Ultrameta is one of the strangest novels I've ever read. It tells the extraordinary story of the enigmatic Alexander Stark, a professor of English at Glasgow University, who disappears for ten years. During that time, his wife receives a series of notes from him, accounts of the life – or rather lives – he is leading. The novel consists of these accounts, occasionally interspersed with conversations between the detective and the journalist who are working together to solve the mystery of Stark's disappearance and who gradually become obsessed with their search, to their cost.
The accounts vary wildly; it seems that Stark is many different people, sometimes women, and that he kills himself at the end of each account, only to awaken in a new body with no memory of who he is or of any of his past lives. His only link with continuity are the Keepers he has appointed to watch over him and track down each incarnation, preserving his scribbled accounts. Stark's role, it seems, is to be an observer of humankind, a blank tablet absorbing what he sees on each awakening.
The situations he finds himself in vary in time and in tone, between the surreal (the strongest element), fantasy, SF and horror. Overall, this book is very hard to categorise and might best be designated "slipstream"; that catch-all title for unreal fiction which doesn't easily fit into anything else. The accounts are linked to each other by the device of having most of them start with the protagonist finishing reading the previous account. This reminds me of a short animated film I saw many years ago, which consisted of the camera zooming away from a series of images, each in turn becoming a minor element within the next to be revealed.
The quality of the writing is exceptional, often poetic. One example, concerning the way in which clouds fascinated him as a young boy:
"And the clouds seemed to say: Remember us, we are the guardians of your dreams, the scouts of your future, the memorials of your regrets. Remember how we first awoke you as you became aware, a child in your cot on summer evenings, laughing, smiling at the honey flavour of life's light. It was us your eyes first looked up to. Or later, on bored windy afternoons, you watched grey stormclouds racing in battle formation and prepared for the world's end. Or going on holiday, looking from car windows, you watched our white galleons drifting in the ocean of blue up ahead, dancing with distant peaks, like ice cubes in lemonade, we sang of summer and glamour."
It is hard, if not impossible, to make sense of exactly what is going on, even after finishing the book. However, the quality of the writing and the surreal and intriguing stories caught my imagination. This is one book I'll be keeping for another read – at least.