of narration differs from the longer novella-sized first part which leads you to expect an action-packed resolution to an exciting, sci-fi thriller. Instead, you are given an uncertain form of closure that is intellectually challenging but not as adrenaline-generating as the first half. Reading The New World compares well to the experience of watching David Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive, a film which suddenly veers away from its establishing genre half-way through to become increasingly surreal and disorienting.
To avoid disappointment, the thing to realize is that the second and third cycles of the novel potentially take place inside Jim’s head. Alternatively, but this is vaguely suggested rather than stated clearly, Jane has been able to join Jim, which might imply that rather than defeating Polaris, she has ceded her body to it. As in postmodernist literature, the multiple possibilities remain co-present and irresolvable.
The dust jacket blurb of the novel flags it as championing “human connection over technological tyranny”. Although this is one way of interpreting the novel, I would argue that its conclusion is more ambiguous than that. As you enter the eternal repetitive bliss of two married minds in communion, you hesitate between nodding assent and feeling slightly queasy as you read the words churning round in what feels like a high-tech washing machine brain cycle. This is by no means to fault the novel as the double-edged sensation seems masterfully intended.