Books: A space dog's view of human chaos

David Papineau is blasted into orbit with a debut novel of soaring ambition; Habitus by James Flint Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99/pounds 10.99, 480pp

A habitus, James Flint tells us, is a reproductive synthesis, a binding of energy to create some natural effect. Puzzled? This bit doesn't get any better. Flint's unslim first novel is packed with incidental pleasures, but the central motif remains obscure to the end. It is something to do with the space race, the digital revolution, and a higher plane of consciousness that may be coming, 2001 style, but don't ask me more than that.

On the surface the novel is a saga of three characters. Joel Kluge, the genius child of Hassidic Jews, flees from Brooklyn to the rarefied mathematical air of the huge particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva. Jennifer Several, sired by a warders' gang-bang out of a mental patient, grows up as a middle-class bad girl in suburban Stratford. Judd Axelrod is the half- black son of a Hollywood star and an IBM executive, who escapes his child analyst for a life of communion with the dice in casinos.

A sequence of devices enables Jennifer to become jointly impregnated by both boys. The child has three sets of DNA, two hearts, a gaggle of split personalities, and some cryptic powers which promise to lead to higher things. All this is watched by Laika, the first space dog, whose intellect has been expanding since 1957 as her body has been merging with her capsule's machinery.

Despite the competition from Laika, Joel is by far the smartest of these personae, with cosmic theories of his own. He believes the universe is striving to return to its original Kabbalistic perfection, and aims to prove it by locating eddies within the flux of randomness. Inspired by a lecture on chaos theory, Joel constructs a pioneering microcomputer to compute the trajectory of roulette balls, from which he gains both a source of income and a bank of data against which to test his theories.

It is not clear how far Joel's thoughts are shared by his author, but in any case it would be a pity if anybody took them too seriously. Chaos theory is of no help in making precise predictions about single spins of roulette wheels. And even if you could make them, this wouldn't tell you anything about eddies within randomness, precisely because the predictions would focus on single events rather than probabilistic patterns.

Still, it is unfair to break Flint's butterfly of chaos theory on the wheel of literalness. Yearnings for transcendence are difficult to articulate, and there is no reason why that should be any different in a technological mode. Indeed, it is to Flint's credit that the ineffability of his ambitions never infects the precision of his highly-charged prose. We can always see what he is trying to say, even if we don't always understand why.

The cosmic stuff only takes up a small part of the book. Interspersed with the narrative are plenty of jokes, shaggy-dog stories, and snippets of historical and scientific information. Flint writes throughout with the ring of authority. Even so, there is an extra density to the scenes set in Stratford, his home town.

Sometimes, it seems as if there is a thin rite-of-passage novel struggling to get out of this expansive cyberbook. But it would be a pity if Flint trimmed his ambitions, for he is certainly capable of more. In the last paragraph he describes the orbiting space dog, as she under goes some final metamorphosis, as "a motor-cycle rider on gravity's grim wall of death ... a hopeless god, a lost cause, a blind harbour-master, a crazed midwife, a corrupted disk, a mongrel pup". Flint can churn out this kind of skywriting by the yard. The next trick will be to find something useful to do with it.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas