Surely if someone writes a novel which is gripping, bursting with ideas and evidently written by a skilled story-teller, these merits will guarantee it gets published right? Sadly the answer to that question is no. While we sometimes like to think of art as a lofty endeavour which transcends the mundane world of economics, this is simply not the case.
Take the world of publishing for example. In times of economic uncertainty, such as now, publishers become risk averse and understandably tend to stick to what they know will sell, rather than taking risks on unknown quantities. This means that those who do not conform to these models, such as unpublished and experimental authors, lose out. While it would be great if meritocracy reigned within publishing, unfortunately harsh economic realities render this unlikely.
As a result of comprehending this unpalatable reality I have become a haunted man. My dreams are filled with spectral libraries, vast purgatories of the unpublished. Translucent tomes taunt me with their intangibility, their spines unreadable and unknowable. How many great books have been denied to our culture due the current economic climate? To quote Joseph Brodsky, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” What then of those whose actions unwittingly prevent their publication and prevent even the possibility of reading them? Those bankers have a lot to answer for…Damn you Goldman Sachs!
Yet where pessimists like me see devastation and waste, there are those who are clear-sighted enough to realise that hundreds, perhaps even thousands of unpublished works of high quality floating about in the ether presents a real opportunity. Enter Red Button Publishing. I recently received an email from Red Button, a new digital imprint for fiction. The email inquired if I would like to review The Human Script by Johnny Rich. It also explained that Red Button was established by Caroline Goldsmith and Karen Ings, two people who have enjoyed successful careers in print publishing. Crucially the email also explained that Red Button were established to remedy the situation of conservative publishing due to economic factors by providing an outlet for talented authors who may have been overlooked. Excited by their innovative response to the current publishing climate I agreed to review The Human Script, but you guessed that already, I hope…
The Human Script tells the story of Chris Putnam, a rather introverted young research scientist who is working on the human working on the Human Genome project. Chris lives in London with his flat-mate Elsi, a perpetually stoned philosophy enthusiast who indulges, and engages with Chris’s existential dilemmas offering sympathy, tea, advice and an endless stream of joints. Emerging from mourning a lost relationship with his boyfriend Gill, Chris is just beginning to enjoy life again when he receives news of his estranged father’s death. Chris’s estrangement from his father stems from their disparate world views. Chris being gay, and more significantly an atheist inevitably disappointed his Calvinist father.
On returning to his hometown Dunmarrick for the funeral he encounters his twin brother Dan, a brash young British artist type who seems to be Chris’s polar opposite. Where Chris likes to avoid the limelight, Dan revels in it. Dan like any YBA worth his salt courts controversy, and seems to live by Oscar Wilde’s dictum, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” It is through Dan that Chris encounters Leo Martin, a young actor whose star is on the rise. Chris and Leo hit it off but unfortunately for the budding couple their liaison must be kept secret as gay leading men do not make good box office.
I must admit that I was a little dubious on encountering this cast of unlikely characters when I began reading the novel. A gay geneticist who lives with a philosopher flat mate, who has a remote Calvinist and a twin brother who is an artist and eventually dates a closeted movie star? The potential conflicts seemed to be too loudly signalled, it all seemed a little too contrived and well, novelistic.
But then something wonderful happened. As the novel unfolded I realised I’d been had. It was the author’s intent that the characters should appear that way to me. Like most readers who devour large amounts of fiction, I have developed the ability to anticipate narrative trajectories with reasonable success. Without divulging too much for fear of diminishing enjoyment of the story, Johnny Rich had duped me and I loved it. I finished the novel with a big stupid grin on my face.
I also enjoyed Rich’s writing on science and belief systems. By juxtaposing systems such as science, religion and even astrology, Rich uses them to explore ideas like pre-destination, probability and the human tendency toward narrative. His passages about DNA are beautifully lucid and informative, especially for those of us who are a little fuzzy about amino acids. I was also relieved that his take on religion is sympathetic, while not endorsing it neither does he succumb to ill-informed arguments against it.
Rich demonstrates that science or religion can be equally restrictive, with genetic determinism providing narratives not so far from ideas like Calvinistic pre-destination as it would like to believe. It’s not that I am overly religious myself; it’s just that I am tired of reductive materialists such as Richard Dawkins and his ilk spouting ill-informed nonsense about it. Rich’s sophistication in engaging with the matter refreshing.
The Human Script is an engaging novel brimming with ideas, so much so I feel it would stand up to multiple re readings within a short space of time. To say I enjoyed The Human Script would be an understatement. It provided me with the long forgotten thrill of not knowing how a novel will conclude, and for that I am grateful. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys clever, well written fiction.
I have included links below to Red Button’s website; I have also provided a link to an interview with the author on the Red Button site: