Saturday, September 13, 2014

Gavin Extence — ‘The Universe versus Alex Woods’

In short, it turned out that I was a major beneficiary of the will — one of only two beneficiaries — and this gave me a ‘plausible motive’ for wanting Mr Peterson dead [...]. I tried to point out to the police that this motive was only plausible if I’d known about the will beforehand — otherwise it was not only implausible, but also violated causality in quite a major way — but I got the impression that they saw this as a weak defence. Luckily, my lawyer told me I didn’t have to prove that I didn’t know about the will; the police had to prove that I did.
          ‘How could they possibly prove that?’ I asked.
          My lawyer shrugged. ‘If you confess.’
          ‘I could confess to anything,’ I pointed out. ‘I could confess that my father’s the Pope. It wouldn’t make it true.’ (p. 403)
This is a sweet book which takes some hefty themes — epilepsy, euthanasia — and weaves them into a story of friendship against the odds. It starts with seventeen-year-old Alex arriving off the ferry at Dover, and being stopped by a passport official. He sits at the wheel of a car in a catatonic state, an urn containing Mr Peterson’s ashes on the passenger seat, and a big bag of weed in the glove compartment. The police, not unnaturally, detain him. The rest of the book is an explanation of how he got there. It’s not a literary novel: there’s no mucking around with chronology, sources or points of view, there is no ambiguity about what is supposed to have happened, and in times of stress characters tend to say ‘right now’ a bit too often, giving it — just occasionally — the register of an angst-y soap opera. It can be acute too, though. Alex is right, in the quotation above: confession doesn’t make something true. It’s not exactly unliterary either: he hosts a book group at Mr Peterson’s house called ‘The Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut’ (at which only books by Vonnegut are discussed), and he’s a voracious reader, especially when his epilepsy confines him to the house for a year:
Reading […] never made me feel like an invalid. And I found that the quiet concentration required actually helped to reduce the number of daily seizures. It put me in a state of mind that was good for me. (p. 72)
Alex’s epilepsy began when he was ten, after a meteorite crashed through the ceiling of his bathroom at home and hit his head, leaving him in a coma for several weeks. He recounts proudly how he is only the second person in history to have been hit directly by a meteorite. The other one — Ann Hodges, in Alabama in 1954 (pictured) — also survived. It may or may not have affected his personality, but he comes across as borderline autistic. He feels things very deeply (feeling them too deeply can trigger seizures), but he is unusually interested in the mechanics of things. The meteorite hit triggers a fascination with astrophysics, and the epilepsy gets him into neurology, both of which he reads up on and discusses in depth with adult experts (his doctor, and the scientist who analysed the meteorite). At school, he’s unpopular, because he enjoys studying. At lunch break he walks the perimeter of the school playing fields, alone, twice. Not that it does him much good, but he is perceptive about the evils of target culture. This drips with irony:
Education didn’t have to be its own reward. Education brought rewards later in life. If we worked hard, passed our exams and never gave up, one day we too could be as rich as Robert Asquith. (p. 87)
Robert Asquith is the entrepreneur whose money founded the Robert Asquith Academy, the school with the best exam results in the area. Of course, it’s a horrible place, in which the only lesson learned is how to be two faced, and at which bullying is rife. Alex has a moment of clarity after a fight with one of his tormentors, Decker, and informs the teacher investigating the situation (who is perfectly indignant, supercilious, despotic) that he hit him because he is a cunt. The incident is quickly absorbed into school lore, and here Ellie, an emo / goth who is the second of Alex’s unlikely friends, asks him about it:
‘Okay then, Mr Polite [...]. So why did you say it?’
          I thought about this for a while, trying to figure out how best to phrase it, and eventually, this is what I came up with: ‘Because naming something takes away its power.’ (p. 170)
It is an earlier event involving Decker and two other cunts (Studwin and Asbo) which introduces him to Mr Peterson. They see him walking back from the shops with an astronomy magazine, taunt him for a while, then give chase. He breaks through a hedge in desperation and hides in a garden shed, securing the door with a large bag of compost. Because they can’t get at him, Decker, Studwin and Asbo smash the glass in the greenhouse next to the shed, then leave him to take the blame. Mr Peterson, widower, Kurt Vonnegut fan and Vietnam vet turned pacifist, is the owner of the shed and the greenhouse. Alex’s mother negotiates a settlement whereby he has to do odd jobs for Mr Peterson until the broken glass is paid for, but after a bit of typing (letters on behalf of Amnesty International), they forget about the punishment and Alex starts going through Mr Peterson’s Kurt Vonnegut collection. This leads to the book club, which lasts fifteen months and overlaps with Mr Peterson’s diagnosis with PSP, a degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s. The last act of the drama is a suicide attempt followed by Alex’s promise to his friend that he will take him to a clinic in Switzerland to die, in order that he can enjoy whatever time he has left without worrying about what happens when his mobility has gone completely.

It’s a touching and immensely likeable story, that makes a good contrast to Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa, with all its darkness and trickery. Both are books about friendship and loss, but The Universe versus Alex Woods is as guileless as its protagonist, as open as the autobahn on which Alex drives Mr Peterson to visit CERN on his one last day before dying.

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