Books: A plunge into loopholes between Logic and Life

Novel? Encyclopaedia? How-to manual? Liz Jensen gets mixed messages; The Great Ideas by Suzanne Cleminshaw Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99, 312pp
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SET AMID the hissing summer lawns of Ohio's narcotic suburbs, The Great Ideas - so bursting with information that it requires an index - is an oddity. The literary equivalent of a genetically modified vegetable - a fluorescent parsnip, or an aubergine with hyena DNA - it has a format all of its own. Is it a novel, or a mini-reference library? Would it biodegrade? Might it even be edible?

"Since I have basically lost the plot" explains Haddie, the book's 13- year-old heroine, "I've decided the way to find it is to start at the beginning and follow the time-line of hard facts to the end... If I can see what is on the road ahead of and behind me, then maybe I'll stop tripping over the huge loopholes between Logic and Life."

Hazard warning: Important Thoughts, junior eggheads and encyclopaedia entries ahead. For Haddie is a teenager like no other. Her first crush was on a monk in an El Greco painting, her grandmother is a Buddhist who performs tea ceremonies, and her soul-mate Louis Lewis dissects squirrels' brains, lusts after his mother, and speaks in elegant sentences laden with adjectives.

No wonder Haddie has sought refuge in books. The result is that her tale is not so much a story as an encrustation of information (how to fight a bull, how to levitate, how to find your way out of a maze), bite-sized chunks of philosophy, girly lists (glamorous deaths, bad luck superstitions, etiquette), and scientific theorems of the genre "If a hole were drilled through the centre of the earth and you were thrown into it, you would fall faster and faster, reaching a speed of 18,000 miles per hour."

Like any eccentric collection, it's something to savour in small chunks rather than devour whole. Cleminshaw's language is pure joy, and the pages fizz with energy, digressions and aphorisms. But the quirky trains of thought and stylistic frolics begin to pall, and you realise - with an aching regret - that there's no real substitute for narrative drive.

The more the book freights itself with notes on Aristotle, paradox, photosynthesis and the haiku, the more you long for it to take you somewhere big. Instead, it settles for a small home-town mystery.

Haddie had a sister, also called Haddie, who was killed in a fall at 13 while Haddie Two was still an embryo. Now, left in the care of the lax housekeeper Leonora, Haddie and her Franco-American buddy Louis begin a forensic observation of the house where Haddie One met her mysterious death. It is now inhabited by a bachelor whom Haddie discovers was once a famous astronaut. When he becomes involved with Louis' French mother, who runs a Charm School, history threatens to re-enact itself. In a short, blurted confession, a climax of sorts is attained.

If the book is narratively disappointing, it is the fault of its heroine, whose pathologically inquiring mind ends up irritating as much as it delights. This is all the more tragic because, when Cleminshaw allows her characters to stop thinking and start doing, she can turn out hilarious, gloriously-written and brilliantly-executed scenes. When Leonora drags Haddie and Louis to an evangelical church and Louis sabotages the happy-clappy service on prime-time TV by claiming to be Jesus, the book sprouts wings and flies Heavenward. But such departures are short-lived, and it remains tethered to earth by the encyclopaedic ball and chain of Haddie's acquisitional brain.

Cleminshaw is clearly capable of marvellous things, but in this novel they lurk tantalisingly beyond a smokescreen of Great Ideas. As Haddie herself might remark, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Liz Jensen's `Ark Baby' is published by Bloomsbury