Wednesday, January 8, 2014

'Genesis', by Bernard Beckett; or: go read this book I should not have liked.

Bernard Beckett's Genesis is a novel that I really should have hated.

For starters, it's a science fiction story set in a dystopian setting, and while I am into the dystopian genre, I'm really not big on sci fi literature. Too much description about how things work or the systems that sustain everything. I get impatient. Show me characters, man! Then there's also the fact that the entire novel covers just a four-hour session in one day of the protagonist's life (which sounds a little boring, when you put it like that) and there are abundant flashbacks, which I loathe because I am an impatient reader and flashbacks tend to halt a narrative in its tracks. Finallly, there's a detached, almost clinical feel to the text. The story of main character Anaximander's entrance exam reads like a court procedural or an official transcript. There are few speech designations or dialogue tags, which should render the text drab and emotionless. But this is far from the case.

In spite of all these perceived 'flaws' which would normally put me off a book, Genesis is a powerful narrative that is both compelling and suspenseful. The back-and-forth dialogue between Anaximander and her examiners hearkens to Greco-Roman conceptions of debate and rhetoric, with the form of the text itself reinforcing the ideas, which can be read as a simple story or in multiple layers of meaning and even allegory. On one level, there is the suspense of whether Anax will convince the examiners she has earnt a place in the Academy; at another level, the rising tension and the debate indicate that there is a deeper story at work, woven amongst discussions couched in philosophy and logic.

What is not said -- and what is not even observed to have been left unsaid -- becomes incredibly important. Sarah Giffney (2011, p.64) described it as a 'metafictional critique of readership,' which is true, but it's also just a fantastic story with some solid surprises. I won't say anymore because I think this book works best with little foreknowledge of the text, but if you do read Genesis, please chat with me about it!

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