Monday, 22 April 2013

Book Review | The Machine by James Smythe

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Beth lives alone on a desolate housing estate near the sea. She came here to rebuild her life following her husband’s return from the war. His memories haunted him but a machine promised salvation. It could record memories, preserving a life that existed before the nightmares.

Now the machines are gone. The government declared them too controversial, the side-effects too harmful. But within Beth’s flat is an ever-whirring black box. She knows that memories can be put back, that she can rebuild her husband piece by piece.

A Frankenstein tale for the 21st century, The Machine is a story of the indelibility of memory, the human cost of science and the horrors of love.


Accidents... happen. Would that they didn't, but they do, and that's the truth.

Every day, mistakes are made—by every one of us, I warrant. Consequences follow; and often, they're awful, if not absolutely abhorrent. But in time, however hard the hardship, we come to see that what will be will be. After the fact, what torments us is the memory of what was, and is no longer; or the thought of things we would do differently, if only we could go back in time, with the benefit of hindsight on our side.

Of course we can't. That's not how the world works. The past is set in stone, and wishing we could change it won't get us anywhere. Regret, from a logical perspective, is entirely ineffective. That said, there's no getting away from it, is there? And it hurts just the same, even if it's meaningless.

But imagine there was a machine... a machine that could take the pain away, by meddling with your memories. Would you use it? And if you were to, what would you lose?

These questions get to the essence of those that have been playing on Beth's mind at the beginning of James Smythe's devastating new novel:

"She's thought about it, sometimes: as she's tried to get to sleep, lying in bed, thinking about how easy it would be to wear a Crown, to press the buttons and to talk about Vic and herself, and their old life together. To talk her way through everything that she's lost. To press the PURGE button and feel it all drift away. Vic used to say that it felt like when you take painkillers for a wound. He said that they gave him heavy stuff after the IED went off and put its shrapnel in his shoulder and his neck, and once he'd popped them there was a sense that it had once hurt, but that it was like an echo of the pain was all that was left, or the memory of the pain. Like it's been rubbed hard and then left alone. That's what the Machine did." (p.17)

Or rather, that's what the Machine was supposed to do. In practice, it broke its impossible promises. It took people like Vic—men and women who were damaged or disturbed in some way, as Vic was when he came home from the war to his woebegone wife—and extracted from them their most terrible memories; those that certain specialists decided had caused whatever trauma.

Predictably, perhaps, it didn't work. Certainly not like the Technicolor promotions promised. Instead, the Machine left a great many of those souls who used it lost, "like coma patients." Now, there's such a number of them that they've been cruelly christened the vacant, because "there's nothing inside them. They might look the same, they might smell the same, but they're different. The person that they were is gone. [...] So what's left?" (p.65)

Only a signature of sorts:

"The Machine, filling in the gaps with things that didn't stick, stories of its own creation to cover up the cracks. And what makes her think that it will be so different this time? Because the stories are Vic? From his own mouth, 100 per cent pure and unfiltered, every part of his life spilled on to digital tape? She doubts herself. She doubts the Machine." (p.123)

But what else does Beth have left?

These doubts discomfit her, but for better or for worse—what do you think?—Beth has already made her decision. From the very outset of this nightmarish tale, she systematically puts into action the plan she's dreamed of since the day the Machine took her husband away: she's going to evict Vic from the care home he's been wasting away in, and simply rebuild him, memory by individual memory... using a treasure trove of precious audio recordings, untested equipment bought at an exorbitant cost from an anonymous seller, and advice from the internet.

Easy to see where she might have gone wrong, isn't it?

Precise and provocative, The Machine is a powerful parable about memory and regret which grips from the get-go and refuses to let you loose until after its horrendous ending. Like The Explorer before it, it's a spare story—so short and sharp that it cuts into one like a blade through butter—that you'll have a hard time forgetting.

The narrative, for instance, is simple, yet insidious. Smythe divides it into three parts, each of which unfolds from Beth's relentless perspective. Before the treatment, there is hope: we glimpse light at the end of the tunnel, albeit fleetingly. But the path to that point is long and dark; accordingly, things get a tad desperate amidst the middle third, which chronicles the hasty recreation of poor, vacant Vic via the machine. After the treatment, at the last, it all starts to come apart—just as these characters should be coming together—when the walls Beth has built, brick by deliberate brick, are exploded. A terrific trick.

To his credit, Smythe isn't content to mess around, ever. He pursues the dreadful descent that awaits at the end of this novel doggedly, barreling headlong towards unconscionable horror—horror that the reader feels from early on, though we do not know what shape or state it will take until it is upon us, teeth bared and bloody like a beast from the deep.

Yet inevitably, it is no such thing. The horror of The Machine, despite its title, is all too human. Beth has been playing god. Giving life (and taking what remains away) when she has no business interfering with a man's mind—as her only friend takes perverse pleasure reminding her. But we are set against this self-righteous specimen, even as the depths of Beth's complicity are made plain, because our entire experience arises from her perspective. We have found shelter inside her head, as she has herself in a sense. We feel, finally, the same as she: the same terror, the same guilt. Her dreams and her doubts alike are ours, and this gives The Machine great power.

It's a morality play, in a way: a Frankenstein story for the 21st century, as the publicity puts it. But truer words have rarely been printed on a press release. The Machine is a phenomenal novel from the first, and this impression only grows as it goes, gathering gradually in advance of a finale which leaves the reader reeling, as if from a boxer's blow.

I have long thought of Adam Roberts as Britain's most overlooked genre author, but between The Testimony, The Explorer and The Machine—three tremendous texts published in quick succession—James Smythe has almost supplanted said in my estimation. Harrowing as it is, his latest is simply unmissable.


The Machine
by James Smythe

UK Publication: April 2013, Blue Door

Buy this book from / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

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