16 December 2009

Andrew McGahan, Wonders of a Godless World, 2009

This mainstream novel received a big push from its Australian publishers, with an animated promotional video that ties in with the book’s stunning first edition wraparound cover. This story – of a nameless orphan who encounters a mysterious and nameless new patient in a nameless asylum beneath a nameless volcano on a nameless tropical island – holds a lot of promise, not all of it fulfilled. McGahan wrote it to indulge his fascination with extreme weather and extreme natural disasters, and he uses science fictional and fantasy elements as the stitching that binds them together. The story builds quite nicely for the first half, mostly using the too-easy devices of out-of-body experiences, telepathy and immortality to form the link between the orphan and ‘the foreigner’, who is the increasingly likely suspect for some bizarre behaviour among the inmates, and soon some murders, despite literally never lifting a finger. By the fourth chapter one feels one is onto something rather original, and how it avoids becoming a straightforward paranormal tale is the way McGahan has embedded everything in the Earth sciences, and these provide the best descriptive passages by far.

The flip side to this seems to be, given McGahan’s self-imposed limits on names and characterisation, an inadequacy of conviction in the relationships between the novel’s small cast, particularly when it comes to sex, all culminating in a strangely bizarre S&M scene between two catatonic patients that frankly doesn’t work at all well. In fact as the novel progresses, sex becomes more and more the vector for certain plot elements to resolve themselves, and McGahan’s approach is, given the patients’ general lack of experience in these matters, rather predictably mechanical. I felt McGahan was coasting as he passed beyond the half-way mark; the OoBEs and telepathic conversations become a little repetitive, the foreigner’s story of his vendetta against the planet increasingly unbelievable. The best aspect is the way the Earth is the real star of the story with the locations and human characters all nameless and as minor as ants; plus the way the orphan’s status in society, an unreliable narrator forever on the outside and condemned to trying to figure out what’s going on inside, echoes humanity’s position literally as ‘outsiders’ on the skin of the Earth itself: this planet beneath our feet that we do not yet completely understand really does not care about us at all. As a whole package Wonders of a Godless World is impressive, but at the center of it all the story itself lacked the kind of substance that a more rigorous science fictional approach might well have given it: a story like this, with its informative backdrop of geology, vulcanology and meteorology all threaded with a fantastical sensibility, almost deserves to be science fiction.  PY


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