Laboured yet full of tan­ta­lis­ing in­tel­li­gence

Gough does lit­tle to awaken us to the vi­brant par­tic­u­lar­i­ties that be­queath the strength of what it re­ally means to con­nect

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - MATTHEW ADAMS

CON­NECT JU­LIAN GOUGH Pi­cador, 496pp, £14.99

Wel­come to the near fu­ture. Wel­come to an era in which re­frig­er­a­tors re­mind you to take your daily med­i­ca­tion; in which cars are pow­ered by mov­ing on the sur­faces of so­lar-pan­elled roads; in which sur­veil­lance and delivery drones de­scend into streets that are hideously vul­ner­a­ble to bi­o­log­i­cal at­tacks, freak weather oc­cur­rences, civil un­rest.

Here, build­ings are con­structed with­out first-floor win­dows in or­der to pro­tect their in­hab­i­tants from floods. Here, you can in­cur fines by choos­ing to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the con­trol of your own ve­hi­cle.

Here, you can mon­i­tor loved ones by way of trans­mis­sions of their heart­beat to de­vices teth­ered to your wrist. Here, by means of ad­vances in vir­tual re­al­ity, you can ex­pe­ri­ence amorous in­ter­ac­tions with the be­ings of your dreams.

And, here, in true re­al­ity (if there re­mains such a thing as true re­al­ity), you can trans­form your ap­pear­ance by means of the phe­nom­e­non of the e-skin. Wel­come, reader. Wel­come to the world of Ju­lian Gough’s lat­est and mes­mer­i­cally fric­tion­less novel, Con­nect.

It is a world that, for all the vigour of its imag­ined in­no­va­tions, is marked in its stylis­tic qual­i­ties (and in the imag­ined thoughts and ac­tions of its char­ac­ters) by a near con­gen­i­tal anti-tal­ent for steril­ity.

On al­most ev­ery page there is an event ob­served, or an emo­tion de­scribed, that is so pow­er­fully inat­ten­tive as to seem cal­cu­lat­edly – al­most phar­ma­ceu­ti­cally – so­porific.

This is a fic­tional land­scape in which we en­counter char­ac­ters who re­solve to “get this nailed down” de­spite there be­ing “no wig­gle room” while re­mind­ing them­selves, “don’t push it. There are big­ger is­sues”.

When those big­ger is­sues present them­selves they are of­ten con­fronted by a woman who can hear “her heart pound­ing”, in­dulges when oc­ca­sion af­fords in a “wry smile” and oc­ca­sion­ally “laughs hys­ter­i­cally” be­fore tak­ing time to re­flect on how things have “got wildly out of hand”. Only af­ter suf­fer­ing these forms of vi­brant tor­ment are we able to join her as she “kicks off her shoes” and “rolls her eyes”.

The story on which this del­uge of cliches is af­flicted is pro­pelled by the nar­ra­tives of Naomi Chiang (the woman al­ready men­tioned) and her son, Colt. He is a hand­some and in­ept young man who is awk­ward, has never been kissed, “has hardly even spo­ken to a girl”, and who, as an ex­pert coder and hacker, be­lieves that “you can’t ob­serve a thing with­out chang­ing it”. His ex­per­i­ments in this sphere cause him to de­velop an in­ter­est in at­tempt­ing to neu­tralise the time-lag that ex­ists be­tween the vir­tual world and the real. His fa­ther, Ryan, left many years ago.

Naomi is a re­search sci­en­tist who, un­like her son, be­lieves that the world can be ob­served un­changed, and who de­votes her en­ergy to con­duct­ing pri­vate ex­per­i­ments de­signed to ex­plore the ways in which the lat­est sci­en­tific ad­vances might be em­ployed to as­sist the re­growth of sev­ered hu­man limbs.

Con­cerned about the im­pli­ca­tions of her con­clu­sions (and the uses to which they might be put), she has re­sisted pub­lish­ing her find­ings. Yet it is not long be­fore her son or­ches­trates a sit­u­a­tion – part of a pro­ject that will ei­ther al­low him­self to gain a height­ened level of hu­man un­der­stand­ing or oblit­er­ate him en­tirely – that al­lows him to dis­trib­ute them to the world.

Anoma­lous im­age

As a re­sult of this leak, Colt’s fa­ther and the na­tion’s se­cret and ap­par­ently om­ni­scient se­cu­rity or­gan­i­sa­tion in­sert them­selves into the lives of Colt and his mother in or­der to at­tempt to sti­fle and ac­quire the find­ings that Naomi’s re­search looks set to un­leash. The en­su­ing drama forces Colt to aban­don the world of vir­tual re­al­ity in which he has so as­sid­u­ously and ar­dently en­gaged, and con­fronts both him and his mother with the ques­tion of what it means to live hu­manly in a hy­per-dig­i­tal age.

Will Colt be able to es­tab­lish a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the me­di­ated and un­medi­ated world? How far will his mother go to pro­tect him?

The re­sult­ing novel is laboured and in­el­e­gant, yet full of tan­ta­lis­ing in­tel­li­gence. The ques­tions it poses are mag­netic and ar­rest­ing. What, the book asks, are we to make of our in­abil­ity to live now? What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the hu­man at­tach­ments we are un­able to per­ceive? But these po­ten­tially fe­cund fields of in­quiry yield lit­tle in the way of in­tel­lec­tual suc­cour.

One of the tasks of the nov­el­ist is to es­tab­lish a sense of con­nec­tion by means of the anoma­lous im­age and the unique story. Gough has pro­duced a work that pro­vides many of the sleepy con­so­la­tions that ac­com­pany one’s sense of the fa­mil­iar.

But he does lit­tle to em­body or awaken us to the vi­brant par­tic­u­lar­i­ties that be­queath the strength of what it re­ally means, in the end, to con­nect.

PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON

Ju­lian Gough: a vig­or­ous imag­i­na­tion be­set by a del­uge of cliches.

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