Friday, 2 October 2009

Ultrameta by Douglas Thompson

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.

15 comments:

Fred said...

It sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review. I'm going to have to look for this one.

Erik said...

Sounds a bit like the movie 'Memento'.

Anthony G Williams said...

I don't recall seeing that one, Erik. Does it have the same kind of plot?

Erik said...

From Wiki (sorry about the non-personal touch :-))

NOTE: Spoiler alert! I've tried cleaning it up as to remove all or most spoilers. I might have succeeded.

Leonard Shelby, a former insurance fraud investigator is searching for the man he believes raped and killed his wife during a burglary. Leonard has anterograde amnesia, which he developed as a result of the severe head trauma during the attack on his wife. This renders his brain unable to store new memories. To cope with his condition, he maintains a system of notes, photographs, and tattoos to record information about himself and others, including his wife's killer.
As each scene begins, Leonard has just lost his recent memories, leaving him unaware of where he is or what he was doing. The scene ends just after its events fade from his memory.

It's well worth seeing!

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for that - the description does ring a bell although I've never seen it. I'll put it on my list...

Alexander Stark said...

Thanks, Anthony, for this very generous review, and thanks to Fred and Erik also for their kind interest. Memento is a great film, and like Groundhog Day and The Matrix, I felt that in each of theses films (and a few others)that there were metaphysical/philosophical ideas being only touched upon that someone ought to explore more deeply. I wanted to throw all of these into a pot with reincarnation and every world religion at once. The "meaning of life" can only be felt, not understood, but it's fun trying.

Anthony G Williams said...

Nice to hear from you Alexander, I'm glad that reports of your death have been exaggerated!

I've recently seen Memento, and it is indeed a terrific film. A review will follow in a week or two.

Alexander Stark said...

Yes, I seem to be alive and well, although my current body leaves a little to be desired:) Memento: it's a Chris Nolan film, so you may also (if you haven't already) want to check out his excellent "Insomnia" and "The Prestige", the latter of which is from a Christopher Priest novel, the High-Priest one might say, of "Slipstream".

Fred said...

I have _Momento_ now in my queue. It reminds me somewhat of Gene Wolfe's great trilogy-- _Soldier of the Mist_, _Soldier of Arete_, and _Soldier of Sidon_.

Erik said...

'The Prestige' was fantastic! One of my all time favourites!

Anthony G Williams said...

I started 'Insomnia' but found the initial premise too depressing - I hate it when a story's main character takes a course of action which you just know is going to be disastrous.

However, I was impressed by 'The Prestige', a film which certainly sticks in the mind. Tesla's central invention of a matter duplicator and transporter seems basically the same as the 'Star Trek' transporter except that the original body isn't destroyed in the process. Which would certainly put me off using such a transporter as it would mean that "I" would be killed, with only a perfect copy of myself being instantly created elsewhere. That could create some interesting philosophical and legal issues...

Alexander Stark said...

Interesting reaction that, Anthony, to Insomnia. Sometimes one is not in the mood for a forced metaphor! It's very symbolic, a kind of mirroring of the two main characters, exactly as The Prestige is. About you're referring to quantum entanglement ("spooky action at a distance", as Einstein called it), as a means of potential teleportation: They actually mastered that this year, I believe, but only at that sub-atomic level, (for use in computers one day)even so it brings closer the dilemma you hint at. Perhaps teleporting(copying)a human being will shed a light on what the mind/memories/soul/spirit are: if any of those are not physically there, then would they teleport?
If anyone is interested, by the way, I've thought of 3 other films that influenced Ultrameta: The Truman Show, Fearless(both by Peter Weir) and "Seconds" (black and white, 1966, starring Rock Hudson). The latter is a really chilling little underground gem, a bit like "The Man Who Haunted Himself" starring Roger Moore, who shows he really could act after all.

Anthony G Williams said...

I've had a recording of 'The Truman Show' around for ages and keep meaning to watch it, but I don't know about the others.

I touch on the question of transferable identity in my post 'On Immortality' - see 4 Sept this year.

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Alexander Stark said...

Hi Tony. I thought you'd like to know that Douglas Thompson has a second novel out now from Eibonvale Press, not a sequel to Ultrameta, but certainly a book on themes you may find interesting, i.e. global warming and environmental disaster.