“Arcadia,” the new novel by Iain Pears, was created for an app. “I had reached the limit of my storytelling in book form,” Pears explained in an article in the Guardian, “and needed some new tools to get me to the next stage.”
Pears, best known for his 1997 novel “An Instance of the Fingerpost,” is a master at creating structurally intricate novels, so it is perhaps not surprising that he turned to technology to help readers navigate his latest book, which features multiple overlapping storylines. The app allows readers to create alternative outcomes for his characters. “The idea,” Pears explains, is that readers “can approach the story in the most comfortable way, rather than having a structure decided for them by the author.”
What structure did the author have in mind for them? The tale begins simply enough. An 11-year-old boy named Jay is wandering in a wooded wilderness when he encounters a seemingly angelic being bathed in bright light.
We then cut to a pub scene in 1960s Oxford, where a group of old friends — much like the Inklings — meets every Saturday to discuss their work. One of those scholars, Henry Lytten, is working on a long and highly detailed fantasy novel set in the realm of Anterwold. He’s counting on his fellow writers to help him perfect the operating rules of that world. “You will tell me whether or not you think it might work,” he says. “I will modify them until it becomes strong, stable, and capable of dealing with the feeble creatures that are men without collapsing into a nightmare as bad as the one we already have.” His friends aren’t impressed. One of them wryly comments: “A perfect society requires perfect people. The People are always a terrible disappointment. Not up to it, you know.”
The scene then switches to a new setting, hundreds of years from Lytten’s time, when a flinty scientist named Angela Meerson is pursuing “a fascinating experiment that could well metamorphose into the most dangerous discovery in the history of humanity.” Meerson uses that discovery, which at first seems like a way to travel through time or alternate dimensions, to escape from the brutal tyranny of her world (“We do not wrest nature’s secrets from it by asking nicely,” growls one ruler of that era’s Isle of Mull).
Three separate worlds, then: a simple, bucolic setting very much like Anterwold; Cold War Oxford; and the grim future of the hyper-bureaucratic Scientific Government. So far, so similar to Pears’s 2002 novel “The Dream of Scipio,” which also told stories in three parallel times and places.
It quickly becomes apparent, however, that “Arcadia” is playing a deeper game, one more akin to “An Instance of the Fingerpost.” Set in Oxford in the immediate aftermath of the English Civil War, that book was composed of four long parts, each telling the same story from a different character’s point of view. To appreciate the novel fully, the reader has to (a) remember critical details from each account, (b) note the crucial differences and omissions, and (c) estimate how each narrator is lying about the other narrators. For a hard-working reader, the novel accumulated into an astonishment of riches.
But as complicated as that book was, it nonetheless observed some basic precepts of storytelling. Characters might differ about when or why or how somebody died, but the death itself was incontrovertible. Characters might wax nostalgic about the past, but past events remained immutable.
In “Arcadia,” these kinds of narrative tools get knocked away one after the next, even without the help of a plot-your-own app. Pears steadily folds and refolds the texture of his narrative, loading it with more and more imbrications until it seems like the superstructure itself will collapse. Characters swap settings and morph identities; they cross paths in the different eras of Jay’s fantasy realm; they meet and know each other in both the past and the present of Lytten’s England; and everything everybody does has the potential to alter Meerson’s soulless future world.
“Professor Lytten wrote that,” one character says, rather simplistically stating the problem. “He put it in his story, and then it went and happened. Or maybe the other way round.”
The first few of these storytelling high jinks seem forced and somewhat twee. Readers familiar with works such as David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (to say nothing of Sir Philip Sidney’s “Arcadia,” an obvious inspiration for Henry Lytten, and Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” an equally obvious inspiration for Pears himself) may find this postmodern genre-jiggering a bit too familiar. But as Pears steadily builds his multiplicity of stories, his orchestrations become something far more ambitious, a calculated and at times quite droll assault on the very nature of narrative itself. It’s almost as if Pears himself is playing with the app.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
By Iain Pears
Knopf. 528 pp. $27.95