For Dust thou Art, and Unto Dust shalt thou Return: a review by Nina Allan

For Dust thou Art, and Unto Dust shalt thou Return: a review by Nina Allan

By Nina Allan

A Field Guide to Reality — Joanna Kavenna (Riverrun)

They went to look at the scraps. The broken drawers. They made a great noise dragging them open, then slamming them shut again. They were still hoping for something more tangible than dust.

Joanna Kavenna’s fourth novel is such a strange beast that the only practical way of approaching it may be to group it with that subgenre of novels to which it arguably owes the greatest allegiance, that is, the university novel and more specifically the Oxford University novel. Kavenna’s Oxford has been rendered alternate – Magdalen College is Nightingale Hall, the Ashmolean Musuem is the Tradescantian Ark Museum, the buildings are constructed from sparkling white stone instead of the more familiar yellow Headington limestone – but no matter, the city is clearly mapped, and instantly recognisable, and so too is the basic outline of Kavenna’s novel. In the more familiar kind of university novel, we will typically expect to see an aspiring scholar arrive at the citadel of learning expecting enlightenment, only to be initiated into some deeper and often darker mystery. The protagonist is usually an ingénue, separated from their fellows in some way, often through being less well off or more unspecifically ‘not the right sort’. Classic iterations of the university novel include Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals, although only the first of these takes Oxford as its setting. In reading A Field Guide to Reality, I was reminded at various points of all three of these novels, though the books that came most frequently to mind were the more blatantly Oxonian His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and more insistently The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch. I should perhaps add that The Book and the Brotherhood is a desert island book for me. I’ve read it numerous times, and not only does it capture the essence of Oxford life – or at least Oxford life as it becomes distilled through the mechanism of nostalgia – but in its melodramatic chronicling of a band of disparate and increasingly doubting brethren clustered around an enigmatic and possibly fraudulent magus as he scribbles away at his probably non-existent magnum opus (detailing – what else? – the Theory of Everything) it also offers a ramshackle and delectable rag-bag of everything the university novel should encompass: there are gunshots, there are betrayals, there is unearthly light scattered across the quad, there are wax-and-tobacco-scented college rooms stacked high with ineffable tomes. A Field Guide to Reality offers all the above, minus the gunshots (though there is a burning church and a martyrdom-by-flaying by way of compensation).

What is Kavenna’s book actually about, though? This question is harder to answer than it first appears, no doubt intentionally so. As suggested above, the outline appears simple: Eliade Jencks, having failed to enter Oxford as a student, takes a job waiting tables in the cafe of the Tradescantian Ark Musuem and continues to conduct her researches in the evenings and weekends. While working at the cafe she makes the acquaintance of a Professor Solete, an eminent don whose magnum opus is the eponymous Field Guide to Reality, a theory of everything that will finally bring together his lifelong researches into the nature of life, death and the origins of the universe. Unfortunately, Professor Solete dies before the book can be published, and when his acolytes enter his rooms in search of the manuscript they find only a locked box, labelled ‘For Eliade’. Somewhat disgruntled, but unwilling to contravene the wishes of their magus, they summon Eliade to open it. The box is found to contain nothing. The company continue their search for answers at the professor’s house, though here also they draw a blank. Or not quite a blank. One of the acolytes, Patrick O’Donovan, has discovered a file containing a single sheet of paper listing what look like chapter headings:

1 – Boomerang prophecies

2 – Happy Clue, hope it relics you fine

3 – I am a pig and I like to emanate

4 – Monument of Serenity

5 – Id It Oh

6 – No matter it was nothing

7 – Lives in trivium

Could this be the field guide to reality? Or is it simply a posthumous prank – on the lot of them. O’Donovan clearly thinks so:

“Well, you know. They sound like fucking fortune cookies. I told you, he was a trickster. The whole thing, it’s just a joke. Cruel. In a way. But we deserve it.”

O’Donovan and his colleague Sasha Petrovka seem resigned, at this point, to giving up on the Field Guide as a lost cause, a red herring. There are Solete’s uncollected essays that they can publish, after all. Eliade is reluctant to let go, however. The box was addressed to her, and if nothing else, her quest for Solete’s final work provides a means for keeping her dead friend in her own version of reality a little while longer. She sets off on that quest, encountering an artist who sculpts only pinecones, a hippie disciple of Hypatia who lives on a houseboat, a coven of arcane scientists, an order of chrysanthemum-worshipping monks who ply their guests with psychotropic tea. All these people knew Solete, all declare him a good man or a wise man or both. None of them have a clue about the whereabouts of the Field Guide. What Eliade finds along the way is less final than enlightenment and certainly less concrete than a physical book. Yet if coming to terms with grief and learning that reality is ultimately unknowable count as count as key discoveries, then her mission can be deemed, in its way, successful.

As with The Destructives (and it is difficult to imagine two novels less alike) I found myself wrestling with this book, not so much on account of the novel it is – it is a perfect tapestry of a thing, each word stitched glowingly in place, every sentence considered, the final effect as numinous in the imagination as Oly Ralfe’s stunning and haunting illustrations on the page – but unable to fully accept the loss of the novel I could glimpse in its shadows and (she whispers) found more interesting. There is a passage near the beginning of A Field Guide to Reality that so perfectly captures the disjuncture between the creative imagination and the academic establishment that I find myself unable to resist reproducing it here in full:

[My father] was mostly silent. My mother was still raging urgently. She had a piece of paper – This is where you have to work, she said – the Tradescantian Ark Museum – here – Jeremiah Tradescant began it, sometime in the remote past, and now –

I took the piece of paper – it said:

A Babylonian vest

Eggs from Turkie, one given for a Dragons egge

Easter eggs of the patriarchs of Jerusalem

Two feathers of the Phoenix Tayle

The claw of the bird rock, which is able to trusse an elephant

Dodar from the Island of Mauritius, it is not able to flie being so big

Hares head, with rough horns three inches long

Toad fish and one with prickles

Divers things cut on plum stones

A cherry stone, upon one side St George and the Dragon, perfectly cut, and on the other side eighty-eight emperors’ faces

The figure of a man singing and a woman playing on the Lute; the shadow of the Worke being David’s Psalms in Dutch

A brazen balle to warm the nunne’s hands

Blood that rained in the Isle of Wight, attested by Sir Jo Oglander

A bracelet made of the thighs of Indian flies

‘The original contents of the Tradescantian ark,’ said my mother. ‘Tradescant collected them…’

I loved the sound of these words. I wondered what it might be like to hold such curios, and I thought a great deal about this man Tradescant, and why, and how, he had attained them. I learned the list off by heart, and then I went to see Dr Canterbridge and Professor Roberts. They were a kindly pair, but I didn’t know what to say to them. Afterwards, I went down the steps of that beautiful place and I knew I didn’t stand a chance. They were tactful as well, Canterbridge and Roberts, and afterwards they sent me a kind euphemism, about how I had very nearly won them over, despite everything, and how they wished me all the best.

I guess I loved and identified with this strand of the story so much I wanted it to continue. I wanted to know more about Eliade’s disappointed mother, her invisible father, the biography of Jeremiah Tradescant she seems destined to write. And indeed there are glimpses – this pitch-perfect description of Eliade’s repetitive yet peculiarly mesmerising day-job, for example:

When you work in a cafe you are transfixed by the weird routines of regular customers and how in general we cleave to repetitive protocols. Of course your own day is repetitive because the same meals must be served at the same time, and people want coffee and croissants in the mornings and strangely not in the evenings and they want soup at lunchtime but never at breakfast. The same people emerge at the same time each day, with very slight discrepancies. Then there are the freak occurrences, anomalies that distinguish one small day from the next. The man who weeps loudly in the corner and the old woman who has dyed her hair pink and green, and the boy in the buggy who squawks like a parrot and so on. These interruptions in the general order allow you at least to refer your day into anecdote, so if anyone is kind enough to ask you can say, ‘Yes, today a boy squawked like a parrot,’ rather than merely oppressing them with ongoing recurrent minutiae that they can imagine anyway.

But the book I sought – like the Field Guide to Reality itself – remained tantalisingly beyond the frame of the novel that did exist, a novel that, for all its clever mimicry of its subject matter through being incomplete, a framework for the working out of ideas rather than the ideas themselves, seemed destined to remain less interesting to me that its shadow-twin.

That was probably the intention – again, a fascinating idea to play with and another neat little dagger-blow by Kavenna in contriving it thus. The question that must be asked though is: does the novel as it stands work as a novel? Or to rephrase that slightly – for in its spiderweb filigree, firm with semantic resolve and glistening with dewy ideas, it is everywhere apparent that it coheres splendidly – does it satisfy?

A Field Guide to Reality is ‘about’ the nature of reality as it was explored in the philosophies of Robert Grosseteste, a mediaeval Bishop of Lincoln and the first chancellor of Oxford University, Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar who pioneered empirical reasoning in scientific practice and who was said by his enemies to have consorted with the devil, and the Muslim scientist Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham, a visionary pioneer in optics and astronomy. The ghosts of these men are summoned and indeed sometimes appear, wandering around Oxford and mingling quite happily with their latter-day disciples. Their ideas are expounded in intricate detail, sometimes through many pages, occasionally through such abstruse means as Maxwell’s Equations which, though they are aesthetically pleasing to me on the page (a fitting adjunct to Ralfe’s illustrations) remain utterly impenetrable without recourse to an advanced level physics textbook and still perhaps even then.

I do not cite my lack of understanding as a criticism, quite the opposite – the information I require to unravel the more technical threads of this mini-labyrinth is freely available to me at the click of a mouse and if I cannot entirely be bothered to pursue the matter then that is my failing, not Kavenna’s. It still begs the question though: are the pages of a novel – and such a brief novel, at that – a suitable place for such info-dumping, such unapologetically dense wadges of unadulterated philosophy lecture? Of course it can be done and has been done – the first, famous culprit that springs to mind is Umberto Eco, though in the case of novels like The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum the long-winded philosophising battles thrillingly for supremacy with a detective story of equally ambitious dimension. One emerges from the belly of such behemoths battle-scarred yet exhilarated, intellectually and emotionally satisfied at a level that few ‘ordinary’ novels of place and time and people can hope to attain.

A Field Guide to Reality is clearly reaching for the same effect, journeying bravely into the same territory. Yet when the story that provides the framework for the philosophy – Eliade’s search for the Field Guide, her creative rivalry with Solete’s academic acolytes, her relationship with rumpled postgraduate Anthony Yorke, even – is so sparsely realised, so truncated, so transparently a set-up for the Big Ideas, I couldn’t help but feel – and here we go again – frustrated for the novel this could have been.

There is so much here that I wanted more of. If I wanted more of Roger Bacon, I’d go away and read a biography of him.

One question we have not yet touched on and yet for the purposes of the current discussion I suppose we must: is A Field Guide to Reality truly Clarke-eligible? Or to put it more bluntly: is it SF?

There’s an argument that says: yes of course it is, that science fiction is rendered science fiction, as art is rendered art, in and by the process of reading it as such. And indeed A Field Guide to Reality might be approached within a science fictional context as a half-real-world riff on the concept of Dust in that other other Oxford of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In Pullman’s mythos, Dust is a cosmic particle that is inextricably linked to human consciousness and that Pullman has linked metaphorically with dark matter. In A Field Guide to Reality, dust is revealed as the shining proof of that reality, the means by which light reveals itself, a nothingness that nonetheless has substance, an intimation of life beyond death, of solace beyond grief:

The thing about Solete’s chamber of dust, the main thing, was that it was incredibly beautiful. It gleamed and sparkled. It was the crazy beauty of particles that are normally invisible, of diaphaneity. We stood there, whirled around with remnants, and traces, and the abandoned schemes of Solete. He had gone mad, or he had perceived infinity. He had gathered everything, and lived within the richness of his contemplation and, in the end –

He refined his former truths, and went beyond them–

To the infinities of quanta, or atomies.

To the anonymous reaches of time and space.

In reading Kavenna as part of my shadow Clarke shortlist I find myself returning to a point made by Gareth Beniston in a recent blog post about the shadow Clarke about the intellectual and aesthetic thinness of many of the eligible submissions:

Part of the problem perhaps is that I have been reading other remarkable novels in 2017: older classics from Penelope Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark and Alan Garner plus contemporary stuff from Han Kang and Dana Spiotta. These novels manage to be uncanny, weird, complex and profound in ways that leave those others severely wanting I’m afraid.

There’s an alternate-universe scenario in which A Field Guide to Reality, in its extrapolation of hard science into uncanny weirdness and bifurcating time-streams, into an Oxford populated by ghosts as well as scholars, is exactly the kind of book the Clarke should and would be celebrating if it only had more imagination about itself, and was less hidebound by tradition and by the genre community’s perception not only of what science fiction is, but what it should be. Kavenna does not so much push the science fiction envelope as bust it wide open and this – much like Ruth Ozeki winning the Kitschies Red Tentacle for A Tale for the Time Being in 2013 – should be counted as a good thing, not an act of treachery.

As things currently stand though, I don’t think this book stands a ghost of a chance of ending up on the Clarke’s official shortlist. And as for my own summation, my personal inner jury remains divided. What I do love unequivocally is this novel’s ambition, its fearless drive to experiment. Our literary landscape would be healthier for more books like it.


Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her second novel The Rift will be published by Titan Books in July 2017. She enjoys arguing about books in general and science fiction literature in particular, and makes these arguments public from time to time at her blog, The Spider’s House. Nina lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.

>> Read Nina’s introduction and shortlist


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