Imagine, if you will C. S. Lewis, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Neal Stephenson collaborating on a novel under the direction of Shakespeare. Sir Philip Sidney drops in for a quick chat, as do Homer, Plato, Bishop Berkeley, and Albert Einstein. If allegory, time travel, social critique, quantum theory, humour, utopian and dystopian fiction, epic, romance, pastoral, and narratology are of interest to you, you will enjoy this novel greatly. I did. At 510 pages in hardback, this is not a short work, but I couldn’t put it down.
Part mystery, part science fiction, a love story, and highly allusive, Arcadia begins with a boy removed from his village in Anterwold to learn to be a Storyteller; it begins with Henry Lytton, an associate of Tolkien and Lewis asserting that in the novel he is writing he wishes to create “an entire sociology of the fantastic” (9). It begins with Rosie Wilson, the fifteen year old grammar school girl who occasionally cares for Henry Lytton’s cat and who wants to travel. And it begins with Angela Meerson a pyschomathematician facing discipline in the research facility where she works. And then there are Parmarchon an outlaw believed to have murdered his uncle the husband of Catherine, now Lady of Willdon, as well as poor Alex Chang nervously wandering the streets of Oxford.
Most of the characters peopling Arcadia are displaced, lost in some way, questing for some kind of liberation, some kind of resolution, for explanation and restitution of something lost or intuited but never yet quite found or understood.
The various plot lines initially apparently separate draw into each other at the end of the novel, and I found the conclusion satisfying. As I said earlier, this is a book difficult to put down because I so wanted to know just what was going to happen next. Further, in its examination and question of how societies work, especially totalitarian societies, it raises moral questions and sounds alarms about our possible future. However, it isn’t what happens in Arcadia or the moral questions that deliver the most pleasure. It is the novel as metafiction.
At the heart of the story/ies lies “the Story” [my empahsis]: the story of Anterwold. Within Anterwold, the Story is history, moral code, and prophecy. Its guardians and re/tellers are highly respected. But just what is the story of Anterwold, and whose story is it? The characters’ who people it or the creator/s’ of Anterwold? Who “owns” any story? Does it depend on the kind of story? If we take a moment to consider even briefly the many ways we use the word “story,” I suspect we’ll discover the word is as flexible and extensive in its denotation as the word “get.”
Arcadia raises these kinds of questions, wittily, even, dare I say it, at times cheekily, alluding to and borrowing from other tales well-known to us and playing with our expectations of genre, subtly demanding that we consider not only how we construct narratives but the use we make of them to define and explain our world. All in all, a brilliant book that offers readers an opportunity to pass some time in the company of a master craftsman and to engage with a mind as lively as a charged particle.