Sunday, December 6, 2015

Strange England


It feels like I'm in the minority on this book. Everybody seems to think it's this "dire slog" or it's "confusing and disaffecting." Others have said, "it makes zero sense" or it's simply "boring" and "dismal." Goodreads has this book down for about 3 out of 5. Most damning, Finn Clark (who seemingly has reviewed every DW novel ever published) claims, the "book has enough badness to make you feel embarrassed for its author" which is deliciously cruel. I felt none of these things; in fact, I loved this book, much more than I thought I would. Clark called the prose "clunky" where I feel like this is the best—without a doubt—New Adventure in terms of prose. I can count probably on one or two hands how many of these NAs have had even decent prose, but Messingham's debut novel has it in spades.

The plot of the novel is fairly thin: the Doctor, Ace, and Benny stumble across a Victorian country house occupied by people who have never considered pain, fear, death, and even change. The landscape soon turns threatening and various perils manifest themselves, such as an insect that crawls its way into a character's throat, stinging them into unconsciousness. There's a steam engine man, tiny demons that can fly, trees that swallow people, and Ace's techno-bodysuit disintegrates once they've arrived.

Messingham propels the plot forward as fast as possible. There is not a moment of rest for the characters. It's a bit shaggy and shambling, as the stakes are never clear nor explained until the end, so we're not quite sure what's even happening. Some of the complaints about this novel speak of this "virtual reality problem": if everything is make believe, then how can anything be dangerous or meaningful? I can appreciate this grievance; normally in novels, when I'm faced with this type of surrealism, I am completely repulsed. But, as aforementioned, Messingham's prose was enough to smooth over any issues with plotting and surrealism.

I'll provide some examples. Here's one from page 8:
Without a doubt the scenery was splendid. Ace felt curiously relaxed as she gave the immediate area a quick scan. She strolled through the woods with the Doctor, keeping her eyes open for information. The sky glowed with blue, the grass was healthy and lustrous and the temperature was hot but not unpleasant. All the time sweet air poured across them.
Surrounding the clearing had been tall, statuesque trees thick with ripe foliage. They must have arrived at the peak of summer, just prior to the leaves losing their green and embarking on the rapid descent into autumn.
I'll admit that this isn't Nabokov or Proust. You have to understand that I've read 30 something books of flat prose so something competent like this is a relief like a cool diner after a long hot car ride. I was really struck by the final phrase, "the rapid descent into autumn." Messingham could have chosen an infinite variety of phrases to signal the season of fall, but his choice reflects the serenity, the innocence, the careful timelessness of the location he's conjured. It's quite elegant.

Another example, then, from page 13:
Victoria pushed her way impetuously through the swollen purple flowers. They seemed almost unnaturally healthy, their heads bursting with colour as if straining to uproot and break themselves free from their earthly bonds. They packed themselves tightly together like spectators attempting to gain a better view of Victoria as she battled her way to the centre. She fancied they were chattering to each other about this colourless stranger that had entered their midst. Their smell was pungent and tart, reminiscent somehow of the persistent shrill of that humming.
I love the imagery of the flowers "straining" and how they "packed themselves tightly together." This is, of course, classic pathetic fallacy, imbuing nature with human behaviour and agency. This sequence that I've quoted, is about the end of a bit in which Victoria is about to be attacked by an insect that crawls down her throat, stings her, and then kills her. Messingham does not simply depict this as an attack, but almost as a seduction. The "humming" that he refers to comes from the insect; the sticky weather, the floating pollen, the tightness of the woods, all these details bring up the essential paradox that Messingham is playing at: the idyllic English country is both a place of beauty and serenity, and a place of darkness and death. This is the concept of the sublime, in a roundabout way. Nature is powerful, beautiful, immense, and that immensity and power affects the observer, instilling a sense of fear and awe. Messingham's project here, of complicating the sort of quaint cosy Alice in Wonderland story, succeeds thanks to his descriptive powers, his patience with description, and his willingness to use surrealism and pathetic fallacy to invoke the sublime.

Strange England also plays with our cosy quaint notions of Victorian England as well. Messingham wisely uses the "meanwhile back at the ranch" structure, splitting Ace from the Doctor and Benny. Ace gets ejected into the real world, a small Victorian village, where she meets a Lewis Carroll analogue (sickly, quiet, frail, meek) and gets involved with a physician who has a grudge against God and wants to splice people together or something like that. Messingham provides the novel with two Doctor analogues: the Quack, a figure of menace inside the pretend world, and this surgeon, Rix, who takes umbrage with the Christian God and takes it out on innocent people.

At first, I felt the "real world" sequences to be a bit of a distraction, but again, it was Messingham's confident and studious prose that evened out any issues I had with this seemingly unrelated plot. Perhaps a final example of Messingham's confidence and Rix's villainy, from page 91:
Rix scrutinized him with old eyes. He turned to his men in feigned confusion. He enjoyed his theatricals. ‘But I am the village doctor. If he is sick I will cure him. You’re in my safe hands now. As for money, I have plenty and I think you will find that these are the best-paid men in the area. But please, continue to beg if you so wish. I should like to study your behaviour.’
I chose this not as a perfect example of Messingham's prose (though it is elegant), but to demonstrate the comparison between Rix and the Doctor. Rix was an excellent villain, even if he had nothing to do with the main plot itself. Again, a problem I can overlook when the prose is as lovely as this ("scrutinized him with old eyes).

Some people have complained about the high body count in this novel. It's certainly indicative of the "grim and gritty" "hardcore" movement that the New Adventures were taking at the time. There's no better example than Ace becoming this hardcore violent soldier who kills Daleks without a second thought (although, this is somewhat a natural progression of her character on the show). Again, I didn't mind the high body count. I find it difficult to read these books with the mindset of their original release date. I can only read them with my current mindset, one that's used to lots of death in all sorts of media. In fact, compared with most media, this supposedly violent New Adventure is quite tame!

I'm fairly certain that Strange England is one of the best New Adventures I've read so far. I've had incredible luck so far, hitting two for two in a row with excellent novels, either with plotting or with prose. While Blood Harvest wasn't the world's most elegantly written book, I found it fun enough to enjoy. Strange England was fantastic. I'm not sure I entirely understand the problems people had with this book. I didn't find it boring; I found it compelling the entire way through. I don't believe it made no sense; I found the denouement to be fun and full of the science fiction technobabble that all Doctor Who stuff has. The prose was not clunky, nor was it purple; I thought it elegant and delicate. It certainly wasn't a "dire slog"; other New Adventures novels could be described this way (The Pit comes to mind), but certainly not this one. I loved this book. It's not perfect by any stretch, but it was fun, it was compelling, and I found myself drawn into it without a hesitation. Not sure what everybody's problem was.

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