Fiction Reviews


Psalms For the End of the World

(2022) Cole Haddon, Headline, £20, hrdbk, 517pp, ISBN 978-1-472-28667-3

 

This novel pitches somewhere between The Matrix and Marvelís latest take on Loki, with more than a hint of Philip K. Dick. And itís not averse to taking a sideways lurch into Titanic territory just when you mistakenly think the narrative might be starting to make some sense. Itís clever, inventive, unsettling and often plain weird.

Grace, a waitress, falls for one of her regulars, Bobby, but Bobbyís not what he seems and soon heís wanted by the FBI (who also arenít what they seem, at least not all of them). Bobby canít remember Grace, and he canít remember planting a bomb in Pasadena either. And then he starts to piece it all togetherÖ

Oh, but this is a frustrating novel. It took an age to read Ė not because it is overly long (though it is quite long), and not because the prose is difficult or the writing poor (it isnít, itís silky-smooth and well crafted). It is because structurally Ė until you reach the end and see how it all twists together like an intricately balanced machine Ė it comes across as a hot mess (though, in the context of what the storyís about, the structure makes perfect sense) with multiple points of view and many diverse scenarios across time and (in some cases literally) space.  So you engage with one part then have to shift to another, then another, and by the time youíve emerged you can barely remember your own name, let alone some 12th century warrior with a limited shelf life and multiple played out scenarios. Following the thread of anything becomes impossible. So you break off to make a cup of coffee and watch Ted Lasso instead. Immersive it isnít. Until, when you start to join the dots, it most certainly is.

The approach is very televisual, but itís not always obvious where the connective tissue is, and the reason for some of the dramatic choices is often not clear. It makes it hard, in particular, to develop a feel for many of the (many) characters, or see how they slot into the overall narrative. But when you come across the aha! moments when you realise that a character in one part of the sprawling timeline connects, appears or echoes in another part of the story, you smile and persevere for more.

Some scenarios and timelines work better than others. The Bobby/Jones/Gracie timeline (early 1960ís, Pasadena and Tuscon) anchors the rest of the narrative and although itís not without its head scratching moments, itís engaging and inventive. The Keisha (1990s scriptwriter) timeline is interesting and well presented too, as are the multiple deaths in space subsections. If none of this makes any sense at first, welcome to the club. ĎThe more the Perceived World around them didnít make sense the more they went Ė yeah - loco.í Jones says, in the middle of an existential conversation while having his feet massaged.  Indeed.

It feels like youíre watching a bank of TV screens all tuned to different channels with the sound dialled high on each one, making it impossible to concentrate on the football. Fans of chaos and complexity will enjoy it.  Me?  Iíll take the blue pill.

Mark Bilsborough

 


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