Last year I was lucky enough to be at the University of Kansas when Claire North, aka Kate Griffin, aka Cat Webb, won the John W Campbell Award for her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. The award is for science fiction, and the novel has some SF elements – notably the quest for something called a ‘quantum mirror’, after a portal that permits travel between alternative universes in the TV series Stargate. But the central premise of Fifteen Lives is pure fantasy: the notion that there is a certain group of people in any given historical period who get reborn repeatedly – perhaps for ever – as themselves, at the same time and in the same location and community as in all their former lives. Crucially, with each rebirth they remember everything they’ve experienced in their accumulated pasts; in other words, for each of them it’s Groundhog Day with a life instead of a day as the unit of reiterated time. With each rebirth, too, they get to chart a different course through their historical period, and this gives them the opportunity to get to know it as nobody else could. They become increasingly encyclopedic chronicles of the years they live through, incorporating into their bodies, so to speak – though always with a certain inevitable bias – all the wars, alliances, achievements, disasters, financial and cultural exchanges that occur within the limited tract of time they are able to encompass. It’s a dazzling concept, and handled with dazzling skill, above all in the elegant control North exerts over the complex mesh of plots to which the premise must inevitably give rise. And remember, the book deals only with the first fifteen of what could potentially be an infinite number of parallel lives – in Borgesian terms, a biography of Babel. The mind reels at the thought of including any more of these simultaneous life stories.
For the duration of the book, the titular Harry August – who was always born in 1918 and usually died before the end of the century – becomes our guide to the epoch immediately before our own, an often detached but always perceptive and concerned observer of the times that shaped us, the community of twenty-first century readers. Since Harry is an enthusiastic traveller, the different paths he takes through each of his lifetimes give his story an unparalleled (so to speak) geographical sweep – by his fifteenth life there seems to be almost nowhere he hasn’t been – and involve him with almost everyone imaginable, so that in spite of his attempt at detachment he’s knit up with his time, involved in it as none of his readers could ever be, and learns from this uninvited and undesired intimacy how far we are each of us complicit with historical, social and political events over which at the same time we have no control.
The notion of complicity, and of the increasing difficulty of determining which side you should take in any conflict, is beautifully summarised by the fact that Harry’s nemesis in most of his lives is also his best friend: a man whose company he enjoys and who he continues to seek out in life after life even after he has decided the man is something of a monster. If the quantum mirror is the central SF trope of the novel, a Stevensonian pair of mirrored characters is at its heart, and at times it’s easy to see these men as devoted lovers – except that the ouroborans (people reborn repeatedly as themselves) tend not to cultivate love much after their first few efforts at it, perhaps for obvious reasons.
You could see the book as a metaphor, if you wanted. A metaphor for art, for example – especially the art of the novelist, who discovers so many narratives using for the most part the material of her own lifetime. I think Fifteen Lives may be Cat Webb’s fifteenth novel (I’m relying here on Wikipedia), which would be a neat thing if it were true. It could be a metaphor, too, for the multiple lives each of us leads. We can divide these up chronologically: this was the period when we lived here and were doing this; this the period when we lived there and changed our profession, even our personality, quite radically. Or we can do it according to the different spheres we move in. Claire North/Cat Webb is a lighting designer in one part of her life, a novelist in another, and she speaks interestingly (as I found in Kansas) on the extent to which the two activities/personas tend to stay separate while occupying the same corporeal space.
Fifteen Lives could also be a metaphor for the way we protect ourselves from harm by taking control of our emotions as the years go by. How many close friendships can we cultivate in a lifetime? How much love are we prepared to give out? How do we choose which part of our experience to invest in, emotionally speaking? This too is something Claire/Cat spoke on very well in Kansas: the need for a writer not to invest too much in the finished artefact, the published novel, but to move on to a new project as soon as the last one has been completed. From the reactions to this statement at the John W Campbell conference I don’t think this is a universal practice among novelists, but it strikes me as excellent advice if you can manage it. And Harry works with astonishing commitment to detach his emotional reaction to his best friend’s monstrosity from the need to get physically close to him over several lives so as to thwart his plans. One of the triumphs of the novel, though, is the extent to which he remains emotionally close to the man, too, despite all his efforts to bring him down, despite all the appalling things his friend has done to him, despite all his intentions of staying distant. He is involved in him as much as in everyone else; like it or not, they are responsible for one another, joined at the head and tail like the symbol of the ouroboros after which their sort of being is named. Claire/Cat knows a great deal about the difficulty of the emotional detachment she recommends.
There’s another aspect of the novel she stressed at the conference: that it is also a metaphor (she didn’t use the phrase) for the disconnect between a person’s age and her abilities, between the way a young person (especially a woman) is addressed by her society and the often substantial knowledge and experience she is conscious of within herself. Cat published her first novel at 14, so must have been made acutely conscious of this disconnect; she displays an understandable weariness when people exclaim for the umpteenth time over her remarkable youth (after all, what does one mean by ‘youth’ exactly – and how long does it last?) and its seeming incompatibility with the brilliance of her prose and the sheer number of her accomplishments. From another perspective, she told us about being treated like a simpleton when she first worked as lighting technician for a major theatre company after graduating with excellent qualifications and plenty of practical experience from RADA – a treatment she probably received because she was a woman as well as a neophyte in the profession. I think everyone (especially every woman) will have experienced these things in their early years; I remember very clearly the frustrations of being sixteen, and of having everything to say (I thought) and no one willing to hear it. The ouroborans experience these frustrations in lifetime after lifetime, as six-year-olds, for instance, with the brains of individuals many centuries old, and have to find ingenious ways to circumvent the problem – by sticking together with others of their kind in ouroboran communities, or playing games with their less experienced adult carers, or conducting elaborate secret lives with every means at their disposal. Childhood and youth are nightmares to them, to be hurried through as quickly as possible in order to reach what their particular period considers to be the age of responsibility, the age for taking back some semblance of control over the current version of their multiple destinies.
The way the novel is written is a marvel. It’s not linear; blessed or cursed with an infallible memory, like Severian in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Harry experiences all times as simultaneously present, and calls up relevant experiences from any of his lives as analogies for any given episode in his narrative. The effect is to explode any sense of linear progression as the dominant mode of the twentieth century, though clearly technological and scientific progress is to some extent linear, discovery building on discovery in a manner North describes with great skill. The point is, though, that these linear scientific discoveries don’t correspond to a linear development of the human psyche; each individual develops at a different rate, whatever is happening to the changing scientific landscape through which they move – and this disconnect, too, is exquisitely evoked by the novel’s unconventional form.
At an event on the day after the John W. Campbell conference, North read an extract from her next book, Touch, and it was clear at once that this novel, too, would be concerned with the peculiarly twenty-first century experience of being everyone, of knowing everyone, of experiencing no degree of separation from anybody else in the world – or at least of living under that illusion, thanks to social media, reality TV, translation apps and cinema subtitles, the many manifestations of pseudo-democracy we experience from day to day. It was also clear that Touch could be seen as equally concerned with the novelist’s craft, and with that craft as a metaphor for the irrepressible human urge to inhabit another person’s skin. Here the central concept is that of the ghost – one of a small community of human beings who are gifted or cursed with the ability to transfer themselves from one body to another by the simple act of touching, however lightly, the smallest quantity of a person’s naked flesh. Once again, there are science fictional elements to this narrative: we learn of a research project that seeks to unveil the underlying scientific principles behind this mysterious power of transference. But we never learn these principles, never find out whether such principles could ever be discovered, so that the pure impossibility of the ghosts’ powers permits them to assume the status of metaphor, to be concentrated on for their philosophical ramifications rather than as a thought experiment in conjectural physics. Touching is what stories aim to do; they enable us to touch other lives, to inhabit other bodies, and they aim to touch us, to make us emotionally invest in the people whose skins we temporarily occupy. And this touching – like the ever more complex interweaving paths traced through time by the ouroboran Harry August – helps to remind us, by its sheer promiscuity – the sheer accumulating number of diverse bodies the protagonist enters in the course of the novel – how far we are part of each other, responsible for and complicit with one another’s thoughts and feelings and actions.
This is what novels are for, of course: to enable us to be other people, in the way we were when we were children being soldiers or queens or nurses or parents. The ghost who narrates Touch, who is known as Kepler, never loses the childish passion for this sort of role-playing. Each new person she encounters is like one of the planets discovered by the stargazer in Keats’s sonnet ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’: ‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, / When a new planet swims into his kin’ – hence perhaps the name she is known by. She is fascinated by the possibilities that person represents, and above all by the kind of beauty which might be found in that particular life – and Kepler finds beauty in all kinds of lives, especially those of the disenfranchised, the social outcasts, emotional or intellectual misfits, perpetual wanderers. The beauty she finds in these people makes her ‘love’ them – that’s her word for it, though she is challenged for it on several occasions in the novel: aren’t you talking about your own idea of these people rather than the people themselves? Is love the right word for what you feel for them? – and as with Fifteen Lives, love is clearly one of the preoccupations of the novel (what does anyone mean by it? Isn’t it often as destructively selfish as it is gloriously self-denying – and sometimes both at once, as if the same concept held two opposite ideas in tension?). Her love for the people or bodies she inhabits – called by ghosts ‘skins’, as if to indicate how shallow their understanding of each vehicle must necessarily be – leads her to research their backgrounds assiduously before ‘becoming’ them, to assume their names and genders along with their bodies, and to resist the term by which she herself is known (‘don’t call me Kepler’, she tells people repeatedly, and corrects them when they give her the wrong gender for the body she currently occupies). If Kepler is a stand-in for the author, who usurps lives and professions not her own, then she would seem to be a responsible and sensitive example of the species.
She certainly sees herself as a responsible ghost, always leaving the body she inhabits in better condition than she found it, with money, good clothes, a social position, perhaps a qualification that can take them places if they are able or willing to take advantage of it. Some of the skins are even willing vehicles, renting out their bodies to her under certain pre-agreed conditions, and afterwards, in some cases, going on to make a business of the practice, renting themselves out again and again to other ghosts for profit. But the relationship between herself and the skins remains problematic: the skins are always the powerless element in a game between two people in which one holds all the aces. At one point in Kepler’s life she acts as what she calls an estate agent, identifying and researching skins for ghosts to occupy, as if human beings could be treated as so much living space. One of her clients asks for a body to inhabit for a lifetime, and she complies with this request, with appalling consequences for the skin concerned: a young man who loses his youth, maturity and middle age as a result of a bargain for which his consent was never sought. Clearly such a situation sets Kepler’s kind apart from novelists; inventing a narrative doesn’t involve taking over an individual’s life at such appalling cost to that individual. But if we think of the situation in terms of writing novels it can help to draw out the extent to which novelists are colonists. They steal other people’s time away from them for hours and days, and appropriate unfamiliar cultures, sexes, age-groups, jobs and family relationships for their own purposes – an appropriation which, irresponsibly used, can lead to the perpetuation of ugly stereotypes and insidious prejudices. North brilliantly brings this problem home when she has Kepler inhabit, for a time, the body of a North African nurse about whom she knows nothing at all except his name. She has to guess at his language and nationality, and all her guesses turn out to be wrong; even a ghost who has spent so long researching and being other people will end up reproducing her own ingrained assumptions about a stranger she has not investigated properly prior to taking on his flesh.
Keats’s famous sonnet on Chapman’s Homer is helpful when considering the colonialism of creativity as well as its astronomical sweep and passion. In the sonnet, Keats compares his feelings on reading Homer’s work in Chapman’s translation to those of the conquistador Hernán Cortés gazing on the Pacific for the first time,
[…] when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Keats here describes himself discovering new poetic territories thanks to Chapman, but links the discovery, through the name of Cortés, with the violent overthrow of the Aztec Empire by Spain in 1519-20. As a result, the ‘realms of gold’ he mentions in the sonnet’s first line – by which he means the world of poetry – become tainted by association with the aggressive acquisitiveness of sixteenth-century seekers after the gold of Moctezuma. Reading becomes a colonial act, and so perhaps (by association) does Keats’s own verse, which further extends the ‘realms of gold’ into already occupied territories (he colonizes classical myth, for instance, in Endymion, the Old Testament in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Homer’s epics in this sonnet, and so on). There are, then, two distinct processes of discovery at work in Keats’s poem: discovery as performed by astronomers, which involves observation only, with no effect on the thing observed; and discovery as performed by colonists, which involves destruction as well as observation of the thing found. Kepler thinks of herself as engaged in the former, but is clearly for much of her many lives involved in the latter too. Keats’s poetry is a two-faced creature, both professedly impartial in its observations and fiercely self-serving in the uses it makes of them, bountiful in its imaginative revelations and possessive in its desire to direct those revelations towards the advancement of the poet’s interests, the progress of his chosen narrative arc. The same is true of Kepler, who is both the benefactor of her skins and their exploiter. Like all her kind she is two-faced, a fact acknowledged by another ghost she meets who calls himself Janus, the literally two-faced Roman god of doors, ambiguity, Doppelgängers and difficult choices.
Kepler’s doubleness is exposed by the fact that she, like the ouroboran Harry August, has a double: a dark twin or abusive lover figure called Galileo, whom she chases through the pages of the novel just as Harry August chased his enemy/lover through the pages of Fifteen Lives. The beautiful intricacy of the novel’s plot, too, exposes Kepler’s doubleness. Like Harry August’s, her story is not told chronologically, and at first the endless jumping around between lives present and lives past comes across as a random, virtuosic demonstration of sheer delight in her many identities as a ghost, a delight shared by North herself, who clearly relishes the glorious diversity of the stories she has let herself get caught up in. The sense of randomness is magnificently encapsulated in one skin she inhabits, a stylish young woman who turns out to have a severed finger in the bottom of her purse; there is never any explanation for this finger, and it remains embedded in the text as an instance of the many loose ends to which a being like Kepler must of necessity be subjected. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that many of the threads of it are interconnected, and that the connections between Kepler’s many lives finally make her responsible for her evil double, Galileo. She is Galileo’s creator just as surely as Victor Frankenstein was the creator of his monster, both in the sense that he sewed him together from disparate elements and in the sense that he was responsible in loco parentis for souring his experience of being alive – for turning him monstrous. Kepler made Galileo, we learn, in an act that was intended to be one of parental affection but was in fact one of selfishness; an act she did not initiate but in which she was deeply complicit. Complicity, then, is a theme of this book as surely as it was of Fifteen Lives; and between them, the two books imply that it’s a universal theme of the globalized world we all inhabit, about which North’s two protagonists know so much, and about which we learn so much in our turn through the vicarious experience of occupying their multiple bodies.
The relationship between Kepler and Galileo also exposes the Janus-like double nature of love, the most intimate way we have of touching each other. Love is the favourite theme of novelists as it is of poets, and in this book it has a disconcerting habit of inverting itself; Kepler possesses the bodies of people who hate her on several occasions in her search for Galileo, and as is her nature she comes to love each of these formerly hating bodies, delighting in the evidence of past traumas etched into their flesh, in the problem of how to bring out the best in them and hand it on when she finally leaves their private space. Galileo both hates and loves Kepler, as does Janus – as does Kepler herself, whose transitional existence is both a joy to her and a hell of loneliness, since no body knows her, no body is her own. The reason hatred is so close to love is that it involves an obsessive focus on the person who is hated, an acknowledgement that they exist, that they have an identity like no other. It’s inevitable, then, that Kepler’s hunt for her nemesis will turn at its climax into a complicated act of love-making, in which life and death, affirmation and assassination are woven together like the self-devouring snake of North’s previous novel.
More explicit in Touch than in Fifteen Lives is the association between the novel form, as it’s practised in the twenty-first century, and the ultimate storytelling fable: that of the Thousand and One Nights. The tale of Scheherazade is of course a two-faced narrative, involving both protracted and vigorous life in the form of a collection of interwoven tales that have endured for centuries, and the fear of death, which is an ever-present fact throughout the collection (the storyteller tells her stories to avoid being executed by a tyrannous Sultan). Both Touch and Fifteen Lives are such a collection, made up of multiple interlaced stories fleeing from the threat of encroaching annihilation: a mysterious apocalypse in Fifteen Lives, which gets closer with each successive life Harry leads, and an organization called Aquarius in Touch, whose name invokes the dawn of a new Golden Age of peace and love – albeit one that involves the extermination of all ghosts without trial or mercy. Touch, however, includes the added Scheherazade-related touch that the ghosts are themselves generated from the passionate urge to defer the moment of death. Each new ghost is formed at a time of trauma, when some human being finds his or her life prematurely ended and proceeds to jump as she dies into a new body, as the only available means to avoid annihilation. The urge to survive is what finally drives all their subsequent jumps between body and body, despite all the various rationales given by ghosts for particular transitions. Writing, too, is a way of eluding death, generating texts which are a form of afterlife more readily understood in a secular age than the notions of heaven or reincarnation.
The connection between Kepler and Scheherazade is further developed by the way the story transforms itself from time to time into an orientalist fable. In one of her lives Kepler falls in love with a woman, Ayesha, who is the third and youngest wife of an Egyptian merchant. To consummate her love for this woman Kepler enters the body of her husband, and in this form she lives with Ayesha happily for several years, while the merchant she occupies continues to amass his fortune, thanks in large part to a profitable trade in slaves (so: more complicity). When the French take Cairo, Kepler is forced to flee the city in the merchant’s body, at his wife’s request, so as to save the life of Ayesha’s merchant husband. In her absence Ayesha bears the child they conceived together and dies in childbirth; but the ghost remembers her as a woman who loved her deeply, despite being fully aware of her identity as an errant spirit which usurped a life to which it had no right.
Many years later, in a Paris café, Kepler comes across a descendant of her child by Ayesha: a young Algerian artist who retells the story of Kepler’s relationship with her ancestor in the manner of Scheherazade herself. In this retelling, Kepler becomes a creature from the Thousand and One Nights, a jinn or genie:
Fire of the desert, the knife-wind, he comes, he comes riding the sands, and his name is a thousand eyes without expression, elf’ayyoun we’ain douna ta’beer, youharrik elqazb doun arreeh, and his voice is stirs-the-reeds-without-wind, and his sword is starlight, and his eyes are hot embers of a fallen sun.
As the Algerian storyteller ends her tale Kepler stares at ‘this child, who had come from the flesh of Ayesha bint Kamal and Abdul al-Mu’allim al-Ninowy; but also from my soul’. It’s a moving moment in which storytelling creates a link between past and present, between flesh and spirit, between woman and woman, between France and Egypt and Algeria; but it’s also a moment of appropriation, when an artist – North herself – ventriloquizes a narrative style that has been frequently appropriated by imperialists – most famously by the British adventurer Richard Burton. Burton, an atheist, not only translated the Thousand and One Nights unexpurgated into English but undertook the Hajj, despite his lack of faith; his interest in the sexual lives of the various peoples he encountered on his travels gave him a scandalous reputation in the nineteenth century. Kepler’s love for Ayesha, then, is rendered two-faced by the manner of its commemoration in a French café. It is an orientalist adventure, in which Kepler satisfied his lust by adopting a disguise, as Richard Burton was said to have done; and it is a moving tale of mutual affection consummated in spite of overwhelming odds. The story itself revives a forgotten love affair from the past – but it also fictionalizes it, omitting some if its darker features, such as the means by which the merchant husband, Abdul, got his living (the slave trade). The story’s authenticity as an oriental tale spoken by a North African is undermined by its presence in a novel by a British writer. The story encapsulates, in fact, the many perceptions about the two-faced trade of telling stories that North offers us in the course of her astounding novels.
But the connection with the Thousand and One Nights is present everywhere in the text, and above all when Kepler is jumping from skin to skin in flight or pursuit, as in this passage where she changes bodies on a crowded train:
I slipped from skin to skin, a bump, a shudder, a slowing-down and a speeding-up, a swaying of the carriage, a stepping on another’s foot, I am
a child dressed in school uniform
an old man bent double over his stick.
I bleed in the body of a woman on the first day of her period,
ache down to the soles of my tired builder’s feet.
I crave alcohol, my nose burst and swollen from too much of the same.
The doors open and I am young again, and beautiful, dressed for summer in a slinky dress and hoping that the goosebumps on my flesh will not detract from the glamour I seek to express.
I am hungry
and now I am full,
desperate to pee by the carriage window,
eating crisps in the seat by the door.
I wear silk.
I wear nylon.
I loosen my tie.
I hurt in leather shoes.
My motion is constant, my skins are stationary, but by the brush of a hand on the rush-hour train
I am everyone.
I am no one at all.
There has never, I think, been a better evocation of the skipping generation of the present, the rhythms of its exuberant motion, its delight in diversity, its constitutional incapacity to stay rooted in one place, its desire for closeness and fulfilment, its fear of committing itself to any one manifestation of either state. Of course it would be in a rush hour train that a being like Kepler would feel most at home; a train full of individuals crushed together, rushing through a tunnel to some destination in a vehicle over whose motion they have no control. Kepler and the book she appears in are a constellation of entities rather than a single entity, subject to gravitational pulls from their fellow entities while steering their own complex courses through many kinds of space. In this they share their nature with North’s readers, who go to her books hungry for novelties and find far more there than they bargained for.
May her hectic novels continue to weave their spells around us until – well, until she chooses to take another shape, another name, a new way of writing, a different style.
I suspect we’ll choose to follow her, wherever.
 I also wonder if North was thinking of another Kepler – one with two ps who specializes in writing about Doppelgängers: see C. F. Keppler, The Literature of the Second Self (University of Arizona Press, 1972). I’m grateful to Matteo Barbagallo for drawing my attention to Keppler’s work.