Being mysteriously interfered with
THE HESPERIDES TREE by Nicholas Mosley Seeker, £15.99, pp. 311 Ihave never read anything quite like this extraordinary book before. It is about a student who, even by student standards, is preoccupied by the nature of life and the possibility of our reality being subject to 'interference' from other realities. His idea relates to an experiment demonstrating wave-function that many readers may have observed in science lessons at school. Light fed through two slits produces not, as one might expect, two narrow bands of light, but a whole array of bands. It shows that light is composed neither of particles nor of waves, but of one or the other, depending on the circumstances. A professor in this novel claims that the experiment shows how different universes 'have affected one another, however weakly, through interference phenomena'. The implication for humans is that 'we are part of infinitely complex interactions'.
The Hesperides Tree is an ambitious attempt to apply this theory to human nature. The narrator travels between Ireland (where a run-down cottage inherited by his mother is being used by gun-running terrorists) and an English university where he is torn between Biology and Literature as tools to explain how humanity works, and 'how it might be changed'. Meanwhile, on an island close to the cottage in Ireland scientists are using their own methods to uncover the reason for evolutionary changes in a species of bird. Our narrator's father has been making a documentary about this work and wonders, if animals mutate in response to changes in their environment, do humans too?
Plotwise, there's a lot going on: in the course of his travels, the narrator meets an aristocratic computer whizz-kid with whom he discusses cyber-reality. He gets a lesbian activist pregnant, occasioning a debate about abortion. In Ireland he falls in love with a girl who is somehow involved with the gun-runners.
All of these different encounters, or realities, 'interfere' with one another, producing bizarre coincidences. Also, at the beginning of the novel we learn that our narrator has a peculiar affliction — part of his skull is very fragile. This means that he feels other realities can penetrate his mind, or that something is trying to get out of it, like a bird pecking its way out of a shell.
To confuse matters, all the characters, inquisitive and intellectual as they are, speak with a voice identical to the narrator's. Everyone's tone is enigmatic, even devious, and by the end of the novel one wonders if these peculiar people are real at all, or simply functions of the narrator's confused brain. In fact, several people he meets seem, even to him, to be computer simulations. Their sameness is a complication for the novel. While Mosley's ideas are fascinating, the characters that give them voice are empty, so their interactions are not interesting, because they do not come alive. It is hard to be committed to people who do not seem real, even when what they say is important.
The novel's strength is in the eloquence of its ideas and in a prose style that is unusual, graceful and often poetic. A bored, rich girl is 'like a leopard that has eaten and is resting on the branch of a tree'. Birds on a craggy ledge make 'gasping or gagging noises like disturbed and angry parents'.
Towards the end of the novel, on the Irish island, the narrator sits against a rock and tries not to collect his thoughts, 'but to let them fly'. The great thing about this book is watching Nicholas Mosley's remarkable thoughts in flight. I confess, though, that some of them flew over my head.