Sunday, 21 November 2010

Chaos Walking: Patrick Ness

Since it's inevitable that I'm going to niggle about things, let's get the important thing out of the way; Patrick Ness has written three very fine books - or rather one very fine book in three volumes. A lot of the best stuff I've read in the last few years has been aimed at children, and I am coming round to the idea that there's some odd version of Einstein's great dictum in play. Einstein used to say that if you couldn't explain what you're doing to a four year old child, you should stop doing it, which is advice which works at so many different levels. I wonder if something similar isn't true about writing fiction. Or perhaps it's just that I'm reading only the very good stuff.

Chaos Walking has a very strong anti-war message, but it's rather less simple minded than most anti-war tracts, because the core message is that war is never good, no matter what the reason. And the important part is "no matter what the reason". There's a thread running through all three books that you can only bring war to an end if you put to one side any idea of justified retribution, because your retribution becomes the cause of the next retaliation. Mind you, Robert Littell put the whole idea much more pithily in a wonderful little spy novel called Walking Back the Cat "I don't care who's right. What matters is who's left." The only way forward is to let the past bury the past and look to what you can do now to make things better.

The message is sold on a lot of different levels, but the cleverest part of the approach is that the three narrators, for different reasons, are all equally ignorant of the causes and true villains of the earlier war which is driving the war they find themselves caught up in. Throughout the three volumes, they get told different versions of the background, but never hear anything solid, and by the end of the third book, the reader still doesn't know how the first war started, or how it truly ended. It's very unusual for a children's book to embed a large mystery at the heart of its narrative and leave it completely unresolved at the end, but it's a hugely important part of the lesson that Ness is trying to get across; that for all that we say it's important to understand the past, it's all too easy to get stuck in it. Only people who are free of the past can build the future.

Which is all very well as far as it goes, but how do the books work as fiction? How well do they drive the narrative forward and get you to buy into the characters?

Not as well as he could have. Now that's usually damning someone with faint praise, but here I'm measuring the work overall against its best bits, and its best bit is so good that everything else seems a little washed out in comparison. First, let me move away from the abstract and into the particular.

The first viewpoint character is Todd Hewitt, the youngest boy in a small settlement town on a newly colonised planet. We meet him when he's a month off his 14th birthday, when he will become a man, and it's through his uneducated eyes - eyes that have never known another way of living - that we see his world. There are no women in it; his small town, Prentisstown, has only men and this one remaining boy. And there is no quiet in the town; every man's thoughts are broadcast in "the Noise" a kind of involuntary telepathy which seems to be a side effect of a biological weapon used by the original inhabitants of the planet in the war that was fought against the colonists before Todd was old enough to understand. The same weapon killed all the women and left the town to wither and die with no future and a present built of loss.

Before long Todd is on the run from his town and fleeing into the wider world, where he starts to realise that what he's been told about the past may not have been true. And in his flight he stumbles over Viola, a girl his own age who's the only survivor of a crashed scout ship from the next wave of colonists. And together they FIGHT CRIME. No, of course they don't fight crime. And the stumbling's rather elegant; it's actually the fact that he's found what appears to be the only girl on the planet that precipitates Todd going on the run at all. There are very few arbitrary coincidences in the narrative; almost everything happens because someone has meant it to happen that way, usually for sinister reasons which much later become apparent.

So there's Todd and Viola on the run, accompanied by Todd's faithful, idiotic and TALKING dog. Because the Noise affects everything; every animal has a voice, though the voices of the animals are much simpler than those of the men. It's a testament to Ness' skill that although Manchee the dog has a vocabulary of less than a dozen words, he's somehow a fully fleshed out character and what happens to him matters. And chasing after them is the whole town of Prentisstown. At first it seems like it's just a posse led by the Mayor, but as the first book unfolds we start to see that the Mayor of Prentisstown is much madder than he seemed at first meeting and that the posse is actually the whole town on the march to war, a war which has been long planned to start when the last boy became a man.

The balance of the narrative is about that war; the way that at first the Prentisstown army fights the other towns, and wins only to face the moral problems which come with victory and occupation and the bigger problems which come when the undermined occupation forces come under assault from the natives Todd had been told were wiped out.

The first book is in Todd's voice alone; the second book joins Viola's to the narrative, and in the third the voice of one the natives comes into play. Todd was too young to see the first war; Viola wasn't even on the planet and the native was, like Todd, just a child when the world fell apart. None of them know who really started the first war or how it was brought to a close; none of them know how all the women in Prentisstown died. And as I said at the outset, none of those questions is ever really answered. Through all three volumes Todd carries his mother's diary, but it's never read to the reader. At first Todd's illiteracy stops him from reading it - and brilliantly, his shame about his illiteracy means that he won't admit to anyone else that he needs help reading it - and later, when other people read it to him, there's room for doubt that he's really hearing what's on the page. To the end, the diary remains an enigma.

The unabashed villain of the piece is the Mayor of Prentisstown, but he's a great villain, forever hovering between out and out bastardy and apparent reasonableness. The relationship between the Mayor and Todd is at the heart of the work; can the Mayor corrupt Todd? Can Todd reform the Mayor? Is the Mayor a complete monster or is he just doing his best and getting it horribly wrong? There's a great case of supporting characters, and they're impressively complex; the leader of the resistance to the occupation is a great depiction of what's good and bad in the kind of people who can run a resistance movement. And Ness does a wonderful job with the talking animals; without ever making them anthropomorphic, he makes them real and vital and when they go into harms way it matters every bit as much as it does when the humans do.

All that said, the heart and soul of the whole work is Todd. His voice is the most vivid and compelling; his view of things puts you right inside the head and heart of a real person. The other two narrative voices are much less distinctive and strong; they get the job done, but they don't bite into the reader the way Todd's does. As a result, the first book, which is in Todd's voice alone, is by far the best read. I have a suspicion that Ness didn't get as much time to work on the other two as he did on the first, and that if he'd had more time to refine Viola and the native, they'd have been just as good. But this is, I have to say, a niggle. The first book is the best, but the other two are very good, and the ending of the whole work is spot on, bleak, but with an edge of hope to it.

What's very impressive is that Ness figured out a believable way to make 14 year olds IMPORTANT in a narrative. Kid's books always have kids as the viewpoint characters, but it never makes a button of sense that kids should be in the foreground of anything major. But Todd's important because he was the youngest child in the settlement, never having known any other world, and of totemic importance to the Mayor's insane plan of campaign. And Viola is critical because she's the only representative on the planet of the next wave of colonists; for the current colonists, whoever gets her on their side gets the new colonists on their side as well. So there's a solid and believable reason for everything to revolve around them, rather than the more usual thing of plucky kids just happening to get roped into things bigger than themselves.

I don't know if this is a classic for the future, or just a damn good book; I know that I'm looking forward to my nieces and nephews being old enough to get carried away by it.

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