Sunday, May 22, 2016

Now You See Her...

Warning: I have a lot to say about The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North. I have no idea if it will make any sense.

Let's start with the first thing that struck me about the book: it's unusual in that it has two hooks.  The premise--the gimmick--is that the main character is someone who cannot be remembered.  For as long as you're talking to her, she exists in your mind, but as soon as you leave her presence for even a short time--a minute is all it takes--you cannot remember ever having met her or talked to her.  You can be sitting together on a bus and talk for hours, but when you get off at the rest stop and reboard, you will smile vacantly at her, because you will believe you'd never seen her before.  She can give you a giant stuffed teddy bear, and by the time you get home with it you will remember having bought it, or won it, or found it.  You can watch a video of yourself talking to her and have no memory of the conversation.

So this is the hook--this is what makes the book sound intriguing.

But then this protagonist--Hope Arden--finds herself at a party hosted by a company called Perfection.  Perfection is a lifestyle app, gathering your data and giving you suggestions and instructions, and points for following them.  Find the perfect personal trainer; are you sure you want to eat that? Here's the haircut that would look best on you; those shoes are gorgeous--achievement unlocked! Hope watches Perfection wreak havoc on a new "friend" of hers, and is drawn into what I would describe as a battle of wills between herself and this product.

So, early on in my reading, I felt like this was an author trying to write two books at once, about two ideas, and that maybe they didn't fit together very well.  But now I think they come together over the course of the story.  Not that there aren't obvious ways in which the strive for perfection and the notion of being invisible are related. The idea of being seen, being deemed worthy, being judged--all of these are a part of both sides of the story. 

But there's more to it than even that. Hope can never hold a job, can never have friends or lovers (though she has conversations and romantic encounters).  She is a skilled thief, precisely because not only can no one describe her; no one can remember that she was even there.  She is a collector of facts, a counter of objects, a reciter of words, because she must always keep her mind busy or risk thinking too much about what she is and what she isn't, about the things she can never have.

In some ways, this book is in conversation with North's first novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. In that book, the main character lives his life to the end and is born again, in the same year, to live through the same years again.  He can live it differently every time, but he can always remember, as no one but one of his kind can, what will happen around him in the world.  It is an inescapable, inexplicable biological destiny that can seem like freedom or like a curse, but can never be set down (for Harry, even in death). 

Harry's problem is the opposite of Hope's--Hope cannot ever make a connection with the world; Harry cannot unmake those connections, cannot escape what has been and will be.  They're both situations that can seem despair-worthy, from the right point of view, or liberating. Immortality, freedom from consequence. What would you give up for those things?

As in Harry August, the plot is driven by scientific notions that are not just hand-waved away, but put into a conspicuous, opaque box with the word SCIENCE written on the outside. You don't want to look inside the box--it's a shadow theater with no meaning.  There are "treatments" that change people, and the main scientist is a neuroscientist who designed an app that makes people "better," and also some kind of deep brain stimulation thing.  The app basically exists already in a hundred forms, but the book paints it as soul-destroying mind control. The treatments are treated as an inevitable next step, in a way that doesn't feel that organic to me.

But I think I can mostly forgive all the Swiss-cheese holes like that because this is a novel of ideas.  It's a novel that asks what perfect means (even if no one in the story really asks that explicitly), whether gamifying life will remove our  humanity, and what it means to live a life entirely without connections. And all kinds of corollary questions: when it's impossible for you to live by any traditional means, what are the limits of your ethics? What elements of interaction go into forming a relationship? (That's one of my favorites; I've always thought about how most of your understanding of a person exists in your mental image of that person; how does that work without a memory?) Is terrorism ever justified?

So I can wave my hands with the hand-wavingest among us and take the facts presented in this book at face value, and then follow the fascinating question of what they mean, what they imply, and what all that says about me and about society.  It's been a long time since a book asked such interesting questions and let its characters really wrestle with the answers.  I want a lot more of these!

(Note: I received this book from Netgalley for review.)

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