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Posts tagged ‘philosophy’

The Human Script by Johnny Rich


I would like to take this opportunity to thank Red Button Publishing for sending me a Kindle review copy of the book, it is much appreciated!

London in the spring of 2000: Chris Putnam, a young scientist working on the Human Genome Project, is grieving for the end of his first relationship and the loss of his deeply religious and estranged father. Then Chris falls in love and his twin brother goes missing. Events take Chris on a journey from the hallowed halls of scientific research via decadent art-scene parties and London’s Theatreland to the cold loneliness of a psychiatric hospital and ultimately to a desperate decision. What Chris discovers about himself and his world forces him to address his own nature, his own beliefs and his own reality.

In The Human Script science, philosophy, literary theory and religion intertwine in a poignant and tragic love story that asks the question: what is it to be human?

This book was deeply philosophical and also scientific in nature, and I became especially engrossed in it when I realised that it was about twins and the nature/nurture debate, and the differences in genetically identical siblings (as a triplet myself, I am always fascinated by this.) Do our genes dictate how we turn out? Or is it our environment that shapes who we are as people? And who or what has created us? Who controls our reality?

In terms of literary achievement, this book ticks many boxes: a good plot, an engaging romance story, mystery and narrative experimentation. The protagonist, Chris Putnam, is a scientist, a lab assistant whose initial view of the world is one built on logic and evidence. I say initial, because as the novel goes on, his perceptions and thoughts begin to change as certain events unfold. What’s quite interesting is that the text is set in a scientific thesis form – i.e it actually includes footnotes. These don’t interrupt the flow of the book, in fact they give it an added depth, especially when you notice a sneaky footnote that changes the whole dynamic of the narrative – and no, I won’t tell you which it is. Read and use it properly. It’s very entertaining and far more satisfying than cheating!

In fact, the narrator even compares the human body to a scientific paper, which for me was a fascinating outlook:

The human genome is a life written in a book where every word has been written before. A story endlessly rehearsed. Quotations cited and recited because once they were apt, the fittest to survive.

The Human Script explores reality, morality, and religion. It is fascinating, especially in the context of Chris and Dan’s relationship as twin brothers. Dan Putnam is highly artistic, reckless, and confident. Chris is science and logic-driven and often extremely insecure. Their differences outweigh their similarities in many ways.

Chris grew up stubborn and unrelenting about his scientific beliefs, especially his conviction that it is not God who dictates a person’s nature and lifestyle, and that it is in fact DNA and genes that determine them. This leads Chris to constantly question whether it is because of this that his relationship with his father was unable to be mended before his father died. Should he have been so steadfast and unmoving just because his religious father could not understand his life choices? Should he have put these differences aside for the sake of more important things? With the loss of his father as a trigger point, Chris begins to doubt the world around him and, more specifically, the nature of his reality. Is his belief system actually right? Or has he been closed-minded over the years?

How do I prove my father is not at his desk behind the door and if I open it I… Experiments and observations demonstrate what is, not what is not. How do I prove my father’s dead or that there are no such things as ghosts or souls or God? Just because something isn’t real, does that mean it doesn’t exist? Even a projection of the mind is a kind of existence. Thoughts have physics – the electro-chemical floods and pulses that wash around the brain. Ghosts are real in their own way, but not independent of those who see them.

One slight concern I had about three quarters of the way through the book was that the philosophical questions and passages were beginning to feel a bit heavy. I do feel like the book would have done just as well if it contained fewer of these type of passages, especially at the times when I felt that the narrative began to repeat its musings over and over again just in different wording. However, this didn’t last long and once I powered through that I realised that these musings and philosophical explorations were woven into the story well and served a good purpose. I could tell what value they added to the story as a whole, but it wouldn’t have suffered to perhaps tone it down a little.

The fact that the narrator immerses the characters in the book among these philosophical musings – in fact, the author kind of uses them as ‘case studies’ within the text to test different hypotheses – makes the characters much more interesting and well-rounded as a result. I loved reading the relationship with Chris and his brother, and Chris and his boyfriend, and Chris and his room mate, and how these relationships are affected by the nature of their perceptions of the world. For instance, his room mate Elsi, who studies philosophy, has a tendency to advise and console Chris based on whichever philosophical theory she happens to agree with. His boyfriend Leo falls in love with him partially because he feels an innate need to look after and care for someone. Dan – for the most part carefree – worries less about consequences and more about enjoying living and advises his brother to do the same.

Chris’ feelings and emotions towards the characters in his life are, initially if not consistently, based on his own tendencies to perceive the world as purely scientific, without a deity or higher force. Chris recognises that as identical twins, he and his brother are much like molecules in the river Thames – “Just molecules of water, two hydrogen atoms, once oxygen, and they’re all identical. Clones, differentiated only by their different places in the flow.” Essentially, Chris and Dan are genetically the same, but somehow somewhere in the ‘flow’ of life, they became so very different, and this novel shows his struggle to understand exactly why. Anyone interested in twins and multiple births will be so fascinated by this book.

At first, I was worried that the narrative style would be distracting – at times Chris’ words come out in an unrelenting rush, and this is how the novel starts:

Because there’s freedom in the air, ‘Good morning’ I beam to Peter the old security guard who sits in his hut at the Gower Street gate and who once told me he still likes to fish at weekends and who looks up to see which person is bothering to talk to him.

This alarmed me a little at first because I worried that the entire novel would be written in this vein and that I would get impatient very quickly. However, after the first chapter I soon got used to this unique narrative style and I found that this ebbs and flows as the text moves along. It calms down and introduces more pauses and more mainstream punctuation and I realised that the narrative style changes as Chris’ mood changes, a very clever and effective device  in the novel’s storytelling. When he is feeling a particularly strong emotions, his grasp on order and rules lessens, and this is when the above narrative technique kicks in. At this point, as the novel opens, Chris is very happy, and it also comes back into play at times when he is also feeling very agitated or upset. I thought it worked incredibly well.

Here I can understand why the novel was discovered and produced by Red Button Publishing, where it may not have been recognised for the great achievement that it is in a ‘Big 5’ mainstream publishing house. The book is incredibly clever and smart, and really made me think, while keeping me entertained to the end. The characters were engaging, and the plot was gripping. If you want to try something truly different and unique, I would highly recommend this book. I really enjoyed it.

Click here to buy a digital copy of the book.

The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder by John Ironmonger

This book was chosen for me by my good friend Philip Walmsley (@M2Phil) when I put a request out on Twitter for a recommendation for my next read. And am I glad he recommended it!

Lovely parcel through the post!

Lovely parcel through the post!

This is one of those books that makes you think, “This is unique. There is nothing else out there quite like this.” And I think I’m right.
The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder is compelling, gripping, vivid, emotional, heartbreaking, funny, philosophical, and, quite frankly, genius. It was so much more than what I thought it was going to be when it first came through the post. It made me think and evaluate life, and brought back all the philosophical musings I had back in college when I was studying Philosophy at A-Level. It lead to discussions with my family and friends. It also introduced me to a biscuit I’d never tried before – the madeleine! (I read about it for the first time in this book, and then by sheer coincidence they were selling them at a charity bake sale at work the next day. Well, I had to try one. Purely for philosophical research, you understand.)

On his twenty-first birthday, Maximilian Ponder shut himself away from the world to embark on his greatest project: an attempt to record every memory in his brain. It should have taken just three years. But three long decades pass. Now Max lies dead, surrounded by his magnum opus – The Catalogue – a library of notebooks and journals that he hoped would form the map of a single human mind. And before his friend Adam Last can call the police and inform them of Max’s death, one rather gruesome task remains for the project to be complete…

Interspersed with extracts from Max’s Catalogue, Adam tells the story of the man he knew – a man whose life changed dramatically the day he buried a dead labrador and fought a duel with his father. What emerges is both the story of a friendship and also of a lifelong obsession, a quest to understand the human mind, memory, and how we construct the story of our lives.

The other night as I sat reading the book, my boyfriend turned to me and remarked, “That doesn’t look like it’s got a very happy ending.” And I guess he’s right – how can a book that immediately starts with a passage referring to the protagonist’s dead body have a happy ending?! – but this didn’t put me off at all. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love it when books end happily but my enjoyment of this book didn’t suffer. The substance, the message, the philosophical nature of the story more than made up for the fact that it has a rather unpleasant subject matter. It’s not just about death. It’s about the effects and consequences of death, yes, but it’s also about life and the celebration of life, and how we can make sure that our lives have some kind of impact on the world, even when we’re gone.

While Max’s last name – Ponder – is an obvious little play on words, it doesn’t come across as trying too hard. It fits him perfectly – after all, more than half of his life is spent pondering the idea of memory and death.

‘When I become a famous philosopher, I want something more individual than “Ponderian.”‘

‘You could always have “Ponderous”,’ said Ravi.

‘Fuck off,’ said Max.

‘Ponderosan,’ I suggested.

‘You can fuck off too, Last. I want Ponderic.’

And perhaps it’s just the English student in me being far too pedantic and analytical, but I love the idea of Adam Last’s surname reflecting on the fact that he stays with Max until his very last moments, and beyond. In fact, Adam remarks in the book that people found the ironic contrast in his name – Adam, the ‘first’ ever man, with the surname ‘Last’ – amusing, so of course we could analyse names until the cows come home, but that would be taking away from the true beauty of the book.

Memory pops up again as a theme in this book, like in so many books I’ve been reading before it. Of course Max’s project is to record every memory his brain has ever had, every scrap of knowledge, even if he suspects that memory to be disjointed or wrong – if his mind remembers and perceives it that way, then that is what he must write down. As he remarks himself in the Catalogue, “Memory involves all sorts of cross-wiring and quality control before it bubbles up to the surface.”

The reason Max is so preoccupied with the idea of memory and death is because both his uncle and his dad die of a horrific hereditary brain tumour. Through his grief he recognises that memory is all that people have and that memory is what makes a person who they are. It’s this fear and this point of view that drives him to catalogue his own brain.

Every time someone dies it’s like the world loses a big chunk of information for ever. I don’t mean to say that every bit of that information is especially valuable, but it’s surely just as valuable as a fragment of pot from a Roman villa, or a fossil from some riverbed in China.

Despite the questionable (at best) life choice that Max makes in the book, I found myself relating heavily to his thoughts and especially his fears. Scarily, in the past I’ve often found myself thinking these exact things, and on more than one occasion I’ve considered starting my own ‘catalogue’ of sorts. I remember a couple of months back, before ever hearing of this book, driving down the motorway and musing on my life and how many people I’ve known and met and interacted with and had friendships or relationships or working relationships with. I imagined myself putting together a scrapbook or account of everyone I’d known and met and how they’d influenced my life, so that when I died there would be something left behind, and people would know that their lives and mine had some meaning and impact on others. Now, I know this is nothing like the scale of cataloging your own brain, but it’s for this reason that the concept of this book was not completely unrelatable or indeed too far-fetched for me. I understood Max. I understand the value that he places in the power of human experience and memory, and the loss he feels when someone dies and all of that disappears.

What do we do with the richest information we have available – the material locked away in the brains of four billion people? You know what we do? Sod all.

He struggles with the notion that we have memories that are actually there, but we can’t access easily and at will. In this passage he talks about how he knows that he used to know the Swahili word for ‘friend’, but try as he might, he cannot remember it. Then, years later, it comes to him:

…and then, like a bloody great tsunami, this word emerged in slow motion and came thundering through the ether towards me, a suffocating deluge of a word, a word that slapped me across the face like a saltwater surge and the word was – ‘rafiki’.  Now, I can honestly swear that you could have strapped me naked to a wheel and threatened to apply ten thousand volts to my bollocks and you couldn’t have coaxed that three-syllable word out of my sluggard brain.

It is the realisation that memory can not always be summoned at will that makes Max come to the conclusion that three years will not be enough to undertake such a massive project. It changes from being a dedicated research project to a simple way of life.

I love the way the book deals with relationships. Obviously Max and Adam’s relationship is quite unlike any other. As Max locks himself away from the outside world, with strict rules that he can never know what’s happening other than within the four walls of his home, he becomes completely dependent on Adam to feed him, take care of his estate, to arrange the binding and organisation of the volumes of his Catalogue, and to make sure that the outside world does not pollute his project. This makes their friendship truly unique, requiring a huge amount of trust from Max and a massive sacrifice from Adam. He gives up a promising marketing career in order to take care of Max’s business and devote himself to the project.

Through a non-linear narrative, Ironmonger builds up a vivid story which allows the reader to fully understand why Adam would make such a huge sacrifice for Max. He takes us back to Africa in the 1960s, the place and time that the two boys first forge a friendship. From there the novel takes us on a journey through both Adam’s and Max’s lives and minds. There is a lot of love and dependence within the novel, and nothing feels unbelievable or out of place. Adam continuously feels that he is working for, and waiting for, Max, but he never wavers in his dedication to his friend. As a reader, you begin to love the men for their strange but strong relationship with each other.

I seemed to spend my life waiting for Max.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found none of it boring or hard work. It was a real pleasure to read. I would like to thank Phil for recommending this book to me. I could write a much longer review, but whatever I do write won’t do the novel justice. All I can do is urge you to read it yourself. You definitely won’t be disappointed.

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