Beneath the World, a Sea—Chris Beckett

[I read this short 2019 novel in two halves. I read the first half and wrote about it before reading on.]

13 October 2019
Parts 1-5—first half
This is a ‘what if’ thought-experiment. What if there were a little patch of the world, very different from ours, in which almost nothing we take for granted means a thing? It’s known about but, for reasons that we are slowly coming to understand, it has hardly been explored. It isn’t on Google Earth because this is 1990, and the main town—whose economy is based on nothing that is ever explained—is stuck in a faded mid-20th Century. Chris Beckett made a name for himself with the Dark Eden trilogy, set on a weird planet that this terrestrial zone resembles in its unearthliness. I get the feeling it doesn’t matter to Beckett where it is. He clearly didn’t fancy creating a whole new world again, so he’s come up with something like one of Jonathan Swift’s islands in Gulliver’s Travels. If Swift can have Laputa, an island that floats in the air, why can’t Beckett have a strange floating forest? It’s the ‘Submundo Delta’, big enough to take weeks of river-travel to cross, at a place where volcanic land meets the sea at the edge of South America.

None of this matters, because its main purpose is to be the surreal-seeming backdrop to a whole bundle of psychological stuff. And the bundle is like what you get in a pass-the-parcel game, because the Delta has the effect of peeling away all the layers of anybody’s persona, however highly socialised. It means that disinhibited behaviours, whilst by no means being the new normal, tend to creep up on Ben, the main character. He helps a shop-owner who’s been rendered terror-stricken by one of the weird local creatures, and finds the biological imperative suddenly impelling his genital paraphernalia into close and intimate contact with hers. Beckett doesn’t quite put it like that, but his description is equally reductive. It’s a part of the layer-removing pattern of this first half of the novel that every aspect of human interaction Ben encounters is becoming stripped down to its behavioural essentials. Not that he bothers to strip down for his encounter with the shop-owner.

My problem is…. I have a lot of problems with this book, in fact. The main one is to do with the suspension of disbelief. We accept Jonathan Swift’s impossible islands not because we think they might be real, but because of his hugely inventive satirical intentions. Everything about his worlds is a send-up of human pretensions and all-round wrong-headedness. Politics, science, the conviction that humanity is the pinnacle of creation…. Nope. It’s all held up for Swift’s own mix of scrutiny and ridicule, and it’s brilliant. But what does Beckett offer? Magic science, in which a zone so different from anywhere else on earth leads scientists to wonder if it’s a fragment of some extra-terrestrial biosphere unaccountably transported to Earth by, well, who knows what?

And the creatures I mentioned, the duendes. The name derives from Iberian folklore, but these creatures are so weird there’s even some speculation that the pods they emerge from might be products of the trees of the forest. And don’t even get me started on the trees, with such a strange fractal-based structure the forest is like a Mandelbrot dream. Or nightmare. And they aren’t green, they’re pink, and magenta. And the birds have teeth. And… and so on, and so on. The forest is the duendes’ territory, and they are a big part—although not the only part—of that de-layering process. Simply being near them, seeing their hard, jewel-like eyes—all the creatures in this world have jewel-like eyes—in their rubbery, boneless faces tears thick strips off any social pretensions we might have. Or, apparently, it does if you aren’t 100% sure of yourself in the first place.

Ben is such a person and, not to put too fine a point on it, they do his head in. He’s been sent to the Delta, and to its main town, Amizad—not quite an anagram of Amazed—in order to help carry out a United Nations directive. The not-quite-indigenous locals—in fact settlers brought by a forward-thinking capitalist in the 19th Century who decided a future workforce would be useful—are killing the duendes because they lurk about the place, unsettling everybody. In its wisdom—there’s a lot of that knowing sarcasm about—the UN has decided the duendes are not only an endangered species, but are to be regarded as human. To kill them, from now on, will be murder. Ben, a police inspector from London, is to make sure the local coppers are going to enforce the new directive.

When I said I was having a problem with the suspension of disbelief I was being polite. I don’t believe a word of any of it. The impossible science, the non-existent economic basis of the place, the silly politics… to say nothing of the 100-odd years of settlement. The settlers would have reduced the duende population almost to nothing by now, but no. There’s just an occasional incident—one of which Ben attempts to investigate, inevitably coming up against the stonewalling response we would expect. The effect of the duendes is to act like some kind of psychotropic drug, combining a disinhibiting influence with an unsettling revelation of a person’s inner demons. The urge to kill them—it’s Ben’s own response the first time he happens upon some of them—would seem uncontrollable.

Ben’s isn’t the only point of view we get. Like a lot of 21st Century novels—I sometimes wonder when it became a thing—each section focuses on different character. There’s Hyacinth, the anthropologist, veteran of six or seven visits and open to whatever the place has to offer. She’s also a competent artist, making a quick portrait of Ben he finds as unsettling as most things since long before his arrival. There’s a hedonistic couple, Jael and her lover Rico. She, it turns out, is a former top physics-type scientist, now sold on the idea that this place is revealing truths about science that undermine every discovery the West has made for hundreds of years. Quarks? Forget it. And yet people are more willing to believe in them than Rico’s ad hoc musings about the hidden depths of actuality, a mash-up of New Age animism, Eastern philosophy and Jael’s own take on quantum mechanics.

Who else? Justine, the shop-owner, good girl gone off the straight and narrow under the influence of Rico many years ago. She (and her wealthy Parisian parents) financed his trip out here, and he took her to places she could only have imagined when she was studying hard to be a conventional member of the bourgeoisie. She believed his spiel—and has been stuck here ever since, too scared of the idea ever to even think of leaving. Now she makes sentimentalised pottery versions of the duendes, but she is as scared of them as anyone else. One of them, stuck on to her shop window on its sucker-like hands and feet, is enough to turn her into the sort of quivering wreck that makes disinhibited coppers want to comfort them in the way nature knows best….

This is all fluff. It’s a New Age version of Heart of Darkness, and the metaphor this time is the dark, undiscovered ocean beneath the surface of the human psyche. And boy, it’s deep. And dark. And, oh, I did mention that there’s something else messing with our man’s head, besides the duendes? On the river trip—the river’s called Lethe, believe it or not—there’s a stop-over lasting days at the town of Nus. Passengers are urged not to get off, so Ben doesn’t. Or so he thinks, until he realises he did. He has the notebooks he kept whilst onshore, and is now too worried to read what unspeakable things he got up to there. He’s a good boy—Hyacinth is amused, and not a bit surprised, to discover he was a Scout in his teens—and, my goodness… what if he did criminal things there? What if he killed someone? (I bet he did.) His memory of his time there, as everybody’s always is, was wiped clean as soon as he left, so who knows? My guess is he spent his time with men and/or boys, and killed one of them. But I’m not betting on it. Maybe he just spent his time playing games of solitaire in his room.

There are other things, I’m sure, like he thinks he fancies the sardonic Hyacinth. And he’s wasted a week doing hardly anything since his arrival in Amizad…. Where this is going I’ve no idea, and I’m really not terribly interested, to be honest. But I’ve started now, so I’ll finish.

17 October
Parts 6-18—to the end
I was wondering where this novel was going. Not very far, it turns out. The narrative becomes more and more event-strewn—Ben is only in and around Amizad for a little over a week, but an awful lot happens—but, basically, little is revealed beyond what we know already. Ben is a more ‘divided’ personality than we might have realised, meaning (it appears) that the more disinhibited he is, the further away from acceptable norms his behaviour becomes. Those notebooks of his…. I might as well start with them. He began writing the first when on the boat, but still in the outside world, with its green-leafed trees and sounds of birds and monkeys. He is anticipating with some trepidation—perhaps knowing what a tight rein he keeps on himself normally—the so-called Zona, a kind of belt of forgetfulness that surrounds Amizad. Beckett, not through sleight of hand but by way of a sort of muddle, has made a kind of mash-up of two what-if concepts: the idea that if our memories are temporarily lost, including memories of how we have created a persona to present to the world, we might become somebody entirely different for the duration; and that, in that period of fugue—never called that, but familiar enough for it to be a favourite literary trope—we might be contemptuous of our more conventional selves.

Are you following this? The main point seems to be in order to let Chris Beckett have his main character, whilst both his memory and inhibitions have gone AWOL, playing with his boring old normal persona. This is all well and good, but it makes his reading of the key notebook—the one he wrote in Nus, where all bets are off—something of a damp squib. Yes, he writes, he killed someone. Only joking, he says, he had sex with him instead. Or did he? And so on, and so on. OK, even before this, Ben does seem to occasionally have a flashback to a knife-blade and a lot of blood, but the Delta does that to you anyway. Doesn’t it? Beckett is clearly proud of this little conceit, because he ends the novel with it. He keeps telling Justine, the shop-owner now sailing out of Amizad with him, that he wants her to remind him do the right thing when they get to the Zona and to stay out of Nus. But, the instant they cross into the Zone, he smiles in a most peculiar way. ‘His whole face had relaxed. That haunted expression had gone. “Don’t worry, Justine … Thanks anyway, but you enjoy your moment. I’m sure we can both manage a little bit of time in Nus.”’

Ooh, what’s going to happen? As if I care. What Beckett has done, from the beginning of the novel to the end, is to throw up maybe half-a-dozen philosophical or faux-philosophical conundrums. Questions about perception and the nature of reality get kicked around for a while, but nothing is resolved. In a novel in which so much happens, none of it matters very much, and not one of the characters reaches any conclusion about the value of their new-found knowledge. If, as Ben worries at one point, it really is new knowledge and not just New Age nonsense. Ben is clearly an unhappy man, and is very likely to stay that way once he’s out of there. Justine, although she has found the courage to leave after fifteen years, is pretty sure she’s going to have a shit life in Europe. Hyacinth, sure of nothing about her studies beyond the suspicion that she’s been wasting her time, has decided she will be unlikely to return to the Submundo—and then, in the last chapter focusing on her, she comes face-to-face with a jaguar that’s strayed from the outside world. (I’m not making this up.) Will she survive the encounter? Will it kill her, or will it be one of those mythical stray jaguars people talk about that the Delta has turned into pacifists? She doesn’t know, and neither do we.

Are we nearly there yet? Well, yes. Ben leaves, having realised he had always been on a fool’s errand. Justine leaves, knowing she’s ‘thrown away her youth.’ Hyacinth we know about. Jael—who, it seems has been encouraging Rico to delve deeper inside his own psyche with the help of the psychotropic duendes—has lost her ‘diver,’ as Rico calls himself one time. He now spends all his time alone with the duendes, and none of it with her. She frets that without him, she’ll never be able to unravel the mysteries of life, the universe and everything. There’s another character whose story we have occasionally followed—the rule is that this only happens if they have some important interactions with Ben—Tim Dolby the TED Talks-type smiling scientist. (He used to be married to Jael, but she was too shatteringly intelligent even for a super-bright chap like him.) He’s there to open up the Delta, just like everywhere else in the world has been opened up, for the best possible reasons. He’s getting the local ‘Protectorate’ politicians to agree to having a monorail built. However…

…the Submundo Delta has a way of putting paid to the best-laid plans, as everyone else has found out. Tim’s friend Ziggy, another overly successful gee-whiz American, tells him he doesn’t have to stop at building a monorail through the pesky Zone. Why not fly? He’s a qualified pilot, and he’s sure he could navigate through—and, one evening, he proves it, dropping leaflets about the brave new world of communication and easy travel that will soon be in place. Tim is the only person around who is delighted by this. Everybody else feels that something is going to be lost… and it’s a science fiction trope. I can remember that in Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989), the conversion of planets to themed holiday resorts is a satirical take on what the modern world does to previously untouched ecologies.  But it’s OK. Hyacinth, for one, can’t help feeling a kind of sadistic pleasure when Ziggy’s triumphant aerobatic display on his second demo flight is brought to an end by the Delta’s every one of the sharp-toothed bird population, working as though with one mind to send his plane into a fatal stall. That’s how the Delta works, see. You don’t mess with it.

Aside from all these things happening in a rush, there continues to be other stuff. What had seemed new and strange at first—the disinhibition of absolutely everybody, the weird life-forms (about five, as far as I can see) in their unique, non-competitive, non-Darwinian ecology—has quickly become old hat. There isn’t enough variety either in the colours or spiral forms of all the plants, or the strange other-worldliness of the creatures. See one duende and you’ve seen them all—so Beckett struggles not to keep describing them, and the blue birds with their teeth, for goodness’ sake, in more or less the same way all the time. The novelty wore off long ago.

The same goes for the kind of enforced openness Ben finds so disconcerting. It seems to be easy for everybody to read the thoughts of everybody else, so interactions are characterised by the sort of frankness that has the opposite effect from what we might hope. Yes, one of them thinks in his or her own section following one such encounter, the other person is obviously thinking such-and-such—and they usually seem to be right. Buttoned-up Ben has sex with Justine again (and at least one more time on the boat, but definitely only to distract from the tension this time). He reads what his overly-disinhibited Zona self said to Jael on the boat about his real persona. You won’t like me out of the Zone, he tells her—and we’ve seen how right he is. But so? Isn’t Beckett just making exactly the same point in a different way? And isn’t it a bit clunky that he, Beckett, can only pull off his little narrative joke through having Ben write those bloody notebooks? He, Beckett again, places far too much reliance on them, in order to reinforce a point that wasn’t all that fascinating in the first place. Human beings create personas for themselves, some more than others, to make social interactions work. Thanks, Chris.

Next. What is reality? Once, and once only, Beckett allows the narrative to drift right inside a different science fiction trope. It happens to be Ben, out on a trip to a village in the jungle, who is the one to find the crashed plane. Unaccountably (and implausibly), there’s still some life in poor Zig’s body… but it’s Ben’s perception of what’s happening that is the point here. It isn’t at all clear why it should happen at just this moment, but Ben finds himself in The Matrix. What is described, as his visual field is replaced by diagrammatic forms of everything, including even his own limbs, is precisely what the Keanu Reeves character sees in the movie when he starts to see that his ‘reality’ is merely an illusion. The Matrix relies on a what-if mind game of Descartes’s: what if our view of the world were to be proved no more than an illusion created by demons? In the movie, they are extra-terrestrials. In this novel, who knows? But, in case we’re wondering if there really is a link, Beckett even uses the word ‘matrix’ at least once to describe what’s going on. Go figure.

Or don’t. There are ideas in this book but, honestly, few if any that we haven’t come across before. The moral conundrums are often old chestnuts. Isn’t the reality we see, as (I think) Jael says, just the shadow of a shadow on the cave wall? (Thanks, Plato, you can come again.) As Ben wonders about what he really did get up to in Nus, if there are no constraints on our behaviour, are we capable of doing absolutely anything at all? Most basic of all, if there is no god like the Christian God we’ve stopped believing in, or the locals’ own ‘Iya’, what is to stop us from doing evil when nobody’s going to find out? (And yes, this is really a conversation Ben has with some of the residents.)

And if there’s anybody reading this who wasn’t asking these questions when they were very much younger than they are now… what were you doing?