Thursday, April 16, 2015

Love, Evensong (2015)

John Love, Evensong. New Shade Books, 2015. Pp. 366. ISBN:978-1-59780-552-0. $15.99.

Reviewed by Małgorzata Mika

Awe, astonishment, amazement… A litany of bewilderment has flown through my mind during the reading of John Love’s second novel, Evensong. Published by a small press company, New Shade Books, in January this year, the novel has been labelled a “love letter to political fiction” (citation from back cover of the book). Anticipating a fusion of cyberpunk in the style of William Gibson and Richard K. Morgan, I expected this compact publication to wire a dystopian circuitry with James Bond ruthlessness and gadget-abundant stunts. This would probably result in giving birth to an algid narrative with one of two literary outcomes: a de-humanized future of shifting identities, or a simplified secret service tale of technological warfare. Both of these scenarios augured a rather exhausting and/or disappointing reading. Ingratiating myself with these superfluous assumptions, I have been tempted to mis-classify the British author as one of those many second-league craftsmen who write their way through a market of the fantastic, offering a literary hamburger of clichéd ideas. Though not totally free from this affliction, Love’s posthuman novel expands beyond a postmodern reproduction of well-trodden conventions; he chooses to replicate them to convey a (double) meaning imperceptible at first glance.

Set in the year 2060, Evensong’s world is that of international politics, both artful and insidiously dangerous. In the middle of October, the UN organizes a conference during which the leaders of various countries around the world are to discuss a volatile issue of water rights. Presiding over the event is the New Anglican Church, an undefined hybrid of corporation and a religious denomination. Famous for its egalitarianism, the New Anglican Church is rapidly gaining popularity due to its engagement in charity activities, scientific research, and business projects that, for other churches, would seem at least unconventional. Its equally (in)famous leader, the Archbishop Olivia del Sarto is a dynamic person of dubious reputation. A violently charismatic business-woman, she is more recognized for her morally–evasive sexual antics, and insatiable appetite for food and fame. Facing a threat of being assassinated during the UN summit, she is provided with a Consultant, Anwar Abbas, a UN secret-service operative, who is more than human. A member of The Dead, as its telling sobriquet says, his body has been technologically-enhanced to perform a role of an efficient pacifying machine. As a new way of palliating violence, Anwar designates a shift in the UN’s strategy in the world’s playground. No longer a blunt instrument, the UN influences the international politics through surreptitious but decisive means. Yet, an ominous terrorist threat is looming on the horizon; as secretive as the UN, as power-obsessed as Olivia, and as deadly as Anwar. A nameless cell aspires to cause political bouleversement which may forever alter the landscape of the world.

Despite its resemblance to Richard K. Morgan’s Alternated Carbon, Love’s Evensong is a slick narrative whose content is far different than its cyberpunkish shell may suggest. For Love demonstrates a liking for plots in a style alluding to Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle. Opening a Chinese-box narrative, the first chapter introduces a reader into a gloomy atmosphere of June 2061, ten months after Olivia’s and Anwar’s first meeting. Del Sarto is on her own, fearing for her life while attending the Evensong service in the Old Anglican Church. No longer is she under Anwar’s protection, nor can she hope for his return. For she knows Anwar is long gone, and her brethren “[ha]d wished her dead if they knew what she had done.” (p. 3.) Her musings contradict the words of an evening psalm, “For he shall deliver thee from the snare of the hunter./He shall defend thee under his wings,/ And thou shall be safe…” (3), strongly emphasizing a woeful irony of Olivia’s plight. A prophetic hint at the ending of the novel. Yet, a slightly misleading one.

Surprisingly, Olivia’s drama is reported by an externalized third-person narrator who remains an aloof witness to her inner dialog of self-flagellation. Through such a literary stratagem a reader is placed in the position of a passerby helplessly registering a car crash. The same can be concluded about Anwar’s enigmatic demise which Olivia compares to the death of Shakespeare. A sense of grotesque emerges here: a character facing the perspective of death reflects upon the fate of her allegedly dead companion while reading an excerpt of a the text by a definitely dead poet. A hallway to hamartia. One may ask, “what is the point of reading if we already reached a tragic cul-de-sac?”

A repeating allusion to the first stanza of Sonnet 116 might come to your aid. For Love seems to join all three characters ( Abbas, del Sarto, Shakespeare) in a peculiar ménage a trois, exercising the vistas of duplicity, obsession and extremity. Their most striking and, simultaneously, the crudest realization can be found in Anwar, a product of technological enhancement. He is a mere sum of his parts: “musculature, bone, structure, internal organs, neurological processes, sensory abilities—all transformed—to achieve “the outcome [that] was simple.” (35) To neutralize danger. Somehow, the act of creating an Ubermensch is more debasing than a body-guarding task he abhors to perform. To make matters worse, Anwar’s inner voice acts in unison with this humiliating assessment becoming more obsessive, the more he compares himself with his better-scoring colleagues. However sympathetic a reader may be toward him, there is a grain of truth in this poignant image. Anwar’s actions are defined by binaries: “[o]ffer[s] and [a]cceptance[s]” (14), the mental limitations masked by his unmatched speed in combat. His passion for literature, and especially, replicas of ancient books and cars pinpoints his sensitivity, but even this quality is directed at objects uprooted from their native contexts. It no coincidence then that even his surname, Abbas, is an onomatopoeic reflection of an ‘abyss.’ (258) For Olivia, he is worthless piece of bioengineering, a “fucking autistic retard” (250) who cannot evade all the blows. Although not the best of his kind, Anwar’s greatest impairment lies not in his physicality or intellectual prowess, but in his inability to compute love. Ironically, so does Olivia’s.

Thankfully, the author spares the reader a naïve Costner-Huston love story from Bodyguard. Instead, he employs the recurring verses of Shakespeare’s sonnet to depict the depth of Anwar’s and Olivia’s (in)compatibility. Starting from a brief official introduction, the protector and his protégé quickly immerse in a mechanical lust, absolutely oblivious to all “impediments” (5). Their quasi-relationship is hardly that of “true minds” (5), filled with secrets, and handicapped in expression. Every attempt to change this state of affairs ends up in failure, which transcends a mere human-superhuman dichotomy. Their worlds do not touch, but grate against each other. And thus, the characters’ inner conflicts ignite a flame—though not of love, but of growing sympathy a reader may feel rising in his heart. It is touching to observe these two opposing forces clash in the laboratory of Love’s imagination.

Similarly to Shakespeare, the writer points at extremes enclosed in paradoxes, directing the reader’s attention at his unusual experiment. His subjects abide by the rules while breaking them, which makes their affair abnormal, shocking, and thus more intriguing. Anwar’s obsession to fulfill his body-guarding devoir comes at odds with his reluctance to protect Olivia, while Olivia’s ostentatious strength dissipates when faced with an undefined danger. Ideas, even the fake ones, are more crucial than individual people, and splashy poses come before true identities.

Love’s experiment, though captivating, generates a peculiar void, rendering the characters incomplete. Their thoughts, though verbally materialized, do not compose a complete picture of their personalities; their feelings and emotions wither before they are in full bloom. The details of their pasts and individual paths are missing, as if all they have ever had was a perpetual present. Although this may obstruct identification with their fate, the reason for this lies partly in the flourish of Love’s writing which lacks the complexity and scope of Herbert’s saga (one book vs. six installments). Another problem is a type of the world Love creates: “a society of retro replicas and concealed motives and manufactured identities […]” (250). A caboodle of lost referentials, Love’s world is a space of constant reformulation and mystification in a truly Baudrillardian sense.

As Love’s novel is an accumulation of empty signs, the idea of opposing fictions is both a blessing and a curse. It portrays the characters as mere pawns on a wide chessboard which spans across the white poles of fictitious facts and dark poles of characters’ unknown or lost pasts. “A play within a play” (162) as Laurence Rafiq, Anwar’s direct supervisor, echoes a paraphrase of Herbert’s “[f]eints within feints within feints” (Frank Herbert, Dune [Ace Books 1987 edition], p. 372). A play of words and with words, so typical of Herbert’s writing, percolates the characters’ monologs, both in their voiced or silence utterances. Many a time, however, this match of meanings, thought fascinating, takes place at the cost of the secondary characters (Asika, Levin, Arden, Guatenamo), whose personalities have been prevented from their full development. In consequence, they evaporate from the reader’s memory as a gladiator whose glory is extinguished in the lost fight.

After all, Evensong is a battlefield, “the arena […]” with many warriors escaping definition. One of them is Parvin Marek, an elusive terrorist lavish with delivering death to innocents for no apparent reason. He has no known agenda, nor he endeavors to provide one. A warrior without a mission. A living paradox. Described as “a freak of nature” (266), Parvin is known to have had “normal family, ordinary upbringing, [and] average accomplishments. […] Then, in his twenties, a dark light [mind a paradox!] switched on inside him. It made him brilliant and monstrous” (266). His credo remains without thesis, his heinous crimes are left without even the most insane justifications. Marek’s very existence, confirmed only by acts of terror, opens up a void that nebulizes more than explains. Guilty of the death of Rafiq’s family, Parvin’s hyperreal persona, even after his demise, casts an avaricious shadow on the UN and the characters’ fate long before and after the summit’s closure. To quote a Bene Gesserit saying, “Do not count a human dead until you’ve seen his body. And even then you can make a mistake” (Herbert, Dune, 339). Marek’s life and demise, shrouded in mystery, allowed me to comprehend a nature of my own error, when all subtle thoughts and utterances merged in characters’ vicissitudes in the final pages of the novel.

Love’s playfulness with the obvious is quite misleading, resulting in an astonishing turn of events. Bewilderment, a sense of partiality, incompleteness of characters, stem from something deeper that a mere dilatoriness of a budding writer; in fact, they point at the inherent lack of the original. A likeness to Herbert’s saga or Morgan’s novel is not accidental being an intrument in the game of shifting (un)realities. “Containers and contents” (268). The changeable former that hardly explicates a true nature of the latter. A precession of Baudrillardian simulacra words a dossier of the world whose elusiveness matches its emptiness. A plethora of cul-de-sacs.

Evensong with its multitude of themes and metaphorical tricks is a novel of surprises. Crafty in its repetitiveness, and puzzling in its art of deception. It is a container whose rich contents has touched me in the most unexpected ways. The main characters, though slightly malformed have engraved themselves in my heart and mind. A type of closeness achieved despite a literary distance. Love’s writing is insidious, aimed at creating a reality that expands the conventions of genres while playing hide-and-seek with their elements. The issues of love, identity, and politics coupled with religion are the threads intricately woven to form a convoluted net. In such an environment, it is impossible to foresee the ending which ultimately bursts with the final explosion of meaning. I am not certain whether a reader is to be reconciled with the characters’ choices, yet, the finale’s unexpectedness will impress on their imagination. Paradoxes, repetitiveness and empty signs remain faithful companions on the journey to a mind-blowing resolution. Though definitely not perfect, Evensong offers unforgettable impressions that leave a reader at the crosswords of perception, giving them a choice to interpret the characters’ decisions. Were they right? Were they wrong? It is for everyone to decide, if making that decision is even plausible. “Shift the world-picture just one notch, and there’s a parallel world.” Enjoy the game!

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