Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Christine Brooke-Rose, Subscript (1999)

I'd had the idea to read Brooke-Rose's novels chronologically (albeit I was doing so extremely slowly), but when I learned about the premise of this, her penultimate, it was so compelling to me that I had to skip ahead.

For a long time, I've had this sort of vague idea for a book that would encompass the development of life, taking place over hundreds of millions of years, as simple things evolve into big things. It was never clear whether and to what extent they would be anthropomorphized, or whether their thoughts would have continuity over the different sections--this could be done in many, many different ways-- but it was an idea that kind of fascinated me. The only real example of this kind of narrative that I knew was Enix's underrated SNES game EVO: Search for Eden.

Well GUESS WHAT, EMEFFERS? I mean, okay, I guess I've made it fairly obvious "what," but yup: that's what Brooke-Rose is up to here. There are nineteen chapters, each moving forward to a different time period. At first those are tens of millions of years, but the length of the gaps lessens to thousands. Single-celled organisms turn into primitive collectives to fish, reptiles, early mammals, and--perhaps inevitably--primates, and hominids. The book ends well before the start of history.

How does it "narrate" the lives of creatures without what we would think of as "consciousnesses?" Interestingly, is how. She doesn't give them a specific voice, but she does voice collective "thoughts" that they couldn't possibly actually be having along with a kind of collective DNA memory referred to as "the code" (the "subscript" of the title, running through all of life). About a third of the way through, the narrative switches from an omniscient third-person to a general second-person, and as the primates start to become humans and develop consciousness, the code disappears as an over thing, although there's a kind of Jungian collective-unconscious in place. The last few chapters feature actual characters with names and regular dialogue and everything, and the ending presents a decidedly ambiguous perspective on progress.

(Also, in one of the late chapters, there's a brief--one short paragraph only--account of an alien encounter, which is bewitching and mysterious.)

Is this really a "novel," is a natural question that someone might ask? But I think we can say yes to that one without having to think too hard. Almost a Bildungsroman, in fact, for life itself. Organisms and characters come and go, but life persists, ever-onward. This is its story.

You realize that we only have frickin' five thousand years of history, right? we've got almost NOTHING. It's extremely difficult to conceptualize the vast swaths of time and tide before that that have led us to where we are. You may or may not agree with the way that Brooke-Rose does it, but it's a very effective vision in any case. No doubt science in the time since the book was first published has superseded this or that, but the level of detail still boggles me. In the back, she lists several dozen that she used for research, as well as thanking numerous scientists for their help. The first is "Dr. Robert Foley, of King's College, Cambridge, for reading the first typescript of this novel, giving it a general approval, but raising several problems which led me to a thorough revision." BOY would I ever love to know what these "problems" were. But the point is, the work that she put in really shows. And let it be noted that Brooke-Rose was seventy-six when Subscript was published. You might possibly think, then, that it would probably be a pretty typically Brooke-Rosian thing (which doesn't mean it's going to be "normal," but still, you get me). But this book is A) utterly unlike any of her previous output; B) utterly unlike anyone ELSE'S output; and C) awesome by any standard. It would be worth checking out if only two of those three were the case, but as it stands, wow, remarkable indeed.

She died in 2012, at the age of eighty-nine, several years before I discovered her, via some wikipedia list or other. I wish I'd known earlier, so I could've, I dunno, at least sent her an email to let her know how much I admire her work. If she used email. I know I was looking for female writers to read for my year of women, but I'm not sure what particular list it was. It apparently wasn't just "postmodern writers," because she wasn't even LISTED there until I added her just now. Which just goes to show. The point is, the fact that nobody was talking about her--that I had to discover her with no guidance from anyone--seems criminal. Dare I suggest that she may be the single most underrated writer I know? Not the best, but she is really good, and the gulf between her talent and her level of recognition is unacceptable. I want you people to do better in the future.


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