Bête is a novel of well chosen sly references – lines from pop songs, other books, puns on cultural icons, TV shows, bits of well known slang – but one of the slyest, and perhaps best chosen, since we know Adam Roberts is an English academic, is on the last page. ‘This is the best of me,’ says Roberts on his Acknowledgements page. Is that an acknowledgement, or a boast? Interest aroused, I go in search.
It takes some tracking down, but the remark comes from Sesame and Lilies, by John Ruskin. (It was also quoted by Edward Elgar on the manuscript score of The Dream of Gerontius.) Here it is in full, in quotation marks because Ruskin placed it in them:
‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’
The context is Ruskin’s definition of the difference between the sort of book that conveys news or amusement and a ‘true’ book, which is written for permanence. Of permanence, Ruskin says, ‘The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it.’ Unless I am completely misinterpreting Adam Roberts’ intentions, I take this to mean he was aiming high with Bête, a book no one else can or would write, worthy of our memory.
That’s a classy boast, and I like it. After one novel a year for the last decade and a half, and heaven knows how many parody novels, he’s entitled to that. But is it the best of him?
It’s an unusual novel, unusual even for Roberts, whose fiction has never been what might be called expectable, but also unusual within the genre of fantastika. Like much of his work it has a distinct satirical streak, but unlike the earlier novels of his I’ve read, which depended on exact but often dodgy plotting, it is almost sluttishly freeform. It therefore escapes the need to make sense in plot terms. In fact, there is hardly any discernible plot – just a sequence of events, many of which are static or internalized, and the rest of which are the sort of long rambling conversations, full of stupid generalizations and cheerful abuse, overheard in a pub.
What will happen in the course of the story seems fairly predictable, once you understand the parameters of the set-up. Animals have gained the use of words, through the fitting of an AI chip. With the gaining of words comes an animalistic point of view, and, concomitantly, the power of persuasion. It’s not long before they are running things: e.g., farms are worked by humans, with the beasts occupying the farmhouse, so to speak. A shade of Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is being summoned of course, and Adam Roberts, one of our most intelligent and well read writers, knows exactly what he is doing. The famous last line of Animal Farm is one of the many cultural references that are scattered throughout the book.
The sequence of events is not all that exciting: the oddly named narrator, Graham Penhaligon, a former abattoir worker, butcher and farmer, lives rough in and wanders around the Thames Valley. He is in squalid circumstances for most of the story: unwashed, starving, sleeping rough in Bracknell Forest, killing animals for food – he spends half the book crippled by a damaged Achilles tendon. He is living on the fringe of a weird and dysfunctional society, where isolated houses, villages and suburban towns are empty (there’s an ebola-like epidemic called Sclera killing humans in the millions), while the M4 motorway is a hell of rushing vehicles and roadside squatters. Canny animals (i.e. those fitted with AI chips) are fighting back, and in Graham’s case biting back. He’s a high-profile enemy to the new master race, having notoriously slaughtered a talking cow in the first five pages of the novel. He meets and falls in love with Anne, a cancer victim, and after her death, a haunted and lonely man, he seeks a sort of revenge on the world until another kind of solution is offered to him.
So it’s an unusual novel, but does that make it any good? Not all unusual books are. Most of us would accept Animal Farm and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) as good novels — properly referenced here, as their precedence is clear — but Will Self’s recent modernist novel Umbrella (2013) was both unusual and more or less unreadable. One also remembers with a shudder some of the modernist attempts at New Wave stories from untried SF writers in the 1960s. In large, the genre of science fiction is in formal terms unadventurous, employing conventional narratives and plot structures, depending more on its exploration of ideas than deep characterization or beautiful or experimental prose, so a book like Bête tends to stand out purely for its way of being told.
As anti-heroes go, Graham Penhaligon is a consummate act. His narrative is remarkable for his self-loathing, cynicism, intolerance, stubbornness and gritty determination. When he loses the love of his life the contrast in his feelings is telling. But most of the time his attitude and manners are appalling, and you can’t help liking him for that:
Eventually a junior officer came to fetch us. ‘You all right going upstairs with that stick?’ he asked me, in a voice plumped with the peculiar smugness of the very posh. ‘It’s just that the elevator is on the fritz.’
‘I can walk,’ I replied. ‘Unless you fancy giving me a fucking piggy back, lard-face.’
The answer to my question above (‘does that make it any good?’) is yes, but I think Bête is good mainly in what it tells us about the progress of the writing of Adam Roberts, rather than as a novel in itself. Although it is clearly likely to be one of the stand-out novels of 2014, I believe in overall terms Bête’s unusualness of attack is not enough to counteract the feeling of familiarity created by the smallness of its scale, the limits of its ambition. In the end, the society is drawn too vaguely, the revolution amongst the animals is unconvincing and slightly risible, the puns too many, the references to pop music and TV too dating, the events too meandering. However, the real reason to read this book is to see a good writer getting better, and doing so in unexpected and uncommon ways. The prospect of a new novel from Roberts is always a matter of expectation, but I believe after Bête we should be genuinely keen to see what he will come up with next.
Bête by Adam Roberts. Gollancz, 2014, ISBN: 978 0 575 12768 5, £16.99