I happened to have been reading Frank van Dun’s novel In the Shadow of the Prodigy (2015) during the week of the United States Supreme Court’s latest trespass into the constitutional domain of law-making, formerly reserved to the legislative branch. The same week saw several new instances of Islamic savagery – in France and Algeria – and the collapse of the Greek economy. It is difficult to say whether these events colored my assessment of van Dun’s prose or the other way around. I have been carrying a knot in my stomach for days; my brow has been creased. One way or another, In the Shadow of the Prodigy is a book for our time, breaking up the white dazzle of overlapping crises that constitutes the contemporary scene into the refracted strands of its elementary colors. Van Dun’s story is a mystery, so I will be calling attention to it in such a way as not to divulge too many of its plot-points.
In the Shadow of the Prodigy narrates the collision of naivety with evil. The novel’s various manifestations of evil appear banal but are no less wicked for their disarming appearances. Indeed, as van Dun sees things, contemporary shoddiness and a fixation on fractional low stakes belong to the prevailing corruption. The vileness that drives men and women to wanton deeds is as paltry in its objects as the evil that springs from their wantonness is banal. Van Dun sets his action twenty-one years ago, in 1994, on the verge of that epochal event, the Internet, which serves the author for one of his chief symbols – a creeping multi-tentacular but invisible monstrosity that ensnares the multitudes of the unwary. The tale’s protagonist, Michael Paradine, a young Englishman in his late twenties, has recently earned a doctorate in history. He copes with underemployment in the part-time outer orbits of the academic solar system, while he searches, without much commitment, for an adult station in accord with his curriculum vitae. One of his assignments, which he hopes will gain him advantage with potential employers, entails researching and writing a book about a business concern on commission from its proprietor and CEO. It is never entirely clear in what the enterprise of the Overton Group consists. Is it banking, insurance, commerce, manufacture? It little matters because the topic is boring; it is unmotivated. The book will likely go unread, as a young woman, not quite Paradine’s girlfriend, says to him.
Everything, really, is boring. Paradine (van Dun tells his story in the central persona’s grammatical perspective) describes an academic conference on “commerce in the lowlands in the nineteenth century” that he attends in Antwerp as “tedious beyond compare.” Paradine’s work at the Hallamy Institute for Industrial Studies in London strikes the reader likewise as jejune – checking the bibliographical references in other people’s manuscript articles for the scholarly journals in the field, so that they correspond to the style book, and undertaking a bit of correspondence. When a prospective supervisor enumerates the duties inherent to the opening at the Maritime Policy Studies Centre, for which Paradine considers applying, it sounds equally soul-killing: “Your job would consist of maintaining and expanding our contacts with universities, other research institutes, and especially with economists, political scientists and historians working on ports, shipping, and trade and industry in so far as they are relevant to our main focus.” This is the kind of office to which modern university graduates aspire.
Paradine finds a more attractive possibility in remote Wainock, some hours north of London on the back roads whither he has gone to interview someone who might know something pertinent to a chapter of his not-yet-completed book. The Edward Lyme estate is looking out for an archivist even though as yet “officially there’s still no vacancy.” Paradine agrees to undertake a survey of the archives, to demonstrate both his interest and his bona fides. On his first attempt, the errand proves impossible. The cellar in which the musty documents reside, uncatalogued, is too dark and cold for anything to be done. Electricity has to be brought in and heaters installed. Paradine surveys the situation with some dismay: “Large dusty cardboard boxes” abound; these are the “archives.” Beyond the mess of decaying memos and reports, “All I could discern was loads of rubble, fragments of floorboards and plinths, smashed-up furniture, some kegs and a large number of wooden crates,” as Paradine reports. He perseveres because he thinks that acquitting himself well belongs to his sponsor’s plan “to get me the job.” As it turns out, selecting a new employee is a contest of self-assertion between the Estate, its associated polytechnic college, and the local town council, which partly funds these odd and pointless undertakings. No one associated with these institutions is ever candid with Paradine, who, however, takes the vagueness of the procedure – the half-promises and elaborate demurrers – as belonging to the natural order of things.
Paradine makes personal as well as professional connections in Wainock. Indeed, he falls in love with Sarah Jones, the daughter of Ralph Jones, longtime friend of Alfred Hirsch, who is the probable “prodigy” of van Dun’s title. (Another candidate is the Internet itself with all its sinister implications.) Astute readers will expect the worst when van Dun gives the Jones residence the name “Muirwenny House.” The first element of the name reverses the parts of the Elizabethan term Whinny-Muir, a type of Purgatory through which the soul of the deceased must pass on its way to any better destination. (See the famous “Lyke-Wake Dirge.”) Wainock is mostly moor and marshland, reminiscent of the Wiltshire vale in V.S. Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival (1987) or the Cainsmarsh of H. G. Wells’ Croquet Player (1937). Sarah is an ingénue, sweet and attractive but even more naïve and vulnerable than Paradine. Her father and mother are pieces of work. Also in Wainock, at Craigh House, Paradine makes the acquaintance of the two Holbrook brothers, with whom he has an extended philosophical exchange over dinner in the middle of the story.
That exchange with the Holbrook brothers in many ways resides right at the heart of van Dun’s story, but In the Shadow of the Prodigy is a novel of exchanges – not quite a dialogue-novel, but drawing consciously on the Platonic tradition and executing the device with considerable aplomb. Paradine enters into symposiastic dialogue with four parties, who contribute to his never-fully-completed disillusionment concerning the world in which he lives. These are: Peter Vermeulen, David Allison, George Holbrook, and Sarah’s mother (divorced from her father), whom the young man addresses as “Mrs. Jones.” It would be best to take these in the order of Vermeulen, Allison, Sarah’s mother, and George Holbrook. My purpose is not to give an elaborate summary of each conversation, but to quote a few key lines and comment on the gist.
Peter Vermeulen. Paradine runs into Vermeulen, “a man of my age who was in charge of the archives of the Port Authority of Antwerp,” while attending the meaningless academic conference early in the story. Vermeulen helps Paradine by producing documents apposite to the latter’s research; Paradine even makes discoveries in the bundle of stale papers that draw him into the book’s steadily growing mystery – and yet, once again, neither Paradine’s project nor the Port-Authority documents have any intrinsic interest. They are uncollected detritus, with nothing to endow them with meaning. Vermeulen stands in slight contrast to Paradine in that he holds the type of job that Paradine seeks. The reader suspects that Paradine should not be seeking such a degrading post. Later events prove that Vermeulen hangs onto his job only tenuously against the ambition of his own secretary. The Paradine-Vermeulen dialogue is short, but Vermeulen introduces one of The Prodigal’s critical topics: The purely secular society.
Vermeulen makes a crass joke, over dinner, about a priest, a philosopher, and a psychotherapist – only to undercut it with the remark that if there were as many believers as jokes about believers the world might be a more coherent place. His mood changing, he observes to Paradine, “De-Christianization is far more advanced here [on the continent] than in Britain.” Paradine, whose education has not provoked him to serious thinking, wonders whether Vermeulen regards de-Christianization as a bad thing; the implication is that from Paradine’s conformist view of things it is probably a good thing. Vermeulen rejoins that he barely knows or cares, but he adds that he worries “what will fill the void when Christianity is gone”; and “what is to become of our civilization when the relentless drive to power is no longer kept in check at the grassroots by faith in a transcendent order.” Vermeulen suspects that it “won’t end until all human relations are founded on distrust.”
Although the reader is only thirty or so pages into the text, he will already have seen these characteristics of power-fixation and distrust in operation socially. People who can open the way to employment hold power over those who want its sensation, exercised in the cause of infinitesimal degrees of bureaucratic rank and meaningless pseudo-work. Vermeulen even speculates that another, rather more appropriate, word for modern politics, including the politics of employment, is “the void.” At Wainock, where Paradine went to interview Alfred Hirsch (who, however, died just before he arrived) Ralph Jones and several others treated him with rudeness and suspicion, whose basis they refused to divulge.
David Allison. “The economics of big ships” is Allison’s purview. Currently “a guest lecturer at Greenwich University,” Allison organizes “a special programme for political science students” and is “doing a series of lectures on the economics of naval warfare.” (Expensive – one might think!) Paradine has not seen Allison since they went to school together before their higher education. Allison, surprised that Paradine has not advanced further in an academic career, cogitates out loud that, “Somehow, I think you wouldn’t fit in a modern university”; and “I don’t think you’d be willing to put up with rampant opportunism of the present system of funding research.” Allison, to whom van Dun apportions most of the speaking on this occasion, tells Paradine that everything in academia now functions according to the “consultancy” principle. Everything real has vanished into the verbal abstraction. “Abstract people,” says Allison, “thrive on words, slogans, platitudes, clichés, and of course formulae, formulae, formulae.” That is what Abstract People learn in school, so that they might qualify to “sit behind a desk somewhere in the corporate world… They think they are gods – gods in a humble station, gods of their universe between the in-boxes and out-boxes.”
On a second occasion, the topic is democracy or more particularly the much-vaunted franchise. This time, it is Paradine who shares an insight with Allison, and who does most of the talking. When Allison inquires whether the upcoming local elections interest Paradine, Paradine replies, “I don’t vote, on principle.” Paradine sees voting for this or that party or politician as equivalent to writing “a blank cheque.” When someone writes a blank cheque “on the accounts of others,” moreover, it amounts to “fraud.” The principle of politics in a democracy, Paradine argues, is that “if I loot your bank account then that’s a crime; but if I vote for a politician to loot your bank account then that’s a legitimate attempt to modify the tax laws.” Whatever modern democracy is, Paradine tells Allison, “it’s not representative.” At most, “we have permission… to elect rulers.” It is especially absurd, as Paradine sees things, that fractional majorities should impose regimes on the whole people.” Allison had earlier indicted academia for conformism and opportunism. Paradine believes that the whole society is conformist and opportunist, with both conditions being disguised by rules and regulations that make exploitation anonymous and difficult for ordinary people to understand or indict.
Mrs. Jones. Paradine’s encounter with Sarah’s mother occurs near the end of the novel, after the central Platonic exchange with George Holbrook, and just before the violent climax. Mrs. Jones has been divorced from Mr. Jones for many years and has lived in London independently of her family doing work as an “activist” in the usual range of recognizable liberal causes. Vermeulen had earlier introduced the idea that all-pervasive distrust will be the consequence of de-Christianization and the bureaucratization of society, but Mrs. Jones sees distrust as the witting programmatic basis of the liberal utopia – and she endorses it, as a valid precept. Van Dun contrives Mrs. Jones to be the most fanatical ranter of his novel’s several first-rate ranters. She is the The Prodigy’s Thrasymachus or Callicles. She is Vermeulen’s “void” given speech, chiding her ex-husband for adhering only to “the old socialism” while she adheres to something radically new. Whereas “the old socialism” inculcated people to fear other people so that they would need the government to protect them and mediate disputes; the new radicalism plans to inculcate people so that they “fear themselves as much as or more than they fear others.” The principle of distrust must be extended to the private self-image.
To achieve this, the regime must make people “selfless” in the strict etymological sense: Not charitable, as in Christian ethics, but literally without self or identity. The imposition of “diversity” provides an excellent tool: “Make the East a model for the West and the West a model for the East. Better yet, make men a role model for girls and women a role model for boys… The true key is to make people distrust, even loathe the one education they’re familiar with [and that would be] the one they got from their parents.” The resultant society of “nobodies,” lacking all competence including their belief in themselves, will be maximally amenable to manipulation by “bureaucrats… functionaries, employees, consultants, and experts in the pay of large corporations.” The goal of the movement – whose actual existence, Mrs. Jones strongly hints – is to “make politics whole”; it shall be “the power of Man over Man, in charge of his own destiny – whatever that may be.” All sorts of alluring causes can serve the purpose: Environmentalism, consumer-advocacy, feminism – “words… to create new masses.”
George Holbrook. The Holbrooks are Catholics – foresters in Wainock and neighbors, in a purely formal way, of Ralph Jones. Paradine made Tim’s acquaintance at the funeral service for Hirsch, for whom Catholicism served as moral camouflage. (But that belongs to the plot, which I have promised not to spoil.) George suffers from injuries in youth and is an invalid. He keeps the books for his brother who sees to the physical side of the business. George is by lifelong reading a theologian and a philosopher. He enjoys dialectic and instigates a discussion over dinner by asking Paradine about his religious convictions, if any. Paradine declares himself an “agnostic.” George surprises Paradine by describing himself as a “practicing Catholic” and therefore as a “believing agnostic.” As George points out, “not knowing does not exclude belief,” taking the word belief as synonymous with faith. What then is belief? The question hangs in the air. George says, “We believe that the gospel stories about Jesus are true, but we don’t – we cannot – know whether they are true, or false.”
George contrasts agnosticism with its de-negated antonym: Gnosticism. “Now, a Gnostic pretends he knows either the one or the other, usually the other.” Following up the point, George reminds Paradine that while the evidence for Jesus is documentary the preponderance of documentation favors belief rather than non-belief. George puts the question to Paradine, “Which… of the teachings – alleged teachings, if you prefer – of Jesus would you say, or know, are not true?” Paradine admits that he has no reason to count as untrue any utterance traditionally ascribed to Jesus. What then is truth in this framework? The truth of the Good News consists in that the Good News points to transcendent things that are no matter how much they suffer deformity in their manifestations or applications in the world. Truth does not exist; truth is. Similarly, according to George, God does not exist; God is. George says: “God is outside time and space. This does not mean that He exists outside of time and space, and it does not mean that He is an imaginary character.” Nor is the case of God unique: “Many things are, although they don’t exist: Numbers, for example.”
The conversation comes around to a critique of modernity. George has thought it through: “Modern philosophers confuse being with existence, just [as] modern lawyers confuse existence and fiction. Modern intellectuals, whose inflated egos would burst the moment they admitted any respect for God, dutifully revere legal fictions.” God is the final judge of human self-justification, and the Gnostic disbelief in God is linked to the understanding of God’s merciful supremacy. Modern people have been taught that desire and impulse give sufficient ground for action to the extent that “it’s considered very nearly an insult if one asks for a justification.” Their faith in themselves is bad faith, skulking excuse-making faith. Modern people so keenly try to persuade others to subscribe to their beliefs because they do not really believe in the creeds that they espouse, but only want to believe in them to license their indulgences. George is answering Vermeulen’s question, “What is to become of our civilization when the relentless drive to power is no longer kept in check at the grassroots by faith in a transcendent order?” The licensing of all indulgences is what will become of it.
Just as George believes in God, so also he believes in the Platonic virtues or excellences. George asks: “The better is the logic of an argument, the better or more excellent is the argument, right?” Paradine replies that, indeed, “it is unthinkable that logic is an imaginary, not a real standard of excellence.” George extends the argument beyond logic to wisdom: “If wisdom were not a real standard of action then it would be all the same whether you commended a wise policy or a stupid one or an evil one.” Paradine experiences increasing agreement with George, but he instinctively raises the question of theodicy. George replies that people misunderstand God as worldly power, but “physical power, the ability to move material things, is not an excellence.” In an aphorism, “God is the Word, not a bulldozer or a sledgehammer… he’s our beacon, not our pusher.” We recall that Mrs. Jones sees herself as a pusher, a word with a sordid connotation.
Seeing herself as a pusher, Mrs. Jones logically sees herself as the equivalent of the God whose “existence,” which she misunderstands, she also denies. Mrs. Jones arguably believes hardly at all in herself although she would like to do so. By reducing the masses to slavish dependency, and by constituting the Godlike bureaucracy that will rule the world the way the old Babylonian gods ruled the universe, Mrs. Jones will create sufficient distance, measured by power, between her and others to convince herself of her superiority and, on its basis, her existence. Because Mrs. Jones cannot conceive of being, she cannot aspire to it. Mrs. Jones, the specimen of the modern Gnostocrat, dooms herself to the “void.” The wickedness in Mrs. Jones’ program is that she dooms everyone else to the “void” along with her. Mrs. Jones dooms others in part because others cannot bring themselves to believe in the fullness of her evil and that is the case in part because Mrs. Jones is outwardly so banal and unnoticeable against the degraded background of the prevailing social condition that she passes for normal. Not even Paradine, who by the time he meets Mrs. Jones has begun to take the measure of his world, can bring himself to acknowledge the fullness of her evil; he must pass it off as neurosis and as utopian dreaming. Still less does Sarah grasp what her mother is. Sarah is not evil – far from it. But she lives in a state of childlike innocence, which might well be the plan of her father. She needs rescuing, but she should be rescued by someone with maturity, and Paradine is not, himself, so very mature.
In the Shadow of the Prodigy has spoken to me with surprising persuasion. I bring to contemporary fiction a prejudice of conformity and inadequacy which, on those occasions when I test it, usually proves veracious. In this case, however, I find myself surprised. Van Dun’s landscape of institutes and research facilities even in remote places like his fictional Cunnir; his cities of abandoned factories either tumbled to ruin from disuse or refashioned as urban shopping-centers of no particular attractiveness; his networks of associated functionaries and bureaucrats who seem to ken one another’s wishes immediately even without the digital Internet which, at that moment, is urging itself on the world: These metaphors of his story convey the moral shoddiness of the West in its contemporary moment; but they equally well convey the insidious way in which moral shoddiness can elegantly technologize itself in the form of an electronic web that becomes the monopoly of information. As in the novels of Conrad, what one calls a “web” is usually a sinister conspiracy, a criminal enterprise, and a moral abomination.
Van Dun is probably not a pessimist – or why would he write this novel? But his vision of our plight is a grim one. What he implicitly invokes is the imperative that, as we all are mortal and shall die, we should be martyrs, not necessarily as in the Coliseum, but by sharpening our insight and testifying without cavil about what we believe – by contradicting those who know, and whose knowledge is mostly denial, and by insisting on the necessity of truth in the metaphysical sense. If I spoke truth, I would have to say that I have invested much dubious effort in the attainment of trivial ranks and badges. I begin to see this, but I see also with increasing clarity that the desire for infinitesimal advantage has become an acute affliction, deforming our society in the direction of a state in which, quite as Mrs. Jones wants, no one trusts anyone else because no one trusts himself – and everyone looks to Them for guidance, as though They were God. People want infinitesimally differentiated superior rank in the institutions because they vainly identify such rank with power.
Powers are destroying our world – judicial power, propaganda power, bureaucratic power, and so-called “human resources” power.
I strongly recommend Frank van Dun’s novel and urge my friends to buy it and read it.
[This review originally appeared at The Thinking Housewife.]