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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Socrates, Primates, Questions

"The unexamined life is not worth living"

With that epigraph from Socrates, I was confident William Boyd's 1990 novel "Brazzaville Beach" was going to be up my alley. Over two years later, Boyd's tour-de-force keeps returning to me, "...like a spar of driftwood".

For example, when yesterday I began reading Alexandra Fuller's 2001 memoir "Don't Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight" about her childhood in Africa, something jarred me. I found some of Boyd's vivid descriptions of the continent in my notes from his book: "Rabid energy and bustle...brutal frustrations and remorseless physicality..." This kind of stuff is sprinkled throughout. 

As masterful as Boyd's language is in "Brazzavile Beach", it's just the icing. He nails all the traditional elements - compelling and believable story, multi-dimensional characters, pitch perfect dialogue - but then ups the ante. The main narrative involves researchers in the field of primatology so Boyd sets up many of his chapters briefly describing a relevant scientific concept - catastrophe theory, the neural clock, Fermat's last theorem, etc. It's not a showoffy gimmick. Each concept connects to both the primates and the human story being told. And his descriptions are such that even a science nincompoop like me understood. 

Hope Clearwater, the narrator of this gem, has also stuck to me. How can I resist someone who extracts the following from her experiences? "I have taken new comfort and refuge in the doctrine that advises one not to seek tranquility in certainty but in permanently suspended judgment." Questions are much more interesting than answers, aren't they?         

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