Reviewed by Morgan Bell
A Superior Spectre
by Angela Meyer
Paperback, 1 August 2018, 288pgs, ISBN: 9781925183917
A Superior Spectre is a novel full of ethical ambiguities. The story explores what happens when a piece of technology enables a man to head-hop into the consciousness of a woman from the past. The title, we learn in the epigraph, is from a spooky Emily Dickinson passage: the idea that the horror of looking inwards and knowing your true self is far scarier than any external ghosts or intruders.
We enter the world of Superior Spectre via a mysterious one-page prelude. In it, a disoriented woman named Miss Duncan makes out the elements of a painting whilst in an otherwise darkened space (or perhaps state). The painting is likely Caravaggio’s ‘Boy with a Basket of Fruit,’ although it is not explicitly named. We make the connection shortly after when the name ‘Caravaggio’ starts appearing in the primary narrative. The reference to this particular painter is not insignificant. In fact, every detail Meyer weaves into this time-disparate tale feels hugely deliberate.
A Superior Spectre is deftly constructed piece of literature. It sits shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the greats. Thematically it is a worthy companion-piece to Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. Structurally it folds like the origami of Italio Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, and Jennifer Egan’s The Keep. Stylistically it employs some of the fuzzy voice of China Mieville’s This Census Taker, where the who and when of the narrator becomes blended and circular.
This novel is broken into four parts with unnumbered and unnamed chapters. Most chapters are as brief as one or two pages. The economy of words per chapter is fitting for the novel-length debut of a flash-fiction author. Meyer’s 2014 pocketbook collection of shorts, Captives, was lauded by critics as vital and Kafka-esque, with stories that were ‘perfect skeletons’ in which a body was easily imagined. This skeletal technique is brought to each chapter of this book. The negative-space of what is not explicitly said is where the meat of the story lies.
The chapters oscillate between two main characters who live in Scotland in different eras. Sometimes we get a splash of third-person-omniscient as a palate cleanser, but primarily the story is delivered in close first-person narration. One of our narrators, Leonora Duncan, exists in the Victorian-era, in a dirty inn in Tomintoul – the Horseshoe Inn to be precise – in the north of Scotland. In the opening scene, Leonora is skinning a rabbit in great gory detail and recalling a time she was elbows-deep in cow placenta. We are told “If Leonora had thought about herself in the future she pictured her hands dirty and pressed against life,” as a perfect summary of the character. It is in a vaguely euphemistic phrase like this that makes the reader a participant in the self-doubt and madness. Is something sinister is coming for Leonora? Is that image a symbol or am I paranoid and it was a simple statement of fact. Meyer is skilful at selecting and angling words that have double-meanings.
Our other narrator is Jeff. He exists in what is basically contemporary-era with a few technological advances. We are told Jeff has a cumbersome aching body and a double-chin. He has an illness that came with a fatal prognosis in the past, but now, with advances in bio-tech, the sufferer may lead a normal long life. He tells us he has some anti-inflammatory drugs that he intends to cease taking. He could live for another 50 years if treated, but, in an act of self-flagellation, Jeff has decided to go somewhere remote to waste away and die.
Jeff is an Australian with Scottish heritage. Hence choosing Scotland for this euthanasia mission. Early on he ponders if the genetic structure of your blood can cause you to physically desire a place, the molecules themselves recognising it as home like the magnet in a compass. We learn his ancestors were driven out of Scotland during a historical period called “the clearances” when tenants were evicted from their land to make way for new sheep grazing. In this moment of reflection Jeff unknowingly foreshadows the violence of forcing someone out of where they belong to somewhere new, the trauma of scrapping around to re-start a life.
In the present, Jeff collects a recalled-model of android called William. He admits he selected William due to his resemblance to a child. And for the reputed factory-error that causes hand-jobs to accidentally be given out instead of massages. Jeff insists he is not trying to elicit sympathies from the reader with these confessions, but clearly desires leaving a virtuous legacy through his end-of-life journaling.
Next, Jeff undertakes an unauthorised surgical removal of the ID chip under his skin. This is to avoid government detection and go off-the-grid. Because privacy is important. With his privacy assured, Jeff starts using a prototype-technology called a “tab”. The “tab” is designed to sit under your tongue and assign you a host brain to take a virtual “trip” to. The host can be from any period of time in your location, as long as their brain has roughly the same functionality as yours.
Jeff doesn’t hesitate to push himself into Leonora’s mind. He wants to go into someone else’s body. And when he does he gets to feel all the sensations of a woman’s body from the inside. From menstrual cramps to masturbation. The intrusion into Leonora’s most private moments makes you feel a little gross. The manner in which he violates her resembles the psychological component of child sex abuse. Beyond the bodily molestation – being physically entered, repeatedly, when you never asked to be – it is the grooming of victims, to make them doubt the truth of their own experiences, which is particularly insidious.
Most satisfyingly, the totality of the novel contextualises the beginning. By the end our minds are cast back to the novel’s prelude with the Caravaggio painting. Caravaggio was an artist whose work Jeff was well acquainted with. An artist known for homoerotic portraits of full-lipped, languorous, nude boys. In that darkened room, we recall, Miss Duncan found her bodily responses to the visual stimuli were beyond her control. For a sliver of time she had to experience first-hand the reflexive rousing of a pederast when presented with a boy.
This clever one-page of prelude is a perfect precis for the larger story. Caravaggio introduced to the world a dramatic chiaroscuro technique, where shadows were darkened to emphasise the light. He also transfixed his subjects in bright shafts of light. The way ‘Boy with a Basket of Fruit’ was painted perfectly sets up the effects of the mind-melding that occurs in the novel. Leonora and Jeff are allowed to see each other’s lives only through narrow snippets.
A Superior Spectre explores the inextricable connection between how we feel emotions, how we feel sensations, and how each informs the other. It posits that what we know of our reality and self-identity can only ever be the fragment which happens to be illuminated by the outside light. It confronts us with what it means to be inside someone, physically or mentally, without their consent, and to their detriment. It is a sophisticated read from a rising Australian talent.
About the reviewer: Morgan Bell is a Port Stephens author of short fiction. Her books include Sniggerless Boundulations, Laissez Faire, and Intersection Control: Collected Works. She is a qualified technical writer, creative writing teacher, and editor of Sproutlings: A Compendium of Little Fictions. Her chapbook of concrete poetry is Idiomatic, For The People.