Dhaka, Bangladesh
An Essayist Searching for Alternate Worlds

An Essayist Searching for Alternate Worlds

Francis Spufford is a highly cultivated English writer who possesses vast stores of curiosity. A senior lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, he has written nonfiction books on such diverse topics as polar exploration ("I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination"), reading and character formation ("The Child That Books Built"), rocket science and computer technology ("Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin"), the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century ("Red Plenty"), the arguments for religious faith ("Unapologetic"), and a novel that takes place in 18th-century New York ("Golden Hill"). The present book, his first essay collection, is divided into sections, each of which focuses on a different interest. Though some pieces included here may have preceded the books they helped generate, many have been written after publication, in the spirit of authors frequently called upon to explain (or promote) their literary efforts. As such, they sometimes commence with a defensive note, Spufford being highly aware that his interests may not be shared by everyone. He is at pains to uncover the ineffable mystery under each area of investigation; and in doing so, he establishes many connecting themes tying the otherwise disparate sections together, giving the collection a cohesive character. His unifying perspective in "True Stories" is the virtue of imagination, and the search for alternate worlds or possibilities raised by counterfactual questions. Thus, in his opening section, eight essays on cold, he examines the records of various polar expeditions and celebrates Apsley Cherry-Garrard's travel masterpiece, "The Worst Journey in the World." He also deconstructs the imperialist and racist assumptions underneath many of the testimonies: "Considering Europeans' difficulty in confronting Inuit cultures, someone someday should write a modest northern counterpart to Said's 'Orientalism,' and perhaps call it 'Borealism.'" Having scraped away many of these projections, he is left to wonder about the continuing fascination, for him and he assumes for others, of Antarctica. He toys with Douglas Coupland's idea that the subconscious is "very much like Antarctica," or that there is an association, especially for writers, "between white snow and white paper." Beyond its function as a generator of metaphors, he muses, "what does it mean for us that we have, in our world, an uninhabited continent? What does it allow us to feel? First of all, I would argue, a sense of possibility, bare and abstract." Ultimately, he decides "Antarctica isn't part of the order of things constituted by human needs and uses and usefulness, but it is part of cosmic order (strike up the string section again), and therefore it and humanity, which is also part of cosmic order, belong together in some ultimate sense; they harmonize." A lot of verbal footwork goes into arriving at this conclusion: not sure what it means, but it clearly suits the author's worldview. In one long section, "Sacred," which comprises 12 essays on religion, he jousts with the atheists Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, analyzes the ways that novelists tackle faith in a secular age, reconsiders C. S. Lewis's books of apologetics, examines the commonalities of Islam and Christianity, and discusses how to talk to children about God. A practicing Christian whose wife is a parish priest, Spufford revisits the reasons for writing his book "Unapologetic," in which he found himself mounting "a defense of imagination as such … against a stupid positivism." In "Dear Atheists," he pretends to try to find common ground by arguing that "on both sides, we hold to positions for which by definition there cannot be any evidence." In any case, believers "don't spend that much time fixated on the question of God's existence either. Religion isn't a philosophical argument. … It is a structure of feeling, a house built of emotions." Losing patience with Dawkins - whose book "The God Delusion," he maintains, has "the power to make those who read it stupider," and who "knows a great deal about evolutionary biology and [expletive] about religion" - he warns believers against falling into the atheists' trap of disputing the age of dinosaur bones. "Apologetics, after all, is a literature of the imagination," he writes, implying that those who cannot go along with the religious script are lacking feeling and vision. Since the full truth, he asserts, is unobtainable, "knowing has limits," and "radical uncertainty holds," we may as well fill in the gaps with belief. This brings us very close to Pascal's wager. Many of the points Spufford makes against Dawkins are valid, but if he is right in saying atheist polemicists caricature religious faith, so does his condescending truculence toward atheists distort their argument. In the section "Red," he is on the hunt for another invisible or lost world: this time, the period from around 1957 to the mid-60s, when "something really did go right or go well, then, for the Soviet Union, which we're in danger now of tidying away." Perfectly willing to admit that "the Soviet Union was a horrible society" that killed millions of innocents, he yet yearns as a leftist to extract something valid from the socialist dream, and to avoid the skewed reading of history backward: "If we tell ourselves only a case-closed story of communism as an inevitable disaster, we miss other parts of the past's reality, and foreclose on the other stories it can tell us." Sensitive to the ways historical narratives can rub out the rough patches of reality, Spufford finally becomes disenchanted with nonfiction and embraces novel writing as a better vehicle for capturing ambiguity, ambivalence and contradiction. "Basically, I wanted to be awkward. I could take advantage of fiction's built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights." I see no reason nonfiction cannot be equally open to irresolution or awkwardness, and I certainly don't agree that fiction grants "a more responsible, therefore truthful, epistemology" by allowing for "a more unblurred line between real and not-real." But if a writer needs elaborate rationalizations for switching genres, by all means go right ahead. Spufford is an avid fan of science fiction, unsurprising given his keenness for alternate worlds. The last section in the book, "Printed," includes tributes to some of his favorite science fiction writers. The final test of an essay collection is stylistic. There are essayists who can take the most arcane or trifling subjects and make them enthralling. I am not sure that is the case here. Spufford's prose is always smooth, varying from decorous British formality (he was a professional book reviewer) to more casual conference-speaker diction. But it lacks idiosyncratic sparkle: I could have used a bit more humor and self-skepticism to balance out his enthusiastic advocacies, or a touch of intimacy to give us a clearer picture of the man behind the essays. At one point he startles by saying, "In fact, I'm not an especially nice person altogether - which is one reason why I need Christianity." It would have been desirable to see in what ways he is not nice; it might have added spice to the otherwise doggedly civilized, questing voice.

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