A superior spectre may be Angela Meyer’s first novel, but her already significant writing credentials, including being the author of the short/flash style fiction collection Captives (my review), and the editor of the anthology The great unknown (my review), ensure this is a confident debut. And it needed to be, because Meyer took big risks in this book – structurally, genre-wise, and with her characters.
Let’s start, however, with the title. It hints at genre, doesn’t it? And yes, this book does owe much to genre, but more to genre-bending than to simple genre. It has two storylines – which is part of the risky structure – one set in mid 19th-century Scotland, drawing on historical fiction, and the other also set in Scotland, but in 2024, making it more speculative fiction. There is also a touch of the Gothic here, with visitations, hidden rooms and madhouses, with dark thoughts and hints of perversion. But, the novel is more complex, more sophisticated than that suggested by this idea of two interwoven storylines from the past and the future. The two epigraphs that introduce the novel clue us into this complexity. The first epigraph is from Emily Dickinson and suggests that the “superior spectre” is not “external”, or “material”, but something “interior”, or “more near”, while the second, from Kafka, hints at the dark side of love and human nature.
These ideas are explored through the two main characters: Leonora, a young farm girl from the Scottish Highlands, and Jeff, a dying man who has “escaped” Australia (something that is difficult to do in his chip-controlled futuristic world) to die alone in Scotland. Leonora is poor, but well-read and resourceful; she’s a hard-worker and loves her father; she’s sensual, sexual, but not afraid to express it; and she has a mind of her own, but is independent rather than wilful. She is, in other words, easy to like and wish well for. Jeff, on the other hand, is more ambiguous, and thus a challenge for us readers. Not only does he admit to some questionable sexual proclivities, but his behaviour in Scotland, particularly towards Leonora, becomes increasingly selfish. He knows it, but in the end puts his needs and desires ahead of hers. How, though, given their different eras?
Well, let’s now turn to the structure. Meyer sets us up at the beginning with a comfortable, predictable structure in which third-person Leonora’s story alternates with first-person Jeff’s. There’s nothing particularly remarkable in this, but it doesn’t last. In Part 2 (of this four-part novel), Leonora’s story also becomes first-person. It happens because, as the back cover blurb has told us, Jeff is using some experimental technology (a “tab”) that enables him to inhabit Leonora’s mind, and at the end of Part 1 he decides to change how he brings her to us. His aim, he says, is to enable us to “partly inhabit her as well” though in so doing, he warns us, our thoughts too, like Leonora’s, may be “infected” by him. I like books in which the structure itself underpins the meaning of the work. In this case, the structure unsettles us – as in, where are we now, who are we with – and mirrors the discord being experienced by Leonora, who wonders
about how powerful our thoughts can be. We might think we are sick when we truly have no ailment. But if we present the symptoms, and believe them, are we not sick anyway? . . . I wonder if a person could learn to be aware of when the mind is influencing a bodily reaction, and also when an instinct is overruling the mind.
So, in A superior spectre, we have a destabilising structure, a slippery character in Jeff who knows he doesn’t deserve our sympathy but wants to justify himself nonetheless, and a creative intertwining of genres – but to what purpose? There are several, I think, some personal, some sociopolitical. The latter is obvious. For Leonora there are the gender expectations which limit what a young girl of her class and background can do: she cannot study at university as some young women she meets are doing; she cannot marry the Laird for whom she falls; and she cannot protect herself from being deemed mad when she admits to strange visions of flying machines and horseless carriages. For Jeff, whether we like him or not, there is the lack of personal freedom that comes with living in a so-called technologically-advanced (dystopian) society. It’s not completely coincidental that Meyer wrote her final draft of this book on Jura, where George Orwell finished 1984.
But, it’s the personal – particularly the grappling with one’s inner demons or “spectres” – that gives the book its greatest power. Jeff’s selfishness, his poor self-control and yet desire to explain himself to us, recall characters like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. It’s hard to completely hate a character who is so open about his self-disgust even while he does nothing about it, and who engenders at least some sympathy from his Scottish landlady. She doesn’t approve, but she doesn’t reject either. In the end, Jeff is more pathetic than hateful, partly because his “spectres” are plain to see.
Leonora’s “spectres” come from her challenge in matching her sensual nature with the life she finds herself in, from her desire to find that freedom espoused by John Stuart Mill:
It is difficult for me to read about freedom and tyranny without relating these words to my own situation. Mill’s number one basic liberty is a freedom of thought and emotion. The individual being sovereign over his own body and mind. But what if your thoughts are being suppressed not just from the outside, but from some inner tyrant also?
She knows her aunt wants the best for her, a “good” marriage, but fears this would mean
suppressing the thoughts and emotions I have? It is the opposite of liberty; it is to put myself potentially in the hands of another tyrant. I feel I am pressing at walls all around.
Jeff’s “infection” of her (his tyranny), then, can have multiple readings: not only is it a manifestation of his selfish disregard of others, but it represents her own inner spectres, and symbolises the male control she rejects.
A suitable spectre is not an easy book to pin down, but this just makes it more enjoyable. And if that’s not a good enough reason for you, how about that it offers an intelligent interrogation of past and future, of inner conflicts and outer challenges, through two vividly drawn, not-easy-to-forget characters?
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.
A superior spectre
Edgecliff: Ventura Press, 2018
(Review copy courtesy Ventura Press)