You’re walking against the crowd on a train platform, the day rattling around inside you. You only got halfway through your to-do list, and you’re running late.
People approach from the other direction. A tall suited man wearing a red scarf; a young goth with a spike through her lip; a stooped man in a stained coat; a dark-eyed woman pushing a stroller. You see these people, sum them up, decide who they are. But you can’t feel the pain the mother might have in her foot, or know about the kind of morning she had – any more than she can see beyond the expression on your face, your choice of shoes. Now, multiply: this is happening, like lines joining points on a map, between everyone on the platform. Each consciousness creates a world around it. It’s strange, really – the tension between the taken-for-granted facts of being alive (I’m rushing for the train, that woman looked at me, that kid is crying) and the way we take shape in one another’s eyes.
Paddy O’Reilly’s new novel deals in strangeness. The Wonders features a man with a metal heart, a woman with lambswool skin, and a man with mechanical wings. The protagonist, a socially awkward man named Leon, dies on the first page. By page two, he’s been dead a few more times. His condition forces a critical choice – die slowly or take an insane risk with a new heart? A few chapters later, Leon is alive and meeting his fellow freaks.
Before I’d even laid eyes on this book, I wanted to read it. And not only because I’d enjoyed O’Reilly’s other work, which ranges wonderfully from psychological drama to rural comedy. The characters’ transformations intrigued me: Kathryn, whose life-saving gene therapy has left her with wool for skin; Leon, whose new heart doesn’t beat; and Christos, who has implanted ceramic mounts in his back so he can wear wings (and not the dress-up variety, with the elastic that always slips). Together, they are three ‘problematic creatures, part human, part something else’.
Brought together by Rhona Burke -– a rhinestone-wearing showbiz type with a circus heritage – Leon, Kathryn and Christos become the Wonders: a trio of beautiful freaks whose performances are carefully calibrated to ‘give the people both what they want and what they can take’. At first, the shows are intimate events for a select few; later the crowds gawp as the Wonders perform their stage personalities (Leon is ‘Clockwork Man’, Kathryn ‘Lady Lamb’ and Christos ‘Seraphiel’, the angel) inside glass booths. Leon’s journey from a small apartment near the Victorian goldfields to the Wonders’ walled compound in Vermont, USA, tracks his progress from puny nobody to object of fascination and desire. His changed body – and the way others look at it – creates a new reality for him. But is he empowered by this, or subject to it? What can Leon’s transformation tell us about what it means to be a person? The answers, I think, are linked with Angelina Jolie, Franz Kafka and technology.
Readers familiar with O’Reilly’s work will know she is no stranger to transformation. Her writing resists categorisation. Her first novel, The Factory (2005), is a drama set in an artists’ commune in Japan; her second, The Fine Colour of Rust (2012), is a gentle and often funny story about a single mother who lives in rural Australia. O’Reilly has also written a book of short stories (The End of the World, 2007), a novella and screenplays. There’s no discernible ‘brand’ in her work. O’Reilly laughs about this. ‘Some people say it’s a kind of career suicide really,’ she says. ‘I feel like I don’t have any control over that. For me one of the main ways to know where I’m heading in writing is when I’ve found the voice – and the voice is never my voice, it’s always the voice that belongs to the character.’
O’Reilly is reluctant to sum up the ‘point’ of her novel in a few sentences (as one writer said when asked for a three-sentence summary of her work, ‘If I could do that, I wouldn’t have needed to write a book’). O’Reilly says The Wonders is about a series of questions, things that interest her – bodies and body shame, robots, and freaks. ‘Everybody is interested in freaks. I think that’s why we have shows like Embarrassing Bodies and The Biggest Loser’, she says. ‘You can’t stop people wanting to look at other people, particularly once they look different.’ In The Wonders O’Reilly uses difference to not only tell a great story, but to show us things that are so familiar we forget to notice them.
One of those things is the way we move through the world defined, in ways largely unspoken, by the language of appearance. The life of Angelina Jolie – a woman whose beauty, according to a recent Good Weekend article, is ‘absolutely incompatible with anonymity’ – has clearly been affected by her good looks. A Google image search brings up a tapestry of perfection: smiling from the front; eyes to the side; long legs; flat stomach; pouting lips. She’s ideal – freakishly so. Now I can’t speak for the rest of humanity here, but when I see photos of Jolie, I remember all the ways I fail to measure up. I’m aware of everything Jolie can do because of her beauty, and reminded that if Jolie’s appearance impacts on her life, then mine must, too. It’s slippery territory, but there’s a kind of truth in it. Jolie reminds us of this because she embodies it in the extreme.
But what about when being different runs against the ideal? In Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1916) the put-upon son Gregor Samsa is turned into a giant insect. Finding himself thus, Gregor is baffled, waving his bug legs around, stuck on his back. His family is shocked and repulsed. Over time, Gregor adjusts to his new body – he develops a taste for rotten things, lets go of his worry about being late for work. His existence is different after the change, but the fact that Gregor is a bug doesn’t take him (or us, as readers) out of his life: it allows us to see it more clearly. There’s a similar effect at work in the Bruno Schulz story ‘Father’s Last Escape’ (1934), in which the narrator’s dying father appears as a ‘crab or large scorpion’. He crawls about the house, runs up the walls, refuses food. His grieving family members care for him tenderly, and keep silent about their fear that he’ll visit them in the night. In both stories, the strangeness of transformation allows us to look again at the mundane – how a son feels imprisoned within his family, the pain and alienation of losing a parent, the way we’re all rattling around in our bodies, experiencing the world from within ourselves, judging and being judged.
The Wonders mirrors the work of Kafka and Schulz by using the incredible to help us see the day-to-day more clearly. In fact one of the great things about the transformations in The Wonders is that none of them is really science fiction; O’Reilly sees them as ‘a hair’s breadth away from what could happen, and what does happen now’. Cochlear implants allow the deaf to hear; a Spanish-Irish artist’s implanted antenna ‘eye’ allows him to hear colours and receive phone calls directly into his brain; at an artificial organ conference last year, medical companies exhibited ‘circulatory support systems’. And of course many of us are ‘augmented’ by our smartphones, which give us moment-to-moment access to information from around the globe – which does seem pretty sci-fi if you’re old enough to remember using a paper index card at the library. Technology isn’t just changing the world – it’s changing us, too.
If it’s critical for O’Reilly’s story that the Wonders look remarkable (the Jolie effect), have changed bodies (as in Kafka), and are altered by technology, what drives the narrative is not just the transformations, but how the characters deal with them. In the glare of celebrity, Leon goes from being shy and anxiously protective of his post-surgery body to enjoying fame and the power that goes with it. Christos, the only one of the trio to choose his new body, suffers pain to wear his wings and show that ‘the body should be the vehicle for creativity’. Kathryn, once reviled in the press, is ‘re-marketed’ as a celebrated beauty. If the characters’ transformations make us aware of how we exist within our bodies, the events that follow (both good and bad) show how appearance can be manipulated. To borrow a few lines from the feminist scholar Judith Butler, the Wonders illustrate the way we ‘perform’ ourselves in ways both unconscious and deliberate: ‘a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint’. We’re at once trapped within ourselves, subject to the way the world sees us, and empowered to bring about change.
In this context it’s important that while two of the Wonders have artificial materials implanted in them, technology alters Kathryn’s body at a genetic level. She becomes a ‘human inhuman animal’ whose existence breaks taboos – pets aren’t allowed at private shows because they snarl at her, confused; she’s called the Lamb of God by some people and reviled as unnatural by others. Kathryn is a reminder that we’re not computer-like brains walking around in bodies we simply control. We’re animals, a mind-and-body package. Or, in O’Reilly’s words:
[W]e’re in a strange time where the body is so important, yet we’re still acting like the mind is something different from it. But the way we’re merging with the environment, it’s the opposite. The mind, the body and the environment are becoming less and less able to be separated, but we’re still talking about the body as a thing that you almost take off at night before getting into bed.
As examples of this, O’Reilly cites the way food has become so changed that it’s ‘no longer food’, and notes all the chemical and electrical influences that run through our flesh unnoticed. In The Wonders, the old dichotomies – mind/body, human/environment, human/technology – are shifting. So I’m not just a mind in control of a body, any more than I’m solely a techno-human who is master of my universe, or a person defined by my appearance. I’m a wandering bag of bones who daily tries to negotiate an agreement with the world about who I am, where I fit and what I can have. I’m one point on a map in which we are all looking, and being looked at.
The Wonders is about what it means to be in the world: to view reality from inside so many individual skulls, struggling for empathy when contained within ourselves. It’s about the constraints and liberations of our bodies, brought to our attention by a metal heart which saves a man’s life and irrevocably complicates it, and fleece that brings both good fortune and danger. Paddy O’Reilly’s story reminds me of the way I exist within my body, down to the mundane fact of the elbows which allow me to bring my hands to my mouth to eat, and put my arms around another person: joints which appear uninformative but define my capabilities, bear the markings of the life I’ve lived. And even this unremarkable joint can be clothed, or broken, or tattooed in ways that point to so many unspoken meanings – things which could signal culture, gender, class. At the same time, it’s just a joint: part of the natural world which goes on, living and dying, without regard for our particular wishes. Of course, there’s not often time to think about such things when you’re halfway through your to-do list and haven’t worked out what you’re cooking for dinner. Which is why we need stories – wonderful, just-left-of-reality stories which show us the ‘what ifs’ in order to open up a clearer view of the ‘as is’.