e a m harris

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Archive for the tag “Sebastian Faulks”

On butterflies and books

Recently I’ve read two books on the random intersections and consequences of the characters’ stories: more or less the butterfly effect (a butterfly flaps its wings in Nepal and, because of the sensitivity of the weather system, sets off a chain of consequences resulting in a hurricane in Florida). The whole thing is far too difficult to predict, and looks like pure chance.

The books are Sebastian FaulksA Week in December and Penelope Lively’s How it All Began – well thought of books by major authors.

Perhaps this is the new preoccupation – we control so much in the world but still who meets whom, who marries whom, who gets born (or not), who gets mugged or wins the lottery, is mainly outside anyone’s control and looks wayward and attractive.

What they do not write about is the other side of the coin – what doesn’t happen is as subject to butterflies as what does. Of course, the alternatives are unknowable and vast in numbers, a range of possible histories that no one can enumerate or describe.

Science fiction sometimes attends to some of them, usually on a macro scale: what if Hitler won the war? But behind such world-changing speculations lies, what if Fred and Freda never met?

Those who write about time travel may address the butterfly effect directly. What if I time travel to the Middle Ages and make one tiny change, would Hitler win the war? But would Fred and Freda meet in 1990 still tends to get short shrift?

In the actual world, Fred and Freda do meet, fall in love etc. The butterfly is still there, lurking in the future waiting to pounce. They can’t agree on their wedding day – she wants April, he wants May. So they toss a coin. Heads, and she wins. April it is. By the time they get to May, the little ball of cells that will one day be their darling Sally is alive and well in Freda’s womb and waging terminal chemical warfare on all Johnny-come-lately potential rivals. Sally gets born; Sadie does not. Sally marries John where Sadie would have married Tom. And so on. By 500 years later the entire population of the world is the way it is because of the toss of a coin.

C’est la vie – or not, as the sensitivity of the system of human affairs may have it.

Pics from Goodreads site.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

Faulks is a well-known and highly regarded writer and I’m not sure how I failed to read any of his books before. This book didn’t put me off him, but also didn’t make me rush out to buy more.

He uses the device of a set period (a week) to tell a complex tale of interacting lives. At first glance his large cast have little or nothing in common – how can a tube-train driver, a teenage wannabe terrorist, a hedge fund manager and an immigrant chutney manufacturer, among others, relate to each other? But they are related in the kind of nebulous social network modern cities foster: A knows B who is suing C who has invited D to E’s dinner party and so on.

Some of the interactions are funny – several of the men have a habit of visiting a soft porn website and ogling pictures of beautiful Olya. They are somewhat confused when she turns up at the dinner party with her footballer boyfriend.

Other relationships are scary. If the terrorist plans succeed not only will several, very vulnerable, people be killed, but a host of so far successful lives will be ruined. The most scary is the hedge fund manager’s plot, which runs as one of the strongest threads through the whole story.

London, the setting for the book, is almost a character in its own right, providing the cast with the semi-public stage they are happy to act on.

Each of these people has their own agenda and storyline, and all of them end in a satisfactory way, but they themselves remain largely ignorant of the effect the week has had on their destinies.

The book is supposed to be a satire on today’s world, and indeed it examines a good deal of modernity. Not only soft porn, but drug taking, high finance, online fantasy worlds, fundamentalism and social insecurity all get a look in.

I personally felt that the satire was fairly superficial and confined itself to a small portion of the population. I preferred to view it as a novel about people whose problems and behaviour wouldn’t be all that different in another time or place. The characters are rounded people whose actions make sense. Their progress through the week and the places they arrive at by the end of it are realistic, and we care what will happen to them.

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