We’re reading THE CURIOSITY by Stephen Kiernan

2 Jul

This promising-sounding novel has made Martin McGrath very angry indeed. (Baseball fans, look away now.)

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John Murray, HB £17.99 / William Morrow, HB $25.99

The awakening sleeper who finds themselves lost in a new and unfamiliar time is a trope that has deep roots in ancient myths and branches that extend into popular culture. Hapless characters such as the Japanese fisherman Urashima Taro and the Irish poet-warrior Oisín return from the realm of magic to find centuries have passed, while Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle was waylaid by ghosts for twenty years. These characters served as warnings against meddling with magic but, more recently, the traveller has become our guide to new worlds. In works as diverse as Philip Nowlan’s Buck Rogers stories or Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes we see the wonders or the horrors of the future. And sometimes, as in Stephen Kiernan’s debut novel The Curiosity, we are presented with the failures of the present.

In The Curiosity some woo science (“hard ice”, a natural process that cannot be replicated in laboratories in which water freezes so fast that crystals cannot form in living cells) and the judicious application of lots and lots of electricity bring back Judge Jeremiah Rice who was lost on an arctic expedition a century ago. The story follows his exploitation by the callous scientist Erasmus Carthage and the conniving journalist Daniel Dixon and his love affair with the scientist who cut him from the ice, Kate Philo.

Judge Rice wanders through the modern world making a variety of asinine observations: modern shops are weird; oranges don’t taste as amazing as they did in the good old days; politics, religion, the media and the public are all variously perverted; but baseball, good old baseball, is still basically as wonderful as it ever was – Americans do love a game of rounders.

Kiernan uses the judge to make a series of obvious points about the failings of modern America, but he can only do this because he makes his protagonist (and the supporting characters) impossibly shallow ciphers. So, Judge Rice is a decent man who possesses none of the prejudices that one might expect of someone brought up in a society that practiced racial segregation and in which women had few rights. This allows Kiernan to focus on the coarseness of the modern world while skipping over most of the really difficult issues that have absorbed the last century. It’s a strange set of priorities that has an author create a character to reflect the changes in America over the last 100 years and then devote nearly five pages (204-209) to Judge Rice’s wonder at his first visit to a supermarket and another four to a visit to a haberdasher (226-230) to buy a new suit, but that glosses over the issue of race in just one page (311). Kate is entranced by the Jeremiah Rice’s old-fashioned values – a gentle chivalry that contrasts sharply with Daniel Dixon’s crudeness – but, of course, Kiernan doesn’t allow any space for the potentially less appealing assumptions that a man might carry around with him about the place of women in a traditional society. The judge is just nice, and so it is our apparent moral decline that is set into relief, not the progress we have made.

The central love story is both utterly predictable and a bit drippy. Kate spends a lot of time mooning about the judge but rarely displays the drive and intelligence that we are expected to assume she possesses. His other characters are equally unconvincing, often leaning toward stereotypes. There’s a permanently high, hippyish nerd who is obsessed with The Grateful Dead, a stiff-upper-lipped Brit, and Dixon, the hack reporter. The character of Erasmus Carthage, his eventual breakdown, and the final, deeply improbable revelations about his life and work are all just silly. The inclusion of movie-friendly sequences (a montage moment of humanity’s – America’s – triumphs and disasters in the last century and a chase sequence) are unsubtle and probably reflect that the film rights for The Curiosity were optioned prior to publication. The plot is too often driven by the failure, in an organisation full of putative geniuses, of anyone to share obviously crucial information until it is just too late. There’s a subplot with religious protesters that briefly threatens to be interesting but, in the end, goes nowhere.

I wish there was a more elegant way of expressing my displeasure with this book – but there really isn’t. Rather than demonstrate any genuine curiosity about where we are today and how we got here, The Curiosity is content to deal with the world at the most superficial level, while stating the bleeding obvious. Rarely has an opportunity been so horribly squandered.

Can somebody take the bad taste out of my mouth by reminding me who’s done this sort of book properly? My mind is a blank and it’s all Stephen Kiernan’s fault.

Also on the blog – “Homogeneous, rational, meritocratic and entirely improbable”: Martin McGrath explores Simon Morden’s The Curve of the Earth

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