An old one - brought to mind by Ceridwen's excellent review of Dark Witch.
The hardest books for me to review are the ones that I objectively think are quite good, but that, for whatever reason, I didn't actually like very much. This is one of those.
On the one hand, I want to tell people: don't bother with this one, it left me feeling very meh. On the other, I think back on it and it was all very well put-together, filled with fleshed-out characters and unique ideas, and with some parts that bordered on magnificent. Maybe if I'd been in a different mood, maybe if I'd paid it more attention, maybe if I were a little smarter, I would have absolutely loved it. Who knows? In any case, I can't think of anything empirical to complain about.
The big maybe if in this case, is Maybe if I were English, or knew a bit more about England, I would have liked this book better. I've never been to the UK, never been much of an Anglophile. What I know about England has been gleaned from tabloids, fiction, a childhood spent watching Red Dwarf and Mr. Bean, and whatever I picked up in high school history class about King So-and-So and what a jerk he was. So the nuanced satire in this book, which is largely about foreign imbeciles such as myself and our ignorance and apathy about authentic British culture, whooshed right over my head. The one thing I can say for myself is that at least I knew there was a whoosh, that I had missed something. But I still didn't love the book.
The story follows Martha, a woman who is too smart and too cynical for her own good, at three points during her life. Part I is about her childhood, and the aftermath of her parents' divorce. This section, which stands alone very well as a short story, was the highlight of my experience with the book. It's sharp and painful, and it gives the reader a rounded understanding of the character's foundation. Everything that Martha does later on as an adult and as an old woman, makes sense because we've seen her undergo this childhood trauma.
In Part II, the longest and meatiest part of the story, we see Martha in her late 30's, as she begins working for Sir Jack Pitman, a ludicrously pompous business mogul, who has a dream. He knows that tourists come to England to see historical and cultural landmarks, but it's all so inconvenient. Everything's so far apart; you can't see it all in one day. Transportation and money can be confusing; historical sites are often dingy or falling apart; the English people can be so unwelcoming. Tourists want to be dazzled, but reality is just so underwhelming.
Pitman's solution is nothing less than to create a whole new England. He buys the Isle of Wight, a small island in the English Channel, and transforms it into a perfect miniature of everything that England symbolizes - except better.
At first, his employees and the public assume he's building some kind of patriotic theme park, but that's not it at all. Pitman's vision is nothing so artificial. Although the island is filled with half-size reproductions of everything from Stonehenge to Buckingham Palace, and its residents are all hired on as actors (to portray everyone from Robin Hood to "friendly pub patrons"), Pitman sees it as the real deal. Why would anyone want to go to "Old England" - so unfriendly, so unwieldy - when they could go someplace smaller and more accessible, that has everything England ever had and more - but distilled and with the bad bits filtered out?
Sure enough, the tourists flock to the island (which Pitman dubs England, England). And it's not just tourists - celebrities relocate there; landmarks are dismantled and rebuilt there, even the royal family is enticed (bribed, blackmailed, whatever) to make the island's half-sized Buckingham Palace their new home. Pitman is shrewd enough to name himself the island's Governor and then to declare independence from Old England, citing a centuries-old technicality as justification. Within a few years, Old England is rendered totally irrelevant culturally and economically. It's a slum. When people say "England", they now mean England, England.
Martha, originally hired on as a "professional cynic" (whose job functions mainly included shitting all over everyone else's ideas), quickly rises within the company, and ends up overseeing the entire England, England project. But then, things start to go tremendously, hilariously awry, and Martha is left with the blame.
So Barnes's main theme is the question of authenticity. If England, England is a fake - and Pitman pontificates eloquently throughout the book on why it isn't, really - why does that matter? In all apparent ways, it's better than the original. Why mourn the fate of Old England, other than for nostalgia's sake? And if you are feeling nostalgic for Old England, why not go to England, England? It's exactly the same, except better!
In Part III, Martha, now an old woman, finally returns to Old England, which, having spent the last half-century in poverty, isolation and global irrelevancy, has been transformed into a shell of its old self, something totally unfamiliar - but at the same time, something completely, innately English. It has undergone a different distillation, but like England, England, has become a condensed manifestation of an ineffable Englishness. Or maybe not; maybe that's the difference between the two. Old England has reached an ineffable Englishness, while England, England is all too effable.
To Martha, anyway, it's somehow just as fake as the island ever was. Which is Barnes's entire point, and which is depressing as all fuck, if only because it rang so true to me.
This is one of the most unique dystopian novels I have ever read. I wish Barnes had spent more time delving into this faux-divide between "real" and "fake", rather than spending pages and pages on the corrupt exploits of the (fictional) royals or Pitman's, um, very nontraditional sexual proclivities. And I wish I had a better grasp of the general English Weltanschauung - I kept trying to translate it into American, imagining an island full of miniature Statues of Liberty and Mt. Rushmores and flag-waving Uncle Sams, but it's just not analogous for so many reasons - the ineffable "America" is not anything like the ineffable "England".
Having typed up this review, I realize I do think more highly of this book than I'd thought. I didn't love the experience of actually reading it, but looking back - it really was a good book. Which is almost too perfect. The distilled, essentially fake "England, England" in my memory, which is the one I'm really discussing in this review, is better than the real "England, England" that I actually bought and spent many frustrating hours reading. How very meta.
October 18, 2010