Conquest by Nina Allan

I happened to read a brief review of Nina Allan's new novel Conquest by Ian Mond, wherein he calls it "a story about alternative truth, misinformation and art" that "features essays on the work of Shane Carruth and Hans Werner Henze, a 1958 science fiction novella that proves central to Frank’s ideology, and an obsession with J.S. Bach" — and I immediately ordered it from Blackwell's, where it was available for a good price and free shipping to the US. (It seems only to be available in the UK edition so far.)

You had me at conspiracy theories and Bach.

What Conquest turns out to be is one of the most quietly devilish explorations of narrative uncertainty that I know, a book where the hermeneutical fireworks burst at such distance that it takes a while for the soundwaves to thunder toward us after the sky has blown up. It is quite an easy book to read, rarely feeling dense or leaden even when discussing obscure material, yet it enacts some of the insights of Douglas Hofstadter's famously difficult Gödel, Escher, Bach.

As Ian Mond says in his review, the plot is quite easy to summarize: a man named Frank (who, though it's never stated or discussed, displays behavior that would likely be on the autism spectrum) disappears after becoming obsessed with the idea of a secret alien invasion/war that he has learned about via conspiracy theory forums online. He travels to France to meet with people he's talked with online and his family does not hear from him again. His longtime girlfriend, Rachel, gets frustrated with the police's lack of interest and Frank's family's apparent resignation, so she hires a private detective, a former police officer named Robin. The primary narrative of the book is Robin's search for Frank.

In good sci-fi fashion, Conquest teases the possibility of the secret alien war story being true, but Allan is too smart to write a clichéd tables-turned sort of story. Even better, she doesn't really take things in a Philip K. Dick direction, knowing that PKD did his thing better than anybody else, and there's no need to compete with him in some sort of paranoid-SF Olympics.

(In fact, the best comparison I can make to what Allan ultimately accomplishes is one I hesitate to mention, though for reasons I didn't know of until after I'd read the book. Throughout, I kept thinking, "This is like a book by somebody who really understands the work of Christopher Priest and is both riffing on that and taking it in directions of her own." [From me, this is high praise.] But after reading the book, I wanted to know more about Nina Allan, so I researched her a bit and discovered ... she and Christopher Priest live together. Reader, my heart sank. I of course wish them well and hope they have a beautiful and fulfilling life together, but the simple fact of their relationship complicates one of the best comparisons I have for Conquest because it feels dangerous to link a novel by one person to the work of the person they live with. Still, Allan did review Priest's 9/11 conspiracy novel An American Story in 2018, and that book is the one I most immediately thought of, so comparison is not entirely out of bounds, but we must be very careful not to inadvertently reduce Allan's achievement when making the comparison. She has her own concerns and style, and she's an immensely skilled writer. I will simply say: If you like Christopher Priest's novels, you will probably like Conquest, as it delivers many similar pleasures and challenges.)

The straightforward plot is given weight and complexity through an evidence-box structure: we encounter various points of view, most of them through texts that Robin collects in her investigation. While most of the chapters are told from Robin's perspective, the first is an exception. It gives us Frank's thoughts as he sits in a café in Paris awaiting his contact and reflecting on the patterns that brought him to that particular spot. Patterns obsess Frank, and Allan makes this not only clear expositionally but something we experience via stylistic choices. Through a tightly-focused third-person point of view, we experience Frank's way of thinking, his care for certain details, and the rushing thoughts he sometimes has. The rush is most obviously represented with strategically-constructed run-on sentences, while the obsession with detail is present most visibly in his habitual inclusion of catalog information for recordings, including Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV) numbers for Bach's music. (If you haven't spent much time comparing Bach recordings, this may seem more obsessive than it really is. The BWV numbers are an efficient and sometimes essential way to sort through Bach's large body of work. Even the record label name and year that Frank thinks of when he thinks of recordings are useful information for classical records, since many artists re-record favorite pieces through the years.) Here's a particularly excited paragraph:

What if Bach was his trigger his activation meme an attraction that had been implanted, like with his dad? Frank thought about this a lot worried about it sometimes but here were some things you couldn't know for sure which meant it was probably safer to pretend you hadn't noticed. Frank owned fourteen different recordings of the Goldberg Variations. His four favourites in ascending order were András Schiff (ECM 2002), Glenn Gould (Sony 1955), Angela Hewitt (Hyperion 1999), Peter Serkin (RCA 1965). Serkin would always be his favourite because it was the first recording he had heard. There was a limit to what you could do with pre-digital recordings but Frank didn't mind the bumps and crackles, they gave the sound depth. (pp. 2-3)

This is a rich paragraph of character information. The punctuation, syntax, and subject matter are hardly avant-garde at this point (interior monologue and stream of consciousness are now more than 100 years old), but I don't think Allan's goal is to be avant-garde. I think she simply sought the most accurate and effective form to convey her character's way of perceiving the world.

Notice the list of recordings. Used judiciously, lists are a particularly efficient tool for character development, and here if you know something about the Goldberg Variations you will intuit a lot about Frank. Of course he likes Gould — Frank is very much a Glenn Gould type (I say with no scorn, as I myself became passionate about Bach when I got entranced by Gould at an early age, and I still listen to his recordings regularly) — but fights will break out among Gouldians over the comparable virtues of the 1955 vs. the 1981 recordings, since they are significantly different. (But whatever you think, seek out the video from the 1981 sessions — just being able to see Gould's hands fly across the keyboard is thrilling.) Serkin's 1965 recording was his first, made when he was a teenager, and he would go on to play the pieces throughout his life and record them again more than once. I doubt anybody, including Serkin, would claim the 1965 recording as one of the best ever made of the Goldbergs, but it makes sense that it captured Frank's imagination. It's the work of a young man, hugely talented, and the son of one of the most famous pianists of the 20th century, Rudolf Serkin, who himself recorded the Goldbergs c. 1928 on piano roll. The Hewitt also makes sense, as it's unimpeachable, something of a reference recording. (Kirk McElhearn's review for the Bach Cantatas Website is informative.) The Schiff is something of a surprise, and particularly revealing: I don't know of another recording of the Goldbergs where the musician sounds like they are having so much fun. Many Bach recordings can feel coldly precise, but while Schiff certainly has precision, there's nothing cold about it, and I can imagine even Bach haters smiling at this recording. The presence of the Schiff on this list shows us that while Frank is certainly interested in the patterns the music makes (the other choices testify to this), he is still able to hear and appreciate whimsy and joy within the music and, presumably, in life.

But then Frank is gone. The second chapter gives us Robin's POV, and we will not return to Frank's for the rest of the book. Interestingly, some of the stylistic features of the first chapter continue: dialogue remains without quotation marks and titles are not italicized when we would expect them to be. This will continue throughout the novel, with the only differences (that I noticed) being in some of the evidentiary material, where things are punctuated somewhat more conventionally (though not entirely: book and movie titles, for instance, never get italicized).

Allan is a clear and careful writer, so the typographical minimalism of Conquest does not increase confusion once we're used to it, and if anything the simple absence of run-on sentences and comma splices makes the rest of the book feel like a breeze after we've adjusted to Frank's more idiosyncratic chapter. But here we encounter one of the great questions the book poses to us as readers throughout: what should we make of this? Are these unconventionalities quirks of Nina Allan's own — a la Cormac McCarthy — and matters of personal writerly preference ... or do they have something to do with the meaning of the text itself? Is plain text trying to tell us something? Are we being encouraged in our own hermeneutical endeavors through the pages' lack of the helpful guidance we're used to?

And then there are all the details which we may, like the novel's characters, be impelled to drop into search engines so that we can dive into some rabbit holes. I am not going to tell you how long I searched for one particular album that I am pretty certain never existed in our world, but which is so plausible that even now I think I just might not have found the most complete discography...

Welcome to the land of paranoid reading, a style particularly well suited to the subject matter of Conquest. By the end of the book, I was seriously torn between thinking the mispelling of nunc dimittis (with one less t) was somehow purposeful and not a typo. A bigger part of me suspects it was a typo (easy one to make, hard one to catch), but the paranoid reader in me remains suspicious.

What makes Conquest powerful is not the fact that it cleverly nudges us toward paranoia ourselves. That's a neat trick, but it's only a trick. Since Allan's work till now has been marketed as genre fiction, she knows that many of her readers arrive with some genre expectations, and she plays with those masterfully. She knows we expect the book is going to vindicate Frank as a misunderstood genius, suggest that the alien war is real, and gently (or not gently) throw contempt toward the normies who doubted. SF loves a story of a nerd vindicated. You never alienate your readership with a revenge of the nerds/triumph of the nerds story. I have a soft spot for them myself.

But now more than ever we live in a world where the nerds have had their revenge — it's called Silicon Valley. The nerds have done terrible, terrible things to our society and planet. Fans may be slans, but fans are also Musks, Bezoses, and Zuckerbergs.

Conquest manages authentically and movingly to both affirm Frank's efforts and to avoid the burden of our genre expectations, proposing that we are trapped in uncertainties but not without dignity and grace. The truth is and is not out there. I won't reveal the particular mechanisms here, because they are best encountered with innocence, but will say simply that Allan, like Bach, knows something of counterpoint and of fugal structures.

(I may be about to give something away, but it is worth noting, so you should skip this parenthetical if you don't want to know anything. A good preparation for reading Conquest, or a good follow-up to it, is the story of Robert Hendy-Freegard, a story that has been chronicled in the documentary The Puppet Master [note the Heinleinian title, with Heinlein's novel entirely resonant with the idea of the war in Conquest] and in the feature film Rogue Agent. While I thought the latter was something of a missed opportunity, its great virtue is James Norton's performance, which makes it clear how a determined and charismatic man can bedazzle smart people into a con that, explained to people outside it, sounds absurd.)

Many of the chapters provide Robin's point of view and carry us through her thinking about the case and her quest to find Frank. Her own life story is important, as she finds coincidences within her past that may or may not be meaningful. Her desire for meaning and explanation becomes something of an obsession of her own, and one with its own consequences. At the same time, the extent of the coincidences, if we believe them all, makes the book feel contrived — and that's entirely intentional, I'm sure. We should feel at some point that there is just one coincidence too far, as if Allan has mashed together a couple Dickens-novels worth of networks and revelations into a single character's life story. There is one brief moment where we are, in fact, encouraged to wonder if we're reading, in the Robin story, a novel-within-a-novel written by the character of Jeanne-Marie Vanderlien. Once it was suggested, I held onto that possibility until the end of the novel.

Late in the book (p. 229), Robin has descended deep into the mystery. She "wonders if this is what it feels like to be Frank Landau: the thrum of anxiety, the unfounded suspicions, the inescapable and constant feeling of being watched." This is true for us, the readers, as well. Though we get Frank's direct perspective only in the first chapter, the rest of the book really is about conditioning us to his way of thinking. At the same time, it does not simply leave us there, helpless against the world's infinitely strange loops. This is not a book of total relativism, not a book that says anything is true if you believe it to be so. Belief is important, certainly, as it shapes our behavior, and our behavior shapes the world, so even if someone has a verifiably false belief, it can have significant, sometime lethal, effects on the world (cf. QAnon). And that's primarily what Conquest is about, not the difficulty of truth or even the horrors of belief, but the effects of belief on believers and the people around them. We all believe things, but what do our beliefs lead us to do?

While our own age has certainly made the incommensurable realities of clashing beliefs become a daily problem, it is not a new or unfamiliar problem. One of Allan's characters declares:

There are many who insist that conspiracy theories and alternative facts are a poisonous by-product of the internet age, a new and virulent form of mania born out of the proliferation of social media dnt eh indisciriminate dissemination of uninformed opinion. But if Stephen's story shows us anything, it is that our secret enthusiasm for esoteric knowledge and occult drama is as old as time. More than that, it proves the reasons for our need of such mythologies have not altered: disgust with the status quo, the fanatical, and sometimes violent conviction that a better life must be possible, that the world can be changed. (p. 259)

That's from a world-weary and cynical character, so the anti-utopianism of it may or may not be to your taste, but the basic idea is sound: the history of humanity is a history of paranoia and conspiratorial thinking, a history that yearns for a better, more meaningful life and finds it in the coincidences and overlaps within the chaotic stew of existence.

And, of course, plenty of conspiracies do exist. That's not at issue. What's at issue is the fervor with which we want them to exist.

In addition to Robin's story, Conquest includes chapters of other people's texts: essays by some of the conspiracists and, at greatest length, a science fiction novella supposedly from 1958 (the year that Sputnik 1 fell to Earth).

It's this latter piece, which spans pages 88 to 148, and is titled The Tower, that I am most befuddled by. I understand why Allan has included the other material in the book, and I understand why she might have included excerpts from The Tunnel, which is an important text for Frank and everyone else who believes in the secret war, but why put so much of it in the book, and why place it where it is, quite early on? It's not a great read. I almost gave up on Conquest by the time I was to page 110 or so. The Tunnel chapter is not even a convincing simulacrum of a 1958 pulp novel — the diction is wrong, much too contemporary. There are certainly resonances in the chapter with other material in Conquest, but the effort of wading through The Tunnel does not seem to be rewarded with any great insight later.

As best I can guess, that's the point. The Tunnel is neither convincing nor especially resonant, and it's definitely not entertaining. (It's no Heinlein!) That this text should be the one that captures the conspiracists' imaginations to the point where they analyze every word of it is telling. If we had not had so much of it to read, we might have been tempted to think that what was left out was more compelling than it is.

Still, it's quite a choice to bog down Conquest with The Tunnel. And I don't know what to do with how unconvincing it is as a faux-1958 piece of writing. (Most obviously, the characters use swear words that would not have been allowed in most novels of the time, certainly not in paperback genre novels.) Should we think that it is, within the world of Conquest, a fake that has been taken for the real thing by the characters? And what, then, would that mean?

Here, again, we are trapped in the paranoia of reading. Unable to see a clear meaning, we make one up. We seek to impose meaning. We choose to believe something because hovering in ambiguity or ignorance is too unsettling, too annoying. (Who wants to read 60 pages for no reason?) The Tunnel is not quite a red herring, but it's overdetermined and overemphasized, even within the pages (literally) of Conquest.

As Robin looks through Frank's posts to an online message board, she wonders "why it is that most people are able to watch a film or read a book no matter how disturbing and never question the fact that it is simply a story, when there are others — often sensitive, vulnerable or imaginative people like Frank — who seem compelled to treat such stories as instalments in a secret narrative only they and their fellow initiates recognize the truth of" (p. 187).

Welcome, Allan's book seems to say, fellow initiates.

This is not just about metafictional game playing or philosophical noodling. It is that, certainly, and it's part of the fun of the book, but the farther we get into the story, the more we have to consider the stakes. There are a lot of considerations, but one that most struck me was the use of Shane Carruth's film Upstream Color.

Upstream Color is a beautiful, strange, beguiling film. When I first watched it in 2013, I called it "A flow of sound and light, a hypnotism." Shane Carruth is a phenomenally talented writer and director. He is also someone who has been charged with domestic violence and who seems to have had a longtime anger problem. (Fullest account is via the YouTube video "The Downward Spiral of Shane Carruth"; for most recent developments I'm aware of, see this Reddit post noting that he was sentenced to 10 days in county jail, though I don't know the source of the Reddit info, so, appropriately for this conversation, it should be taken with a grain of salt. The other information about Carruth is public and widely reported.)

That Allan brings Upstream Color and Shane Carruth in to Conquest is a masterstroke, adding new resonances and challenges. What we make of those resonances and challenges is up to us. If we want to think about the difficulty of terrible people creating great art, we are free to do so, and free then to link it to the many other resonances and challenges of the novel. We may have no knowledge of the rather obscure film and its director and so choose to move on, which is also fine — the Carruth material is a tiny part of the whole, so you'll lose a little grace note, perhaps, but nothing especially consequential for your experience of the book. If we want to think about the ideas of Upstream Color, separate from the awfulness of Shane Carruth's behavior, we can do so. It all works, but what we choose to think about will affect at least a little bit of what we experience across the other pages of this novel.

What most surprised me by the end was how emotionally effective the final pages were. Halfway through the book, I began to doubt whether it was going to have anything but an intellectual payoff. I resigned myself to that — this is a philosophical novel, I thought, and so I shouldn't expect it to have rich characterization; that's not the game it's playing. To a large extent, that remained true throughout, even at the end. Mostly, the characterization is adequate to hold our interest, but that's about as far as it goes. Or so I thought. In the final pages I began to discover that Allan had set some boobytraps in my brain. From the information about Robin, Frank, and Rachel I had extrapolated enough to be able to care about these figures in the text as if they were actual people. Maybe not actual people I know well as friends or family members, as more character-focused novels might achieve, but well enough that I cared about their fates. They had become familiar acquaintances. I did not discover this, though, until the fates got complicated at the end of the book. I was quite surprised — pleasantly — to discover that I wanted things to turn out in a particular way for these images of people I had let Allan's words build in my imagination.

After reading the last sentence of the novel, I went back through Conquest in search of clues I'd missed, but also seeking more time with these characters I had grown fond of. I was reluctant to let it all end. Luckily, like a skilled work of contrapuntal music, Conquest is a book that benefits from revisiting; like a magic fractal it rewards entering at any moment and looking around, comparing part and whole, seeking new perspectives on its kaleidoscopic vision. I expect to continue to do so for a long time to come.

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