Of math prodigies and canine cosmonauts

'Habitus' mixes a dab of literary theory with a dose of the fantastic.


David Hudson
October 1, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

At various points throughout his disturbing, funny and exceedingly ambitious debut, James Flint's readers are bound to look up from the page and wonder, "How in the world is he ever going to pull all this together?"

"Habitus" is an unabashedly postmodern science fiction novel, drenched in theory, but with all the biting humor of Martin Amis. (It's not distributed in the United States, but it's available online from British booksellers such as Waterstone's.) It presents itself initially as a novel in the tradition of, say, Goethe's "Elective Affinities" or Richard Powers' "The Goldbug Variations." The author chooses a model (a chemical theory for Goethe, the double helix for Powers) -- some machine of science charged with both philosophical repercussions and narrative potential. Then he assigns a character to each of its components, gives them a shove and off they go to fulfill their destinies.

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Led by the right hands, this literary dance can be beautiful to behold. The variations on the theme, the subtle patterns within the overall structure, give the sterile model a unique life of its own.

Flint, a former technology journalist for Wired UK, mute and a handful of British newspapers, once traded a dissertation on chaos and complexity theory for an M.A. in philosophy and literature, so it's hardly a surprise that he's chosen a relatively abstract and obscure model for his story -- a Habitus. The concept is "explained" in an opening quotation from Gilles Deleuze, a name that raises another flag: The universe you are about to enter is not going to behave in an orderly or predictable fashion.

"The eye binds light, is itself a bound light," writes Deleuze. "This binding is a reproductive synthesis, a Habitus." Got that? Fortunately, Flint's epic casting of the idea is much more entertaining. He begins with a bit of blatant semaphore, introducing three main characters -- all of whose names, like his own, begin with the letter J.

Joel Kluge is a Hasidic Jew and a mathematics prodigy (klug, by the way, means "clever" in German); for his family, however, he's a problem. Flint's setup for Joel is a classic heart-tugger. He knows the reader will pull for Joel as he devises his escape from his father's Brooklyn bakery to Cambridge, where the equations of Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, Whitehead and Wittgenstein once cross-fertilized, spurred and inspired each other. But Flint pulls off an emotional double whammy once Joel's explorations in abstract mathematical theory lead him back to the roots of the kabbalistic tradition. Even geniuses get homesick.

Judd Axelrod, son of an English actress and an outrageously successful American computer salesman, is yanked from his beloved Los Angeles and plopped down in Stratford-upon-Avon, where his mother has nailed a gig with the Royal Shakespeare Company. As lonely boys are wont to do, he falls in with the wrong crowd, gets into trouble and is yanked right back to L.A. There, he's sentenced to spend his after-school hours with Dr. Schemata, a veritable caricature of all that's rotten about psychoanalysis. Judd is a victim of parental neglect, a strange condition called picnolepsy and the evil doctor -- so it isn't difficult at all for Flint to secure a bit of emotional investment in poor Judd from the reader.

Jennifer Several is the product of a gangbang in a mental hospital. Not long after Jennifer is born, her mother undergoes Britain's last prefrontal lobotomy, so Jennifer never meets her. But she has her mother's husband to care for her -- until he begins to disintegrate into drink. Again, sympathy for Jennifer is all too easy to conjure up.

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With all this emotional attachment taking place, some readers may become frustrated or even angry when the narrative and the very laws of nature slowly unravel -- and the fates met by our three protagonists turn out to be neither tragic nor comic but just plain bizarre. But it wouldn't be as if these readers hadn't been warned.

Orbiting the terrestrial goings-on is Laika -- the legendary, historic, first dog in space, blasted out there by the Soviets and abandoned. She was expected to live seven days at the most, but many artists can't forget her. Songs have been written for her, and just last month, a performance in Munich sent messages floating skyward in the hopes that she'd receive them.

Flint, too, takes liberties with her story: He stuffs her with media. Like Carl Sagan, Flint seems embarrassed for our species' habit of airing our dirty laundry to the rest of the universe by hanging it out on infinite broadcast waves. Laika is tuned in to it all. She feeds on it, and it bloats her body until she fills every nook and cranny of her tiny capsule -- eventually, she becomes a sort of orbiting cyborg potato.

By the time Joel, Judd and Jennifer collectively conceive a single child, all bets are off. Up to this point, several turns in the story have been preceded by concise two- or three-page lessons taken from the histories of space flight and computers. Sputnik and John Glenn, Alan Turing and Charles Babbage -- they're all here, distantly related to our cast of characters yet grounding the fiction in verifiable fact.

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But then these lessons begin to describe the development of a telepathic embryo with two hearts throughout a pregnancy that lasts two full years; the expression of a lizard that appears in the pattern of the throws of the dice; and the reasoning behind Joel's conviction that, given enough data, he could eventually explain the Holocaust.

Can Flint pull it all together again? Here's where another Deleuzian concept comes in handy: the rhizome, essentially an organic system of roots with a French philosophical twist. Jennifer's mother is committed to the mental hospital in the first place because she's become convinced she's a tree. There's a tree at the end of Flint's tale, too, the only image that could be said to come around full circle. On the whole, however, the book matches its description of the impossible child:

"The girl turned towards her and for a second Jennifer was shocked by the face. She had never known it, except in fragments, and here it was complete and flooded with light. It was a face of exquisite ugliness, a face which broke every rule of proportion but so subtly that the effect was quite disarming. It lacked symmetry ..."

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And so does a tree. Without being too reductive, the story pulls Joel, Judd and Jennifer from their disparate roots toward a center -- where they never quite align as expected -- just before they're flung away from each other again. As the title of one of the briefest sections has it, "The world has ideas of its own."

All this would be mere fodder for yet another dissertation if Flint weren't such a damn fine writer. His relentlessly dark humor and startling juxtapositions; the occasional sweeping passages that read more like prose poems than establishing shots or descriptions of the scenery; and the near overabundance of wild, wild ideas -- all of these make "Habitus" a marvelously provocative read.


David Hudson

David Hudson writes the English-language News Digest for Spiegel Online.

MORE FROM David Hudson

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