On Puzzling Reading

I’m reading P.D. James’ The Children of Men.

I’ve never read this before — or, if I did, it’s completely unfamiliar to me. I’ve also not seen the movie, though I’ve wanted to; just have never gotten around to it. Haven’t even bought it.

But I saw the movie tie-in edition of the novel, with Clive Owen’s rugged visage on the front, for a buck and change about two weeks back, and I couldn’t think of a reason not to read it.

I’ve now read a third, and I’m completely puzzled by this book.

It’s poetic, I’ll give it that. There are passages of real beauty. I’m not entirely certain if I’ve read any of James’ work in the past, and I’m finding her prose style engaging. Every few pages there is a sentence that just drips of sensory overload, with words just so.

But it’s also boring.

The story is told in a mixture of first- and third-person narration. (And I’ve yet to see any compelling reason for the third-person chapters; there’s no reason, insofar as I can discern, that they would not have worked in first-person, as part of Theo’s diary.) The worldbuilding — for this is the story of a semi-dystopian future in which humanity has become sterile — has been poorly conveyed in either narrative style; it’s obvious at this point that Britain has had some sort of revolution and the monarchy has been overthrown for some sort of authoritarian republicanism, but the wheres, the hows, the whys, and the whatfors haven’t yet been addressed.

On a random tangent, between this and V for Vendetta (the graphic novel, specifically), I have to wonder if there’s a reason why British writers see Britain as about five minutes away from authoritarian, if not outright fascistic, republicanism. Is British society that fragile that it will blow over in the wind?

At page fifty, I was ready to give up on the book. At page seventy, I see no reason to continue. I know, at some point, a plot will kick in; the movie trailer makes that much clear. But I don’t know when that will be.

Some of us enjoy a little plot with our poetry, after all.

Yet the thing that keeps me going? The sense that, at some point, I’m going to be able to go, “A-ha!” and call James on the bullshit. In a metaphorical way, that is.

As an example, I am not sold on the characterizations or the sociology. The sociology especially — would a society where procreation is impossible really turn largely celibate and suffer an absolute collapse in sex drive? I grant that it is possible that a society, cognizent that it is living in the final days, would turn… well… mental, but human behavior really doesn’t change. Authoritarianism makes sense as a way to keep society in check, but it’s unstable in the long run, especially as the population begins to drop significantly as the aged citizenry dies off. In other words, I’m expecting some rigorous worldbuilding from James, but I’m not getting it. As a piece of dystopian science fiction, The Children of Men is puzzling me. Not because it’s unconventional. But because it’s too conventional. And I’m genuinely wondering whether or not James read V for Vendetta.

I shall soldier on.

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