Nina Allan's The Race is an unexpectedly weird book. If you were to pick it up and read a randomly selected page, you might think it's near-future dystopian science fiction about genetically modified greyhounds, standard literary fiction about the pain and promise of family and romantic relationships, or a fantasy-tinged science fictional tale in the style of Ursula Le Guin.
This book is all of those things; it's not so much a novel as a series of tenuously connected novellas and (at least in the edition I stumbled upon at a local bookstore) an appendix. The first and last sections as well as most of the appendix are set in the future and/or an alternate universe. The second and third sections are basically literary fiction set in our world, in particular Britain in recent decades, although these are connected to the other sections in ways I won't say both because I don't want to spoil anything and because I'm not entirely sure I understood all the connections.
I may change my mind as I think about it more, but for now I'm giving it high marks for the quality of the writing, somewhat lower marks for being audacious but not ground breaking, and middling marks for the feeling that everything might only come together for me on a second or third reading -- if at all.
Allan writes in a style that's relaxed, understated, and often beautiful, a style that would be more at home in contemporary literary fiction than most science fiction. Here are a few examples, both of which reflect some of the themes of the book.
"I have heard there are wild horses there, great cities on a grassy plain that have never been bombed. I close my eyes for a moment, trying to imagine them, the way you screw your eyes shut at the end of a dream. You're trying to recapture its magic, but you never can." (p. 133).
"Like forgetting a language, she supposed, only to lose a language was to lose a fraction of the self. Most people tended to think of languages as if they were analogues of each other, lists of words and phrases that could be translated like for like, one for another. Yet a language was so much more than simply words for things. Language was like the soft clay used by naturalists to record tracks left by elusive creatures in out-of-the-way places. It captured everything, reflected everything. You could say that language was a recording device for history" (p. 434)
The use of interconnected narratives makes for interesting reading and it's fun to find all the connections, but it's not quite as ground breaking a device as it is in, say, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. I could never tell what all the relevant connections were, whether the unity of the book was eluding me or whether the book was really just a disjointed mess. I feel like I'd have to read the book again to really judge.
The Philosophy Report: Two Possible Readings
But it may also be that the disjointed uncertainty is all part of Allan's intent. Even the stories set in our world have a certain dream-like quality to them, the feeling that everything makes sense even though you can't explain how. The scenes involving human-animal telepathy hint at another form of understanding beyond explicit verbal cognition.
This leads me to two possible ways to read the book: First, perhaps the form of the book deliberately eludes a certain kind of cognitive grasp in favor of something else. Alternatively it could be that the book deliberately eludes any kind of complete grasp as a kind of skepticism about humanity's ability to understand a larger reality.
In favor of the first reading, I'm reminded of philosophical issues involving alleged mystical knowledge, phenomenological analyses of being-in-the-world, the Buddhist concept of indeterminate perception, or the notion of qualia or "what it's like." These all involve kinds of knowledge that can't be reduced to explicit, cognitive, verbal knowledge. Nobody can really tell you how to ride a bike or what it's like to experience the color blue, but people do seem to know these things. You might say it's the difference between "knowing that" and "knowing how," although this is somewhat inadequate. Considering that books are filled with words, conjuring know-how out of these words is some kind of magic. So even if I can't explain in the words of this review how all the parts of the book are connected, maybe their connections can be known in other ways.
In favor of the second reading, I'm thinking of my favorite themes in Lovecraft, Camus on the absurd, or varieties of ancient Greek, Indian, and Chinese skepticism. This is especially clear with the whales in the fourth part of the book; they are powerful, elusive, and seemingly indifferent to human modes of understanding. Yet the humans continue to sail. Perhaps the novel, like a dream or like the universe itself, is always just beyond our grasp. It may be knowable to some entity (divine beings, hyper-intelligent aliens, the author, the whales, the greyhounds, etc.), but it doesn't seem to be knowable to us.
This novel leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Which meaning of "race" does the title refer to? Are all of the narratives "real" in some way? None of them? Some? Maybe the uncertainties of the novel are deliberately cultivated. Is it a cause for despair, as the typical modern reactions to skepticism imply? Or it is a means to liberation from haughty unrealistic expectations that we'd be happier living without?
I myself would like to take the second reading, although I feel the pull of the first. This work, like life, the universe, and everything, eludes a procrustean bed of transparency. And that's okay.
See also my Goodreads review.