Few books manage to capture a generation’s imagination as Alex Garland’s debut novel
The Beach has done. Certainly his second novel The Tesseract failed to, which is a shame, as it is in many ways a much better book. It shares much with its sibling novel, for example a readability that belies its substance – a book one could happily devour by the poolside or into the early hours of a morning while on holiday. What it doesn’t have is a central character with which generation x readers can directly empathise, while what it does have is a title that refers to a baffilingly complex geometrical shape – a hypercube (in this case unravelled). That explains, almost entirely, why the book is not to be found in every backpack and hostel around the globe.
The book is set in Manila, one of the world’s great mega-cities, and a place to which Garland has frequently travelled. The novel takes three sets of characters and one night which links them together. Three gripping stories, told with a cinematic eye for detail – indeed, since this novel Garland has spent much of his time writing screenplays, most notably for director Danny Boyle. Three stories that rarely pause for breath, and were the novel an actual film it would seem like a particularly satifsying cross between Tarantino and Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu
(Babel, to this reviewer, in fact owes more than a little to Garland’s novel both in style and substance – senseless interactions with heavy repurcussions, the clash of the rural with the urban, and a high-rise suicide for example).
Throughout the book Garland confidently outlines his characters – only one of whom is European, meaning that by the time you get to the last portion of the book you’re involved enough to want to delve into his 21st Century [though published in 1998] take on Atomic philosophy referenced by the title. Not having been to the Philipines I can’t attest to how well or badly Garland has depicted the culture – but that matters not a jot, as the setting is incidental. It provides the massive gulf between rich and poor that is necessary for the plot to function, and does so well.
The central theme of the novel is a grand and theological one. Why do bad things happen to good people? Virtually all of the characters on show are sympathetic, and yet horrific things happen to them as if by chance. At the same time, though, there are ambiguous clues to culpability strewn throughout. With a Shakespearean eye for Tragedy, three of the corpses brutally gunned down by the end of the book have varying shades of responsibility for their own demise. One, a brutal rackateer is gunned down justifiably – but also on the basis of a possible misunderstanding. One is shot for having unleashed the initial violence, as a retribution, though neither the reader nor the executioner can be happy with the sentence. Another dies as a result of a misaimed bullet – but there is the suggestion throughout the book that this woman has brought unhappiness and physical injury to those around her, so is her violent death casual?
Theologists explain the questions in this novel with concepts like evil, free will, and sins of omission. Garland through supersymmetries and the tesseract (not by chance are these the chapter headings for the concluding paragraphs). In a dialogue between Alfredo, a bereaved psychologist who collects the dreams of street children, and Cente a bright abandoned child, Alfredo outlines the core of the novel’s worldview:
“A square unravels to a line. Two dimenisons unravel to one.
A cube unravels to a cross. Three dimensions unravel to two.
A hypercube unravels to a tesseract. Four dimensions unravel to three.
You exist in three spatial dimensions. In the same way that a one-dimensional boy could not visualize a two-dimensional square, or a two-dimensional boy could not visualize a three-dimensional cube, you cannot visualize a hypercube.
A hypercube is a thing you are not equipped to understand.
You can only understand the tesseract.
This means something.
For you and for me, Cente, this is the way it is. We can see the thing unravelled, but not the thing itself.”
Things happen in this novel due to the size, weight, and speed of colliding characters. One character ends up dead because he is big, and relatively clumsy, compared to a smaller character who’s small size combined with speed gives him a life-saving advantage. As in atomic theory, where the universe is formed by ‘the fortuituos concourse of atoms'[The Catholic Encyclopedia], there is no right or wrong moral course of action that can save the characters.
Patterns, relationships, and symmetries are suggested throughout, in an impressively structured novel, but the emphasis is on a naturalistic/materialistic geometry rather than a watchmaker’s design. Words and images are used skilfully to propel you back and forth between the different narratives, forcing you to determine the relationships bettween them.
In this avowedly atheistic novel it’s not all bleakness though. Believers will take comfort in the various suggestions of fate, and destiny that Garland peppers throughout. The rest of us can take comfort from the human relationships on show, for example the redemptive force Cente has on both his friend Totay, and on his grieving analyst Alfredo. The beauty of Garland’s writing in this novel is that while simple and clear-cut, it remains ambiguous and full of clues (an example – the analyst Alfredo appears to be returning to life when he accepts an invitation to dinner with a couple of friends and a blind date. There is the hint, though that perhaps Alfredo is considering something more final – when he says ‘I’ll come down’ – the passage finishes with “‘Yes,’ said Alfredo. This time he disconnected the line with a push of his finger.”).
It’s worth emphasising again, that while the novel deals with big questions and tricky concepts, it’s a gripping and easy read[described by Maxim magazine as “a page turning blockbuster”]. If you missed the book the first time around, this reviewer can’t recommend it highly enough to you now. This is highly impressive writing that doesn’t feel the need to impress the fact on you – its only concern is to tell stories, and to explore questions.
The Tesseract by Alex Garland is published in the UK by Penguin