Thursday, 13 June 2013

James Smythe - The Testimony

James Smythe - The Testimony

Smythe's debut starts with an interesting, and deceptively simple, idea: what if something was heard by all people at the same time. The Broadcast, as it is referred to by the characters of the book occurs four times: once as static, then three times as an increasingly long (but powerful) message. Predictably, people go mental. Many think it is the word of God (or similar); others think that there must be a scientific explanation; some are simply baffled; others can't even hear The Broadcast.

I've read very few books told in mosaic style: in fact I can think of only three - Stand on Zanzibar, World War Z and this. For most part I'd guess this is because mosaic style (told from multiple, disparate points of view - in The Testimony's case upward of 20) is extremely difficult to pull off without, as one person I talked to recently put it, 'not having the time to feel for the characters'. For the most part, I'd argue that Smythe does well here: the main strands of the story arc concern characters of different persuasions and different levels of knowledge that allow for multiple perspectives of the unfolding tragedy, without deviating too much. Further, they are focused on to a level where we understand these characters as we would any primary or secondary character in a more traditionally styled book. However, there are character tht are seemingly baseless, or there to argue a single point. Instead of feeling for these people, they bog down the story, and I found myself wishing that their points of view would hurry up and be over.

A few characters baffled me further than this: a New Zealander biologist, for example, has three point of vie segments in the whole book. It is enough to tell us he's looking for a rare bird and one of them bites his friend/colleague and the friend/colleagues dies. That's it. That's the whole point of his segments. No conclusions to be drawn, no apotheosis to be had, simply an occurrence that we already know of in different guises (the swift deaths of people from seemingly minor ailments) from different character arcs.

I can see these as Smythe desperately trying to get perspectives on a global phenomenon from a global point of view, but here as well he doesn't succeed. Three of the most religiously zealous and/or unsettled areas of the world get no, or barely any, look in: South America, South East Asia and Africa. Africa has a minor character arc about a Congolese boy and some Danish travellers, and a South African drug dealer. The other two (comprising of the majority of the world's Catholic population, and significant proportion of the Muslim population as well) get no viewpoints at all. We are left, instead, with a curious middle ground: a book that, through its style, attempts a global outlook on a global problem, but, through its execution, gives only a Western viewpoint. Indeed, it is significant that the biggest points of view are those of the White House Chief of Staff and a Member of the British Parliament.

I would have liked to have seen Smythe tackle religious tensions in Indonesia, or Brazilian Catholicism at its peak; however, while the book is ostensibly about  a kind of religious apocalypse (with an environmental/scientific one shoehorned in for good measure), it casts a distinctly revisionist approach when dealing with it. Religion is consistently portrayed in a  negative light, from portrayals of Mormonism to the Church of the One True God. It is clear from the way Smythe handles the steadily encroaching waves of panic that sweep the world that his view on religion is a negative one: that it is indeed the Marxist people's opiate. From terrorist threats to the world order, to public uprisings in Moscow, to a parents outcast of her child, it is religion to blame. And when religion is given a platform to grow, the most devout of agnostics and atheists is shown to doubt in their heart, and give in to that doubt.

The plot itself is well done - the tension never slips, which, once more considering the style (which cannot be underplayed as a major - the major - feature of the Criticism of this novel), is both extremely difficult and extremely skilful on the part of the author. Not content with an apocalypse of sorts coming as a result of responses to the broadcast itself, Smythe further introduces a biological threat that ruins people's immune system, killing perhaps 1 in 7. While it is broadly hinted at the cause of this, the reader, much like the characters is left wondering whether this is true, or it has a deeper, more theological cause. No answers are truly given. No answers are really sought: instead the characters and the reader are much interested in the way people respond. The Testimony seems to ask a question, and instead of providing answers, runs away with the way people do the preliminary working-out. While the conclusion seemed a little too neat, and the book certainly loses momentum in the last third, it is well constructed and thought out.

Where character is done well, however, it is done very well. We feel great sympathy and feeling for the major viewpoint characters, up to and including an ultra-conservative American news anchor. The exploration of faith in those characters who have it is both interesting and well thought out, as much as it is in those who don't. There is a confidence to this early work of Smythe's that foreshadows the excellent The Explorer, his second book from Harper Collins. Told with broad brushstrokes, and a simplicity of language unconcerned with the stylist follies of conventional 'Literary Fiction', Smythe's voice itself tells us 'Do not be afraid'. Do not be afraid, because this is an author learning his craft in action, and while there are mistakes, there is also promise: a promise that appears to be being acted upon in more recent publications.

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