'You've really read (her) books?'
'Yes, I just said.'
'But they're for children!
'Lots of adults read children's fiction.'
'Doesn't it stunt your mind?'
Originality is curved
Scarlett Thomas' Worldquake novels, now up to their second iteration in The Chosen Ones, have helped me to an understanding of something very important about fiction, and perhaps about life too, you never know. The continuum that stretches from completely unoriginal to wildly imaginative is not in fact linear, but, like Einsteinian spacetime, curved. It is a giant, flexible mollusc or, if you prefer a sort of conceptual Möbius strip. It only has one side. In simpler terms, if you go far enough in one direction you end up going in the opposite one, which turns out, after all, to be the same one as you were going in to start with. Simple. QED, you can be so unoriginal that you end up being wildly imaginative. Of course, it's all to do with spacetime really being a field, so originality is probably a field too, complete with cowpats. But let's not go there *
Like it's predecessor, Dragon's Green (see my post from April '17), her new sequel is a catch all for elements that have epitomised children's fantasy fiction over recent decades. Apart from dragons and other 'fantastic beasts', just about everything you can think of is in the The Chosen Ones - and you are left with a strong suspicion that even the firedrakes may appear before long. Here there is magic of many different qualities, 'good' and 'dark', performed by mages, witches, clairvoyants, healers, and goodness knows how many varieties of practitioner. There are two 'worlds' beside the 'real' one, accessed by a variety of portals. There are children who are 'epiphanised' to discover they have magical talents and world-saving destinies There is a school with oddball teachers, there are prophesies, magical objects and plots by megalomaniac villains. It is possible to step into stories, talk to animals and be transported by music. Nor is fantasy the only source of the author's borrowing. The Worldquake set up references a good number of other 'classic' elements of children's literature too, as well as drawing heavily on aspects of fantasy role play gaming.
A writer of kharakter
Of course Scarlett Thomas is a highly intelligent and experienced author, so all of this is not a weak writer's overuse of standard characters and plots but conscious, clever and playful reference. However, the most impressive thing of all is that, whilst she revels, and allows her readers to revel, in this delicious feast of pastiche, she still succeeds in weaving all these elements into a most engaging and original fantasy story of her own. In doing so she shows unbounded imagination. In short she shows just how original unoriginality can be.
In terms of what, in these books, she calls 'kharakter', Scarlett Thomas seems to be something of a 'composer interpreter, one who creates something entirely new through the reading of something already in existence.' (p 225)
Laughing all the way to the Otherworld
Even more than in the first book, in this second her narrative feels like it has begun to coalesce, to become more comfortable in its own artistic skin. Inevitably, her story is a rather complex one; she is weaving together so very many elements. Yet it only makes her world so much the richer, so much more intriguing and engrossing. And the fixative of this cohesion is humour. Much of her book is simply and joyfully, very, very funny.
However the huge entertainment value of The Chosen Ones does not come solely from parody. Some of its humour lies in ridiculous characters, attitudes and actions and some in near farcical action and incident. Scarlett Thomas' use of incongruous juxtaposition is often delicious.
'Terrence and Skylurian ate prawn cocktails by the fireside, gazing into one another's eyes. And that is when she'd told him her whole plan. Flipping heck! He had been, as they say, gobsmacked. It had been a little hard to take in at first, especially while trying not to get Marie Rose sauce down his jumper.' (p 171)
Scarlett Thomas, the writer, has a wicked sense of humour and (thankfully) cannot resist also peppering her narrative with jibes and japes about many contemporary issues. Her main targets are all things writerly, including insecure, jealous authors, as well as agents, editors and the down side of school author visits. She has a delightful dig at children's books with '. . . no magic . . . no mythical creatures and no exciting action scenes. Instead . . . lots of swear-words and miserable children. ' (p 215). She sharply mocks knee-touching, powerful yet illiterate Americans ('I pay people to read and write for me, sugar.') and unscrupulously ambitious academics ('Orwell would do pretty much anything - including changing his entire belief system - if it meant a chance of promotion.' ) Amongst a wide range of other butts for her wit are Freudian-type dream interpretation, fermented foods and, apparently, turquoise shirts (?!). Her book really is a completely joyful hoot.
Story will out
Yet, although a very different style of writer, she shares with Terry Pratchett an ability to toy with the genre without diminishing involvement in the storyline. In her case, the success of this duality lies largely in the fact that it is the subsidiary characters who are the focus of the humour, whilst her group of young protagonists are always fully involved in and seriously committed to the action of the story. Her 'famous five' are vividly drawn, believable characters with real issues and emotions with which young readers will readily identify. The adults may be stupid, but, even when they are young and foolish, the children aren't. We desperately want them to save their world, just as much as we do the young heroes of more straight-laced fantasy, and so their wayward adventures are still grippingly exciting.
Back to quantum physics
Perhaps I can risk my sadly limited understanding of physics and propose one further final image from the quantum field. Apparently a sub-atomic particle can potentially be in any number of possible places and only actually resolves this ambiguity by materialising in a particular location when it bangs into something else, that is, when it experiences an 'event'.
Scarlett Thomas has cleverly produced a book with multiple potential readings that will only resolve in the event of it being read. Bookish intellectuals will delight in its witty pastiche and droll jibes. More importantly, however, children will be enchanted by it as an absorbing fantasy; a transporting tale in the Harry Potter tradition, but cleverer, richer, funnier and, yes, more original than most. However her most appreciative audience will, perhaps, comprise child-like intellectuals and intelligent children. Both these groups will joyfully revel in all of the book's fascinating facets.
Underneath all its jolly japes, Scarlett Thomas' novel is a peon to the power and importance of books, even children's fantasy books. Surely the clinching factor in its being a fine work is that its thwarted super-villains are those who 'like abusing the natural magic of books for their own ends.' (p 320) There are few more important triumphs.
'Remember, children, that the only good authors in this world are long dead,' pontificates caricatured classics-loving schoolteacher Mrs Beathag Hide. (p 173)
She is, of course, far from correct, as Scarlett Thomas again ably proves**
There are now another two beacons of children's fantasy literature joyfully glowing in the dark.
(Unless of course Canongate is just a cover for the Matchstick Press!***)
*I might just get out of my depth. Even though I did Physics up to 'O' Level (I'm that old), I'm only up to page 27 in Carlo Rovelli's Reality Is Not What It Seems and haven't even started The Order of Time yet.
**Along with many others.
***You'll understand when you read it!