Book Review: Early Riser

After the heft of Ali Smith’s Spring, I turned for a bit of light relief to the sizable wit and immense imagination, not to say comic realisation, of Jasper Fforde, whose 14th novel, Early Riser, was published in the UK last year.

Early Riser is set in an alternative universe Wales, around Talgarth in fact, in which climate change has rendered the winters so cold that most – though crucially not all – humans have evolved to hibernate in vast dormitoria, the UK has collapsed, society is divided into haves and have nots and is based on the exploitation of a slave class, and in which the rule of the gun, and nature’s own cruelty, dispenses summary justice.

I’m not joking.

Emerging from a two-year creative hiatus – his period of scribernation – stemming from an extended period of writer’s ‘textual jam’, this is an entirely stand-alone (almost post-Ffordist) novel but one whose themes and styles will be familiar to those used to Fforde’s style and approach. Thus, there are extended use of humorous footnotes and brief paragraphs quoting from established – but entirely fictitious – reference ‘texts’; the website and the novel’s endpages feature additional material designed to entrench the reality of world which Fforde is creating; there are in-jokes, including a self-deprecatory one referencing his own writer’s block; there is curiously odd, stilted dialogue in which the characters visually look askance at one another as well as dialogue which creates deliberate pathos in service of the characterisation; there are deus ex machinae galore; the patriarchal world is turned upside down with strong women characters and references to a feminised society; the world turned upside down encompasses the advised, and government-backed, requirement for people to lay down fat reserves before falling asleep in hibernation; and there is a certain, and clearly intended, mystery about the gender identity of the lead character. The whole is written with such wit and such panache that the reader can’t help but be caught up in the self-conscious creation of an alternative universe, clearly to be held up as a mirror against our own, to which Fforde is absolutely committed.

At the same time, we have many evident contemporary socio-political references on top of a timecale that is, deliberately and joyously, both imprecise and of all time: the Wales in which the characters move features (unseen) mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers; it neighbours an ‘Albion’ of dubious cultural value and contribution; transport is by train on pre-Beeching routes; there are feared ‘villains’ drawn humorously from English Edwardian upper-classes; and there are frequent references to sweet treats of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, there are numerous contemporary references: the monetary currency in Wales is the euro; the UK has clearly dissolved into an independent Wales (in which everyone speaks Welsh), a loosely-formed ‘Albion’ and references to a Northern Fed which may or may not encompass an independent Scotland; there is sly commentary on shadowy ‘big pharma’ and the control exercised by faceless corporates determined to push the boundaries of ethics as far as and until they are found out; there is a sub-text of exploitation closely referencing modern debates on the terms and conditions of employment of peripheral workers; and the dreamscape on which the novel centres closely embodies ‘the internet’, somehow ahead of and yet behind the characters’ level of understanding, as well as the control which numerous, but hidden, others may exercise over our movements in that world. The central notion that here is a world in which its characters are, blindly and unwittingly, and apparently care-free, sleeping through a large part of their existence, and in which those ordinary people who are asleep as well as the tiny minority of those who, extraordinarily, spend their winters awoke are largely accepting of the ethos of the world they inhabit, will not be lost on contemporary readers. And, on top of all that, there is the novel’s underpinning of a weak, wholly inadequate and pathetic response to climate change in which the redundant coalfields of Wales have been set alight as a means of dealing with the catastrophe of climate change.

This is a joyful, rumbunctious allegory of a dystopian society which is barely able to acknowledge that it has gone somehow, disastrously, wrong but in which the seeds of hope and of youthful endeavour (à la Greta Thunberg) may yet be able to save the day where we are able to overcome the limits of imagination we impose on ourselves. This is not unfamiliar Ffordian territory, but the theme here is darker, bleaker and more desperately non-human than the worlds he has created in his novels hitherto. The body count is high, weapons are high-tech and absolutely terminal, and there is a disregard for human life symptomatic of a society which has inflated corporate values and sloganeering, and the winner-take-all mentality, over social cohesion, consensus and solidarity between people. The ride is somewhat rough, and there may be question marks over the exactitudes of the plot and the motivations of the characters, but those need to be put aside in a novel whose celebratory style of writing betrays precious little of the effort which authors put in to realise their own objectives. Thank goodness, instead of laborious written accounts, for verbal podcasts and interviews – the one referenced above as well as others featured on Fforde’s own Twitter.

Observers of Westminster not least this week, and of the post-Brexit world we are now starting to (re-)create, will easily recognise the world which Fforde describes. The solution to the dystopian world into which we are now falling – in working the hard yards of building solidarity between people and collective identity afresh – are less easily recognised in a plot resolution which owes a little more to fantasy and to individual chance than I might have preferred; but this is a novel in which the identification of the clear avenues which have led a society into a disastrous situation is a more important process than the telling of a Tressellian tale about what needs to be done in response. That fight, instead, is up to us inhabitants of that contemporary world.

And, in the meantime, of course: #StopTheCoup

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