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Meeks by Julia Holmes

November 28, 2010 Leave a comment

“Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!” I was never entirely clear why the robot in Lost in Space thought Will Robinson was a danger to anyone but, in the 1960s, such niceties were ignored and the words became a catch-phrase, trotted out whenever anyone even vaguely geeky was approaching. Now I suggest resurrecting it to read, “Danger! Will Allegory! Danger!”

Meeks (Small Beer Press, July, 2010) is a slim book that has been garnering a fair bit of heavy-weight attention. That, on its own, makes it a challenge to review. With so many other people of note expressing their opinions, it emphasises the need for thinking through the issues. I don’t want to feel influenced one way or the other. Whatever I write here should be carefully weighed, just like what she done in so carefully selecting every word to ensure it says what it means and means what it says. Whatever.

At this point, I offer a word of apology and gentle explanation. I know this site is me endlessly thinking about books, films and anything else that catches my eye. I ramble on and, hopefully, make a few intelligent points. This makes me self-indulgent. In my defence, reviewing is not supposed to be directly entertaining. It’s intended to inform. But Julia Holmes is an author and, as such, is supposed to be writing fiction as entertainment. Well, my working hypothesis is that she is an author desperately trying to impress us all with her cleverness when there seems no narrative point to the heightened language. When you are writing an allegory, particularly an allegory apparently intended to be satirical, there is no need to cram sentences with erudition. Indeed, when you are writing something allusive, clarity and an absence of ambiguity is a virtue.

The world is a complicated place, more so because of incidents like the rather fascinating Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments and the amusing Sokal affair. When a piece is presented in a form not intended to be taken literally and communicated through a heightened form of language, there’s a temptation to assume the author must know what he or she is doing. Take three sentences as examples.

“Empty bottles stood around my brother’s head like concerned townspeople who had found their king unconscious in the street.” “The shadows of the trees shifted along the glass, vague, changing, in collusion with certain of my senses to generate a picture of fear.” “The sun was setting, casting everything in a blue-gray light, the evening air subsuming more and more, until this world would be reduced to a meaningless thicket of shadows: rock indistinguishable from man, earth from sea.”

And just in case you didn’t “get” the title, the leader of this benighted people was Captain Meeks, but the resultant society relies on the meekness of the citizenry to accept the social structures and the death of those who would be the Enemy. Without wishing to get into spoilers, we are into 1984 territory with a war-footing justifying grim repression at home. People are regimented and conscripted into public service if they cannot marry. The symbolism of clothes as signifiers of status enforces rigid class divisions. Everything is sacrificed to maintain productivity and woe betide anyone who is less than hopeful about the future.

So all these elements are put into a bottle made out of pretty words and we are expected to admire the result without questioning the rationality of this city as described. Where is it supposed to be? How has it come into being? How does it survive? If men really do go off to war, who do they fight and to what effect? What form does the government take? There seems to be a skewed gender balance — how do they manage to breed enough to stay viable? Who buys all the output from these factories? And so on. . . Ah, but wait. This is an allegory, so it doesn’t have to make any sense. You just read it for what it is and don’t ask awkward questions.

Well, my apologies. I think the entire exercise is pretentious rubbish. When Jonathan Swift traps three sons in clothes that rapidly fall out of fashion, there is no doubt he is satirising Christianity. Properly directed satire identifies its targets and then savages them. Julia Holmes fulminates but never matches Swift’s Modest Proposal for solving the problem of Irish poverty. All we have in Meeks is potshots at multiple targets, none of which truly strikes home with the venom that should characterise the best of allegory and satire. When Kafka traps K in a bureaucracy, we can all relate to the greater reality of flawed bureaucratic systems. So what social systems are targeted in Meeks? Well take gender roles as an example. Having been a bachelor in my early life, I cannot relate to the experience of the men in this novel. Nor does it work in contemporary terms if we read women for men and impose the biological clock for reproductive purposes. I suppose the theme relates back to the broad condemnation of women who were “left on the shelf” — particularly after wars left a shortage of marriageable men of the right social quality. Yet our modern generation of youngsters has not been bred to prioritise finding a spouse or having a family. This idea of a cut-off point with teeth for each cohort of unmarried (wo)men is absurd. Unless, perhaps, we are supposed to take it as an attack on the malign sexism and ageism that sees older women denied a variety of jobs because of their appearance. Who knows? I could go on but. . .

. . .from all the above you will understand I do not recommend this book unless you are a particular fan of allegory for its own sake.

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