Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Stamping Butterflies by Tom Pollock
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
If there's one near-unforgivable to use cliché when reviewing, it's the phrase "Human Condition". Saying a book is "about The Human Condition (TM)" is a pointless, spineless vacuity, effectively tantamount to saying "This book has people in it". So I'm not going to use it.
Instead, I'll say this: Stamping Butterflies (2004) is about the Human Conditions, about the circumstances in which we become, and cease to be, people.
In Jon Courtenay Grimwood's mind-bending and heart-breaking reaction to the post-9/11 stomping of individual rights by western governments, three stories are threaded together. In 1970s Marrakech, a young poor boy comes of age, discovers sex, drugs, punk music, maths and other good things, and then has his innocence painfully chewed up by the security apparatus that rules the red city.
In the present day, an anonymous tramp makes an inept attempt on the life of the President. While the world's media looks on, he is convicted in absentia by a military court, tortured and sentenced to death, even as he displays signs of epoch-making genius. Finally, in a far-future distant world, a young emperor, trapped by the constant scrutiny of the hundred-and-fifty odd billion citizens of his demesne, awaits the assassin who will free him.
Fair warning up front: the mechanisms of spooky action at a distance that draw these strands together and give the plot resolution remain pretty mysterious - even at the end of the book. But that's okay, because satisfaction in this kind of novel doesn't come from tracking the precise intricacies of the plot, it comes from rich atmospheres and glass-cutter sharp characterisation. Also, in the particular case of Stamping Butterflies, (and this is hardly surprising in a book this political) the themes do a great deal of the heavy lifting. One such is the impact of mass-scrutiny, not only on who we are, but also on what. Prisoner Zero, our hapless modern-day assassin, is fitted out for a variety of identities as the US government and world media race to work out who he is. Is he an Arab or a Englishman? An Islamic extremist or a troubled former rock star? His identity seems to wobble according to who's looking, and - depending on what narrative he's being fitted out for - so does the extent to which he's treated as human at all. It's a stark look at the absurdity and unfairness of this sort of Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum humanity, where the eye of the beholder decides if you deserve to avoid being tortured or not.
This theme is further explored in the far-future strand where our young emperor (himself the subject of unimaginable scrutiny) refuses to acknowledge the reality of the people he deals with, and so finds himself engaging in a series of ever more inhuman acts. This isn't a "message" book, and it's far from didactic, but still, it's easy to land upon one interpretation of these interwoven stories: What makes you human, Stamping Butterflies seems to say, is not how other people see you, it's how you see other people.
This theme of questioned and questionable humanity fits nicely on top of one of Mr. Grimwood's perennial obsessions – personal identity. There's the overt mystery of Prisoner Zero, with psychiatrists and soldiers and secret agents, not to mention the reader, working to piece together clues to his past. Moreover, he and the far-future emperor who mirrors him often seem to be mysteries to themselves. Both, to one extent or another, listen to voices that no-one else can hear, and both struggle to connect themselves to who they used to be. The temporal aspect is key here: the novel is full of people attempting to suture their memories into a consistent story of a person, and the times when they encounter fragments of their past (photos, posters, a sibling or an old friend) are amongst its most traumatic moments.
The overall concern with person-hood runs beyond the ethical and temporal and into the physical. The writing is thoroughly occupied with bodies. Remember the six requirements for life we learned in Year 9 biology? They're all here. The first five requirements: food, movement, excrement, breathing, and sex are all included herein. The last is especially striking. There's quite a lot of sex in this book, and (it may be personal taste this I grant) but it's very well done: balancing the physical with the emotional and vice-versa, and always serving to progress the characters. Some of the scenes actually wind up being pretty hot.
A novel this much about peopleness needs great characters to give it emotional bite, and Mr. Grimwood delivers. Stamping Butterflies contains some of his best characterization, which, for anyone who's read the Arabesk sequence, is saying something. Pretty much all the people in this book, especially Marrakechi street-kids Moz and Malika, are touching, complex and flawed. What's more, they exhibit the sixth and most important characteristic of life: they respond to stimuli. They evolve, like real people, changing without ever losing the sense of being the same personality, arrayed against a panoply of vividly evoked settings, from North African slums to Interstellar Yachts.
Stamping Butterflies is a gorgeously fractal novel. The closer you look at it, the more it unpacks itself. But it stays rooted in its people and never gets lost in its own cleverness. If the novel has a weakness, it is perhaps that the ending arrives a bit too suddenly and mysteriously, and it's true that if you're looking for razor-edged plot resolution, this might not be what you're after. If, however, you're looking to be moved, fascinated and stretched, look no further.
Tom Pollock is a shameless prevaricator who invents monsters and may once have gotten into trouble for blinding a US spy satellite with the glare from his shiny, shiny head. His debut YA Fantasy, The City's Son, is coming in June from Quercus. He (fair warning) puns a lot on twitter at @tomhpollock.