Review: Arcadia

Originally intended for digital publication, Iain Pears’ Arcadia is a novel of multiple strands. In its app format, you could apparently choose to follow any one of a dozen characters through a series of overlapping storylines and timelines. Since the technology is only available for Apple products and I’m an Android gal, I’m stuck with the 600-page dead-tree version for now.

What under one interpretation you might call the “main” storyline is set in 1960s Oxford, following an English professor, Henry Lytton, whose chief/only hobby is writing a fictional universe called Anterwold. Not writing any actual narratives, you understand; just creating the world, the society, the customs. This is a specifically Tolkienian brand of sub-creation: no language work, but an emphasis on Story as constitutive of all experience and knowledge. (Also. Sometimes I think the only reason fantasy authors write about 1960s Oxford is to geek out about Tolkien and Lewis.)

One day, Rosie, the 15-year-old girl who feeds Lytton’s cat, finds a glowing portal in his basement that leads to Anterwold, where she becomes caught up in the Story and has all sorts of pastoral woodland adventures. The glowing portal belongs to Lytton’s scatty colleague Angela Meerson; which is also the name of a scientist working in a far-future dystopian Britain on a technology that could allow people to access alternate worlds. Angela flees to Lytton’s world when her superiors become hell-bent on stealing her work from her and potentially destroying all of creation in the process.

There’s a lot going on here, and yet…it’s hard to sort out what Pears is actually doing with it all, beyond the tissue of metafictional and literary references that don’t seem to go anywhere. He touches a little on history and how we reckon with it (Anterwold reveres the Story but rejects learning from the present; Angela’s dystopian future locks its historical records in a warehouse and basically ignores them); on whether post-apocalypse is preferable to dystopia (an interesting line of argument, but one which feels alarmingly fascist, especially in the less-than-nuanced form it appears in here); on cause and effect and time (though this is mainly handwaving).

I think this is the root of what I found unsatisfactory about Arcadia: it engages with a fair amount of stuff but none of it substantially. Reviews seem to suggest that the app is doing more work structurally: following separate characters’ timelines means you experience events outside the sequence of cause and effect, because of the time travel and the interpenetration of the three worlds that’s going on. I see that! But…if your book only works as an app, then why bother publishing it as a traditional book at all?

(The answer most likely has something to do with the cultural privileging of print-based media over videogames and other forms of interactive narrative, even though linear books can’t do some of the work that interactive narrative can.)

In other words. If you’re an Apple user and can afford £3.99 for the app, go for it! Otherwise, no.

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