Friday, October 7, 2016

Review: The Sudden Appearance of Hope

The Sudden Appearance of Hope The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hope Arden has inside-out-amnesia. That is, while she can remember the world, the world forgets her. Her photographs remain, and she can leave a trace in documents and on the internet. But, if you have an interaction with her, you’ll forget her and your actions alongside her.

On the one hand, it gives her what one character insistently describes as the ultimate freedom, the endless capacity to reinvent herself. Without a past, without the capacity to leave a mark on the world around her, she can do things the rest of us could never imagine. She is, for instance, a superb thief. She can pick up an item in plain view, duck behind a corner for a few seconds, and walk back again, forgotten and unsuspected. She also proves to be an unparalleled investigator, someone who can interrogate a particular witness, get a piece of the story, and then come back a minute later to start the interrogation again using those new bits to leverage out harder to find ones.

More broadly, though, Hope experiences her condition as a curse. It hurts when her own parents forget her, at first selling her things because they don’t recognize them as hers and later losing all sense that they had a second child. And she has no capacity to fall in love, to form friendships, or to live in community. She is a constant newcomer, someone who, having no past as far as the world is concerned, effectively has no future. She is a perpetual observer rather than someone who is fully alive.

That premise is provocative in its own right, and “Claire North” (apparently it’s a pseudonym) is a gifted enough writer to sense what she has. Claire’s condition becomes a stepping-off point for reflecting on what it means to be human. Who are we if we cannot leave a lasting mark on the world around us? To what degree are we, or should we, be shaped by group and social pressures?

It takes a while for the central conflict to become fully clear – North is very skilled, here and in the even a little better The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and she shows her hand slowly – but Hope is both attracted to and horrified by a Scientology-like app call Perfection. The app works by encouraging consumers to make “healthy choices” – like eating well, working out, buying flattering clothes, and being seen with other out-to-be-perfect people – and it rewards its top-tier participants with “programming,” eventually revealed to be surgery that alters their personality.

The result of such engineering is a cadre of bland movie-star types, people whom the world seems to value but who appear to Hope (and to a couple other key characters) as soul-less. They have, in other words, forgotten their true selves in favor of the marketed, packaged identity of corporate America.

And there you have the central conflict of the novel: at one extreme a woman incapable of experiencing community and its pressures and, at the other, a process that amplifies a false sense of community over all other types of identity.

This is, in other words, a philosophical novel disguised as sci-fi/fantasy. Or maybe that’s what sci-fi/fantasy should always aspire to. It’s just rarely this good.

Further complicating the scenario here, Hope is a Black woman of Muslim descent. She is, after Ralph Ellison (who shows us how the Black man is, in some crucial ways, invisible in white America), or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (who give us the Fantastic Four’s Invisible girl), or even a host of very contemporary political voices who insist that all Muslims are subsumed under the identity of their faith, just the type to be made invisible. As a consequence, North is after something not just philosophical but topical as well.

All those conflicts get subsumed within a story that is still a pretty good story. I’ve said enough already without getting into the other characters who, while not remembering Hope, do come to understand that she exists and develop relationships with her by leaving themselves notes about their interactions. Those characters develop different feelings about the nature of her invisibility and the potential for Perfection to perfect or destroy the world. And they work at cross purposes to safeguard or sabotage the app.

I do think this one could have worked just as well if it were a good shot shorter, but North writes so well that it’s hardly a complaint. I’m happy to be lost in her work and her worlds. She has the capacity, like no one else I can think of at this scale, to change one fundamental premise of human identity and then to measure the implications of that change with unwavering insight. I am very much looking forward to whatever she does next. She writes novels that ought to be written.

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