In another review, I reported how utterly lost I was in the wonderfully lush and romantic The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. Since then I’ve read its two sequels, Tatiana and Alexander and The Summer Garden. I think it would be safe to say I lived those novels. Reading them was an imaginative, sensory experience.
Reading The Prospect of my Arrival was, by contrast, a completely cerebral experience.
For a while Prospect just studies his mother’s belly. She’s pregnant with him. And yet he is also sitting in the kitchen with her as well. So he is in two places at once. His physical self is inside his mother, just a tadpole of a person. But his spirit is inhabiting this borrowed body. How strange.
That’s quite a premise, isn’t it? The soul of an unborn baby, the eponymous Prospect— hence the marvellous book title—is invested with starter information about the world and then inserted into a genetically-engineered male, young-adult body so that it can experience life and thereby decide whether or not to be born.
It may turn out to be a report card for planet earth. How viable, how attractive are we as a destination point to the casual visitor?
The book is presented as a novel but it has the feel of a long short story—by which I simply mean that it’s a narrative defined by a single idea which is played out in a linear fashion. There are no sub-plots, no literary pyrotechnics, no genuine character development; there is the exposition of a grand idea and a brief unfolding of events, leading to an ending which, while conclusive for its protagonist, isn’t necessarily conclusive for the grand idea.
I liked this book. I enjoyed it. I will remember the premise. But I won’t remember the story, or the characters. The story is completely overshadowed by its engendering idea: would a person choose to be born if it had the chance to experience the world in advance?
With a premise like that, the unfolding story almost doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s a sweet story, filled with good things. In order to make his decision, Prospect is introduced to a series of people chosen to demonstrate what it is to be living in the world. Many of the valuable things in life are touched upon—spirituality, the redemptive power of love, joy and hope—but they are never fully explored. Jealousy, corporate greed, and the irresistible creep of corruption and despair also enter the mix but, again, they are suggestions never fully realised into powerful themes.
Some of the writing is lovely. Most of the science is clunky. There are some continuity errors but nothing a good editor couldn’t fix. The structure works, the tone is assured. Perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that nothing much in this book interferes with the grand idea. Through the story, the world is found wanting—no surprise there. There is a glimmer of love, but not enough to provide redemption. Everyone has an agenda, and both Prospect and the reader come away with the sense that it really doesn’t matter a whit whether Prospect chooses to be born or not. That’s disappointing but, again, it doesn’t really matter because that’s not what I’ll remember a year from now. A year from now I’ll be looking at the people I meet and wondering: would you have chosen to be born if you’d known life was like this?
Well, would you?
Okita is a talented writer with extremely strong ideas. His next book is called The Hope Store and, as the name suggests, it’s about a store where you can buy … yup, hope. Which is so interesting, because hope is exactly what’s missing from The Prospect of my Arrival.
Reading two such different writers as Paullina Simons and Dwight Okita in close proximity, several things become apparent. Both writers can be patchy; both have flashes of brilliance. Whilst Simons deals in unforgettable scenes, Okita deals in memorable images. Simons is far and away the better (and more commercial) storyteller, but Okita wins hands-down in the originality stakes.
And something else strikes me. Simons is published by Harper Collins; Okita is self-published. Does the difference show? Well, a team of editors has spared Simons the volume of small mistakes that litter Okita’s novel (missing speech marks; repeated phrases; non sequiturs). But there are, nevertheless, editorial mistakes in both. With some editorial polish, Okita the self-pubber could hold his own in the company of the giant that is Harper Collins (he equals if not outstrips them in the e-book layout stakes). If that doesn’t give the publishing industry food for thought, I don’t know what does.