Thursday, 16 May 2013

Book Review | The Humans by Matt Haig

It's hardest to belong when you're closest to home...

One wet Friday evening, Professor Andrew Martin of Cambridge University solves the world's greatest mathematical riddle. Then he disappears.

When he is found walking naked along the motorway, Professor Martin seems different. Besides the lack of clothes, he now finds normal life pointless. His loving wife and teenage son seem repulsive to him. In fact, he hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton. And he's a dog.

Can a bit of Debussy and Emily Dickinson keep him from murder? Can the species which invented cheap white wine and peanut butter sandwiches be all that bad? And what is the warm feeling he gets when he looks into his wife's eyes?


You ask me, we spend an inordinate amount of our lives wondering what the meaning of life might be.

Yes, it's a crucial question, and I'm as ready as the next person to find the answer at last. But I do wonder if we aren't wasting our time thinking along these lines, because the meaning of life must be different for every living thing. Better to ask, instead, what it means to be human; to consider what makes us different from the primates we were, and everything else on Earth in turn.

Being human is all we know, of course, so it's hard to tell... to guess what sets us apart from (if not necessarily above) all creatures great and small. Love is a lovely answer, but other animals clearly have that capacity. Our ability to appreciate beauty is another easy idea, but who can say with anything resembling certainty that sheep aren't also in awe of this wonderful world?

Feel free to disagree, but I've seen them staring... sheep with eyes that could burn holes in souls.

I may be in no position to unpick these mysteries, yet I'd suggest that a large part what makes us us is our eternal quest to discover thus. That wondering what it means to be human, as Matt Haig does in his first narrative since The Radleys, may indeed be what makes the human experience unique.
"This book, this actual book, is set right here, on Earth. It is about the meaning of life and nothing at all. It is about what it takes to kill somebody, and save them. It is about love and dead poets and wholenut peanut butter. It's about matter and anti-matter, everything and nothing, hope and hate. It's about a forty-one-year-old female historian called Isobel and her fifteen-year-old son called Gulliver and the cleverest mathematician in the world. It is, in short, about how to become a human. 
"But let me state the obvious. I was not one." (p.3)
So begins The Humans. With an unnamed alien invader assuming the identity of Professor Andrew Martin, a mathematician whose study of prime numbers has attracted the unwelcome attention of a faraway race in possession of intellect and technology leaps and bounds beyond our own.

That said, the doppelganger—who we'll call Professor Andrew Martin for the sake of simplicity—still spends the first 50 pages of Haig's latest butt-naked and bingeing on stolen Pringles. He doesn't even get away with his ill-gotten gains: when he refuses to reveal his reasons, knowing that ignorance of human culture and customs is the very sort of excuse that'll land him in an insane asylum, the police arrest him with their usual elegance. Which would be no big thing, except Martin isn't simply visiting. He has work to do.

He's been embedded, we learn, because the Professor—before he was summarily replaced by an alien—made a discovery that could potentially change everything: he solved the Riemann Hypothesis; acquired a mathematical formula others have decided we lack the enlightenment to wield wisely. Martin himself is no longer a problem, obviously, but what about his family? What do they know? What then about his friends, and his colleagues at Cambridge? The visitors do not want to wipe us all out, but they need this knowledge—in whatever form—gone.
"Where we are from there is no love and no hate. There is the purity of reason. 
"Where we are from there are no crimes of passion because there is no passion. 
"Where we are from there is no remorse because action has a logical motive and always results in the best outcome for the given situation. 
"Where we are from there are no names, no families living together, no husbands and wives, no sulky teenagers, no madness. 
"Where we are from we have solved the problem of fear because we have solved the problem of death. We will not die. Which means we can't just let the universe do what it wants to do, because we will be inside it for eternity." (p.95)
Easier said than done, I dare say. Because in order to determine the extent of humanity's exposure to the aforementioned forbidden fruit, the replacement Professor will have to figure out what makes people tick... but in trying to pass for a person, he basically becomes one. And as a person, he starts to question his mission, which is to destroy everything that could lead back to the problematic primes, and everyone—up to and including Martin's wife and son.

Though its specifics are assuredly absurd, The Humans' general premise is if anything all too human. Born, as the author acknowledges in an inspiring afterword, from a "dark well" of depressive tendencies, Haig's latest examines a fear I warrant we've all felt to a greater or lesser extent: the thought that we are alone in the world; that what makes us who we are also serves to makes us unlike anyone else.

Then again, no-one in the milieu of The Humans is more set apart from humanity than an assassin from another planet, and even he finds something to hold on to—something vibrant and violent that describes what makes each of our lives worthwhile. He develops feelings for the family he has accidentally inherited: for Isobel, Martin's long-suffering love, and Gulliver, their teenage tearaway.

I had a harder time caring for these puny humans than I ever did our extra-terrestrial narrator, I'm afraid. The Professor's wife and child fill their roles, but little more. Right down to their quirks, they're just too typical to buy into entirely. In all honesty I was more interested in Newton—a markedly more convincing character, also a dog.

Martin, however, develops in a very real way, going from the unwitting idiot at the heart of the first act's protracted farce to a sinister figure before becoming a real boy before our eyes, and taking on all the good and bad that decision denotes. His speech patterns may be stilted, his emotional awareness basic at best, yet his outsider's perspective gives him a refreshing lack of expectations. With "no reference points [and no notion] of how things were, at least here," (p.59) some of the insights resulting are remarkable.

Contemplating a Mars bars, he concludes that "This was [...] a planet of things wrapped inside things. Food inside wrappers. Bodies inside clothes. Contempt inside smiles. Everything was hidden away." (p.13) Later on, courtesy a copy of Cosmopolitan, he ruminates about belief:
"Even before I had fully discovered the concepts of astrology, homeopathy, organised religion and probiotic yoghurts I was able to work out that what humans may have lacked in physical attractiveness, they made up for in gullibility. You could tell them anything in a convincing enough voice and they would believe it. Anything, of course, except the truth." (p.87)
The Humans is as serious a story as it is endearing, as ordinary as it appears aberrant. It's thoughtful rather than provocative, funnier than anything else I've read in 2013, and truly touching, ultimately. The introductory silliness goes on a little long, and I do wish Matt Haig had invested more meaningfully in a number of the narrative's more contrived characters, but in every other respect this is a book that will remind you of what it means to be human.

And that's a beautiful thing, I think.


The Humans
by Matt Haig

UK Publication: May 2013, Canongate
US Publication: July 2013, Simon & Schuster

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