Well, that was a bit different. Don’t come to this book expecting plot, character development or anything like that. The main character, Serge, is like a conduit for signals from the radio that his father is experimenting with when he’s born and that he himself develops a fascination with as he gets older. He’s not so much a character as a symbol of the effect of technology on the individual at the dawn of the radio age. The plot is episodic, and Serge cares so little about the outcome that as a reader it’s hard to muster much interest either.
Having said all that, I did find myself weirdly enjoying this book as I read it. It’s clear that Serge’s blankness as a character is intentional. He drifts through some quite amazing experiences, and yet never seems to be fully participating in them. He likes to see the world as flat, not three-dimensional, and so as an artist can never master perspective; it’s only when he’s in a World War One aeroplane looking down on the landscape that he feels things to be “just right, … just how things should be.” He watches as it “falls away, it flattens, it voids itself of depth. Hills lose their height, roads lose their camber, bounce, the texture of their paving, and turn into marks across a map… Now the land’s surface starts to tip, its horizontal line rotating round the Farman’s nose as though the vegetation, soil and brick that formed it were all one big front propeller…” He feels the machine to be controlling the landscape, as if “all displacement and acceleration, all shifts and realignment must proceed from the machine…”
Serge feels that such a flat world controlled by machinery is “just right”. His obsession with technology, drugs and sex prefigures many of the developments of the twentieth century, while remnants of the old, such as his Huguenot silk-weaving mother, seem to fade away, to be already a part of the past. It’s a poignant view of a time of great transition, comparable to the current transition to an increasingly digitised, hyper-connected world. Serge is a great observer of the world around him (in the war that’s even his role, not pilot but “observer”), and this extends even into his own life, so that he appears not to be creating the events of his life but merely drifting along observing them along with the reader.
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Serge is born with a caul, traditionally a sign of good luck and safety from drowning, but also in this book the start of recurring symbols of obscured vision, such as the strange gauzy film that descends across Serge’s eyes after the death of his sister and necessitates a trip to a European spa town. The luck comes mainly in his inability to die amid the carnage of the war, despite being hooked on heroin as he’s flying and despite almost everyone around him getting killed, including the pilot of his plane (Serge survives by having his fall cushioned by someone else’s parachute – the parachutist also dies, but Serge is unharmed). The unbelievable luck even extends to him being captured as a spy and lined up in front of a firing squad, only for news of the armistice to come through just before the order to fire is given. The soldiers turn around to go home, and Serge calls out “Hey! You can’t do that. Wait!”
There’s a lot to chew on here, too much probably for one blog post. Parts of the novel reminded me of JG Ballard, particularly when Serge is in the aeroplane and the metal, technology and violence get fused with sexual excitement, making him ejaculate over the tail. Crash, too, was a novel that I enjoyed for its writing and its ideas, even though the plot and characters were scarcely believable. Almost every woman Serge meets inexplicably wants to have sex with him – maybe it’s that caul giving him luck, but it struck me as weird and unbelievable on the level of individual character. Much of the book was the same, and at times I became frustrated with the lack of traditional plot and character development. But it’s a novel about ideas, not so much about characters and their motivations. If read purely on that level, it’s an interesting and at times beautifully written book with plenty of thought-provoking ideas. I’m certainly glad I read it. If you’re looking for a plot that draws you in and characters you can root for, though, I’d recommend looking elsewhere.