Monday, June 22, 2009

Genesis by Bernard Beckett

Genesis by Bernard Beckett was STACKED's first round-robin review choice. Each of us read the book and offer our takes on this new title. We took something different, so enjoy and if you've read it, PLEASE share your takes!


Kimberly
:

I've mentioned before that I love dystopias. "Love" may not even be a strong enough word for the way I feel about them. It began with The Giver in middle school and was solidified when I read Biting the Sun as a teenager. (These two books, plus Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, form the pinnacle of great dystopias, in my oh so humble opinion.) Since then, I've followed a steady diet of dystopian fiction, reading mostly everything I could get my hands on. There have been some duds, some gems, and some in-between.

So is Genesis a dud or a gem? Easy answer - definitely a gem.

Genesis is still a weird book, even by dystopia standards. The story is set sometime in the nebulous future on what used to be New Zealand. The world has been devastated by a plague, and the island is the only place left inhabited. Anax, our protagonist, wants to enter the prestigious Academy, and in order to do so, she must pass a grueling four-hour oral test. This book is the record of that test, and through the test, the reader learns about the world in which Anax lives.

Genesis is a short novel - a novella, really - and its length is one of its strengths. The format of the book is mostly a sustained conversation between Anax and her examiners. Due to this format, most of what happens is told rather than shown, which is usually considered a major taboo when writing fiction. Beckett makes it work. Coming in at just over a hundred pages, the conversation could become tedious or frustrating if it went on for much longer. As it is, the book is just long enough to keep the reader in suspense, and just short enough to prevent the reader from being so frustrated as to give up.

Dystopias are always better when you don't know much about the plot, so I'm not going to go into it any further here. Most dystopias have a grand twist - or several twists - at the end that try their best to rip your heart out and shake up your world, making you question everything you just read. I like to believe that predicting these twists has become old hat for me, but often I am still surprised. Genesis surprised me. After I had finished the book, I had to open it back up to re-read several sections. I'm still thinking about it many days later. The twist makes the book, but that's not the only thing that recommends it as a good read. Beckett presents some enduring questions about the nature of humanity (that have admittedly been asked before), and his writing is excellent.

I think Genesis will appeal to fans of the subgenre who are eager for something new and fresh. While Beckett certainly uses tropes that have been used before (the four levels of society are particularly reminiscent of Brave New World), the story is told in a unique way, and the ending is surprising and deceptive in its simplicity. It was hugely fun to go back through the book and pick up the seemingly innocuous clues that would have given away the secret, if only I had paid closer attention. Despite its brevity, Beckett's book is deep. For those readers who may not be quite as familiar with the dystopia canon, this book may seem really "out there." I don't think it's something they can't handle, though, and because of their ignorance of the subgenre, the book may be all the more exciting and make that much more of an impact.


Bonuses: When you're done reading, take another glance at the cover. Something there will have a different meaning than when you first looked. Also, the book's Amazon page has a simple, but cool, trailer.


Kelly:

This book flew! When I began and throughout the first three hours of the interview, I kept thinking about books that delve into philosophical arguments like Ishmael and Sophie's World. Though Genesis is based on a dystopian society and the history and philosophies underpinning the story are entirely fictitious, it was saddled in such a way to be almost realistic in a future world.




I'm being purposely vague in my review because that is how a reader should approach this title. You'll read it and be both thoroughly confused and understand exactly what is going on -- Anax's exam is about sharing her beliefs in what happened during the history of her society, so there is a lot of history and postulation that the reader is in on and which leaves the reader out. This is okay.

Though there were times I wanted to reread and try to understand the history as intimately as possible, I did not and recommend not doing so. Getting the idea of what is happening and focusing on Anax, rather than what she's saying, will pay off heavily in the end. This is the sort of book that kept me wanting to read. I kept thinking about it when I put it down, and I kept thinking to myself that I knew what was going to happen.

But the ending? What a twist! I was convinced I knew what was going to happen, but then I was thrown off kilter and felt like Beckett did a real service to me for that. Genesis was not the book I was expecting, and for that reason, I really felt like this was one of the best I've read this year.

Genesis will appeal to those who love dystopias, philosophically-driven books, or something "just different," if you will.

Although we're round robin reviewing this one, I have to say that keeping the story vague is important; to really get the pleasure of reading this one, you have to go in knowing very little and build your own expectations and conclusions. Likewise, this very fast read is one I wanted to open again as soon as I finished it. I'm pretty excited with how much exposure this one is getting. I received it as an advanced reading copy but just as I got it in the mail, I noticed it all over the airport, too. I think this is one of those titles that can appeal to so many readers, but it will require the reader put aside their biases -- those who have been turned off to "harder" reading (think of those I mentioned before, as well as other titles like Candide) might not be willing to invest in this one. I think it could help shift those biases, though.


Jennifer:

I'm going to be the lone dissenter in this love-fest for Genesis. I agree, this is a well-written, interesting book containing an unusual dystopia within its pages. But after reading, I can't say that I liked this novella.

I found that Genesis has more in common with a screenplay than a novel. I kept imagining how it would be filmed. The recited dialogues would be flashbacks filmed with soft lighting. The holograms would really just cut away to tense battles of wills reminiscent of 12 Angry Men. Some sort of tricky device would be used to reveal the final twists; I can see an aspiring director filming everything from a first person point of view in order to emphasize the final reveal. With a little reformatting, Beckett's work could easily be turned into a script - just change the spacing, add a couple of sluglines to establish place, and the transformation is complete! The structure lends itself to a future movie deal. Intentional? It's hard to tell.

Maybe I'm a cynical product of my surroundings. I live in Los Angeles, a place where the majority of media consumption is film-related. A frightening number of my friends call themselves aspiring screenwriters; dystopia is a popular topic. I'm reminded of the inordinately large number of student films deal with similar philosophical issues... replete with unexpected turn at the end.

I read through this book thinking, "I've seen this before." I know much is intentional, especially in regards to Beckett's inclusion of classical philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology. Those examples declare themselves loudly, pointing to their sources with little subtlety. Glimpses of modern popular culture rare their heads within this novel as well. Joseph and the young Adam reek of "Maverick" and "Goose" from Top Gun. I could imagine stormtroopers from Star Wars as soldiers in the New Republic. And the first encounter between Pericles and Anax contains much of the simmering sexual chemistry of Sarah and Charles from John Fowles' The French Lieteunant's Woman. It feels like Beckett draws upon familar myths to lull the reader into a sense of understanding of this world and our protagonist.

This is a smart book, going beyond a simple amalgamation of all the ideas presented in Philosophy 101. Beckett seems like he genuinely cares about the nature of humanity. But in the end, something rings false for me. I never full engaged with the history lesson or our historian. Unlike Kelly and Kimberly, I had real problems getting the willpower to struggle through the countless arguments and conversations. I felt manipulated and unwilling to draw my own conclusions from the novel. It just wasn't for me.

I will, however, agree that the cover is exceptionally well-done. I love the additional layers of meaning that develop after reading the novella.

1 comment:

  1. Jen, I like your comments a lot, and I think your perspective comes from much more exposure to these sorts of books and stories than me. I think it's interesting how many ties you can pull out from other movies/books.

    ReplyDelete

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