I got home late-ish on Friday night, picked up Iain Pears’ Arcadia to read a chapter or so of before turning in, and basically disappeared until late Saturday night. To be honest, I kind of knew that was coming–I’ve been excited about this book since I first heard it was coming out and I’ve read and loved all of Iain Pears’ novels, and own most. (And Arcadia! I hoped there were connections to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which I love, and there are!)
First off, the plot of Arcadia is hugely complicated. If you’re familiar with Pears’ work, you won’t be surprised by this: An Instance of the Fingerpost told the same story from four perspectives; the three stories that made up Stone’s Fall were told in reverse order, The Dream of Scipio considers the same fundamental questions through several crises in history…. Lots going on, always. You don’t read Iain Pears with your brain turned off. (His art history series is less challenging but very enjoyable.
Iain Pears explicitly and consciously plays with forms of narration in his work. He talks narrative strategy in this article in the Guardian, in which he introduces the app that he designed for this book. From what I can garner (I read the old school hardback pictured above) the app is an ebook that lets you rearrange the narrative based on whose story you are interested in. There are ten narrative lines (the student’s tale, the professor’s tale) and you can follow read straight through on one narrative line, or stop to move to another. He mentions that critics of his previous novels thought they were too complicated, that readers complained because you had to remember a detail for 500 pages or so. (I’m thinking this is what note cards are made for, that’s how I made it through The Children’s Book, because, as much as I love Byatt, that book positively sprawls.) So he created the app to make things easier on the reader. I’m also wondering what this does to the function of the author– I’d need to play around in the app a bit to really have an opinion, but right now it seems to venture towards the “Choose Your Own Adventure” realm… not really there, of course, because the plot is set and I’m not sure how much the order matters. Perhaps I’ll understand this a bit more when and if I explore the app. Check out this video if you’re interested in the app.
But back to the novel. There is a lot going on at all times. Or at one time. Or however you interpret time, which is a central question of the book. That said, I only needed to flip around in the book to remind myself who someone was once or twice– in some books with multiple interweaving timelines (ahem, David Mitchell) I spend as much time analyzing and tracking as I do enjoying. Not the case in this book.
There are three worlds (for lack of a better designation) in Arcadia: Anterworld, a pastoral idyll with heaping helpings of all things Shakespearean; 1960’s Oxford, where Henry Lytton (friend of Tolkien and Lewis) writes stories about his ideal world as a respite from his war work; and Mull, a far-future totalitarian government in which Angela Meerson’s subversive discoveries about time travel threaten the prized stability. But divisions between these worlds are far from distinct: Henry Lytton has an idiosyncratic friend named Angela Meerson, the world he writes about is called Anterworld, and the rest is plot that I don’t care to spoil for you.
I highly recommend this book. I loved the characters, I loved the worlds, I loved the narration, I loved the problems that it was preoccupied with. Get it, you won’t be disappointed. And the app is free!