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Love and Other Thought Experiments: Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020

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It is an act of such breath-taking imagination, daring and detail that the journey we are on is believable and the debate in the mind non-stop. The book builds a network of affection connecting all of these characters, and then seems to assume that the existence of the network is enough to engage the reader’s emotions without doing any more work to actually endear the characters to the reader. Rachel Cusk ( “A life’s work” a book she alternately snarled at and wept into” (119), Borges, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens among them.

The writing books I’ve read this year were Bunny by Mona Awad, and more recently The Body Lies by Jo Baker, a literary thriller I haven’t gotten around to reviewing yet. Inspired by some of the best-known thought experiments in philosophy, particularly philosophy of mind, Love and Other Thought Experiments is a story of love lost and found across the universe. Nevertheless (or maybe to overcome their problems), they decide to have a child with their gay friend Hal. It is written intelligently and engagingly and while it moves away from what you might expect it does so in a way we can engage with I think. One night in bed Rachel wakes up terrified and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there.

This experiment is Hume’s Missing Shade of Blue, in which the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume put forward the idea that the mind can generate an idea without first being exposed to the relevant sensory experience. There is a comprehensive source list at the end of the novel, but some of the influences are more opaque to me, for example Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which seems to be key but I’m unclear why. At the same time, it is very different from the kind of book I have come to expect from the Booker (I realised very recently that this is my eighth year of reading the Booker long list, although this year it seems likely I will not read the whole list for the first time in those eight years). I think this is beautifully written, and the examination of the effect of tragic death, and parenthood in its wake, is among the most memorable writing I have encountered. There were connections that I missed the first time and also there were some pieces of wonderful writing that stood out for me.

If you're looking for a plot summary—firstly, I do think this book is best gone into with very little context besides a sentence or two ( a woman claims an ant has crawled into her eye and from there the universe of these characters' lives unravels and intertwines simultaneously to create a thought-provoking narrative that will leave you questioning your own existence). In this regard, it somewhat reminds me of 2013 Booker winner 'The Luminaries', in which the astrological connotations were completely beyond my comprehension, but didn't particularly impede my enjoyment of the story itself]. While each chapter unpacks a different philosophical thought, the writing is not cerebral, in fact, it has a lightness and easy flow. I also didn't realize it was going to be short stories (I realize they all are interconnected and follow the same group of characters but they were short stories nonetheless and y'all know I don't vibe with short stories. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says).She has to be among the nicest, and most generous interviewees, and the online tube blogger Erik Karl Anderson hosts a wonderful interview about this book. Books with strong craft and little emotional connection can definitely be tricky; I generally love writing that plays with form, but missing the payoff can unfortunately ruin the experience, and reading several of these types of stories together certainly sounds trying. Oddly, although the author copiously cites various other authors and literary works that impacted her own writing, she never mentions Lem's Solaris, which would seem to have been an obvious influence there.

This is a special novel that reminds me that the form of the novel can still surprise and take us to unexpected places, to feel unexpected things and perhaps even to expand our capacity for feeling and understanding. I was interested in Sophie Ward’s citing A Visit from the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout Olive Kitteridge as influences on her book’s individual story structure.

Even with the summarized thought experiments giving hints at each turn for the direction in which the narrative is heading, I was completely taken by surprise several times by twists Ward implants into the tale. It mixes philosophy, science, psychology and constructs playful, intriguing and satisfying stories to bring famous thought experiments to life. Greg tells him that she is in space and it’s no surprise that Arthur eventually becomes an astronaut in America. She is diagnosed with cancer, but survives long enough have a child, Arthur, who grows up to become an astronaut. One night Rachel wakes up screaming and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there.

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