Monday, 9 March 2009

The Hole in the Zero: update

Site update: I just expanded last February's The Hole in the Zero JSBlog post - about MK Joseph's amazing 1967 novel of that name - to include an enlightening 1969 review by JP Downey in the New Zealand literary magazine Landfall.

Briefly, The Hole in the Zero is a tour de force of literary SF in which four characters are cast into the 'Nothing' outside space and time, where they play out their conflicts in a series of incarnations into a diverse set of different realities. The subject of Dr Johnson brought the book back to mind, since it has an episode in which its character Paradine, in one such reality, becomes a Frankenstein-like magus who creates an artificial man clearly modelled on Dr Johnson.

The carved eyelids blinked and opened and wrinkled up as the eyes peered out shortsightedly on upon the world. The figure sneezed enormously and sat up. He draped over its shoulders a loose white robe and led it gently to a chair, where it sat like an ancient emperor, with its vast swathed body and its noble flawed face. He held a glass of cordial to its lips; it took the glass from him, swallowed it down, and sighed appreciatively.

"Claret," it said in a voice like the echo of thunder, "is the liquor for boys, port for men, but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy."

"What am I to call you?" said Paradine.

"John Samuelson," said the figure firmly.

"You are now alive, John Samuelson. Does it give you pleasure to be alive?"

"To talk is good and to laugh is good," said the figure, holding out its glass to be replenished. "A tavern-chair is the throne of human felicity."

"Then what is the purpose of life?"

The figure rolled about in distress, and the seamed face crumpled. "The whole of life ... is ... but keeping away the thoughts .. of death."

"Is there no choice?"

"Nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left," said the figure more calmly.

"Are not all things possible to the mind?"

"We may take our fancy for our companion but we must let reason be our guide. All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity."

"By what then will you rule your life?"

The figure started to its feet and its voice rolled out in full thunder. "Give me something to desire," it shouted, staring with blank eyes to the east, suddenly cold and rigid, a heroic statue eroded by the ages.

All of the creature's words are Johnson quotations, and this poignant vignette of his enthusiasms and torments is one of many literary allusions in The Hole in the Zero.

This particular section of the book has many layers, drawing on the Frankenstein mythos even deeper than the basic scenario of Paradine animating his creation on a slab. Paradine's laboratory also contains a set of homunculi, little figures with single strong personality traits

He passed slowly along the bench where stood his first tentatives, the tiny homunculi, some dreaming, some frenziedly active, in their warm prisons of glass. They were the toys of his youth, childish but lovable - the musician-prince with his little tinkling harp; the spider-woman who had eaten her mate; the idiot-girl, bald and yellow; the spangled juggler perpetually whirling his indian-clubs; the knight, like a small iron statue; the duchess making eyes at the tattered beggar inthe next jar; the sleep-walker; the washerwoman; the siamese-twins; the black boxer sparring with his own shadow; the girl who sang perpetually on one note amid the shining golden waterfall of her own hair.

These are very similar to the jarred homunculi created by Dr Pretorius 1 in the film The Bride of Frankenstein: a king, a queen, an Archbishop, the Devil, and a little ballerina who "won't dance to anything but Mendelssohn's Spring Song and it gets so monotonous". The allusion appears self-referential too, in that in The Hole in the Zero, the main characters are similarly forced to play out scenarios shaped by the fixtures of their individual personalities. Some of Paradine's homunculi are also applicable to the characters themselves. Anyhow, for context, see The Hole in the Zero.

1. The above Dr Pretorius tribute site says "One wonders where Dr. Pretorius got the little costumes-the crown, capes, tutus and ballet slippers. Did he sew them himself? Is the good doctor a closet fashion designer?" Probably the author, Elizabeth Stein, is having an in-joke here: the actor playing Pretorius, the excellent Ernest Thesiger, was an expert in needlepoint, and even wrote a book on the subject, Adventures in Embroidery.

Addendum: see also The Time of Achamoth.

- Ray


  1. I really enjoyed your and the reviewer's description of the book from your linked post, but, good grief, the author seems to be trying to cover more than could be done in ten volumes.

    I may have to get a copy of the book just to see how he does it.

  2. It's probably my all-time favourite novel. There are loads of copies findable (for instance, via Someone ought to do a reprint.

  3. I received my copy of the book this afternoon (paid $0.75 for it, used) and have gotten up to chapter 4 -- it's very readable and I'm enjoying it.

    But you have a tiny mistake in your prior post; it's Merganser who is the bird-riding warrior. (I am cheating by re-reading your posts to see how much I am missing by not being familiar with the author's many references to other books.)

  4. Darn me: not sure how I managed to misremember that. Corrected and credited.