Sunday, March 22, 2020

the last book I read

Imaginary Friends by Alison Lurie.

Roger Zimmern is a newly-qualified professor of sociology at Corinth University (fictional, but apparently modelled on Cornell) in upstate New York. Keen to impress the senior figures in his department, and the semi-legendary Tom McMann in particular, he readily agrees to participate in a study McMann is doing of a religious cult in a nearby small town called Sophis.

The Truth Seekers, as they call themselves, have a rather unique brand of vaguely Christian belief: certain extraterrestrial beings from the distant galaxy of Varna (all of whom have rather perfunctory names like Ro and Lo) have been observing Earth (their civilisation being well in advance of ours) in preparation for an in-person (or quite possibly in-betentacled-space-lizard) visit when the time is right and humanity has attained the necessary level of enlightenment. The unlikely conduit for all this information is a young woman called Verena Roberts, who lives with her aunt Elsie in Sophis and has attracted a group of a dozen or so acolytes who gather to hear the messages from Varna. These tend to arrive via a form of automatic writing which Verena goes into a sort of trance to receive.

Zimmern and McMann infiltrate the group, initially under the pretence of just being regular people who happen to be in the area, although this subterfuge doesn't last, and as it happens the Truth Seekers are quite chuffed to be deemed important enough to attract interest from high-falutin' big-city book-learnin' academic types. So the sociologists are accepted and quickly become part of the group, including being expected to fall in line with Ro's increasingly arbitrary behavioural guidance: some fairly severe dietary restrictions (no meat, for instance) and only non-organic fibres in clothing. But you have to comply, because you don't want to be the bad apple in the group whose non-compliance makes our glorious saviours put the flying saucers in reverse and bugger off back to Varna, do you?

Part of the reason McMann was so keen to study a group of this type was that pretty much all of them eventually encounter a problem: some sort of Coming is predicted, and eventually a specific date is attached. And since the whole thing is a mass delusion, eventually that date will pass and it will become apparent that the Great Event has not happened, and the group will either fragment and wither, or find some way of rationalising things and carrying on with its belief system reinforced (which seems surprisingly common, as utterly barking as it sounds).

Sure enough Verena announces that Ro and his mates (Bo and So and Zo, I shouldn't wonder) will be coming to Earth in a very literal physical undeniable landing-the-flying-saucer-on-the-front-lawn kind of way in just a couple of weeks' time, and everyone should ensure that they are spiritually prepared, laying off the corned beef and wearing drip-dry Crimplene slacks for the big occasion. This is the big day for Zimmern and McMann: what will happen? How will the group react when the inevitable happens?

All appears to be going as predicted when, despite much standing around chanting in the garden midnight comes and goes and no little green men have knocked at the door (although there is always the possibility of the entire fleet having been accidentally swallowed by a small dog). It's Verena's Aunt Elsie who finds a way out of the situation: what if Ro and his chums did visit, but via some sort of eleventh-dimensional pan-galactic gateway type shit beyond the puny power of our visual cortices to register, and moreover what if Ro were even now occupying the fleshy mortal form of....you, Tom McMann? McMann thinks for a minute and then goes: yyeeeesss, I think you may be right there, Elsie.

Unsure whether McMann is simply playing some complex sociological long game or has in fact taken leave of his senses, Zimmern gets what appears to be a conclusive answer the following morning when he and McMann return to the house. First Elsie drags McMann off upstairs for a close-quarters personal consultation with Ro of Varna, then just as Zimmern encounters Verena in the kitchen there is a knock at the door and Ken, a former group member and would-be suitor of Verena, arrives, whereupon McMann goes berserk, banishes Ken from the house at gunpoint and is shortly afterwards carted off by the police.

Zimmern subsequently visits McMann in the mental institution he's been confined to and finds himself unable to reach a conclusion on McMann's sanity. Was McMann's going along with Elsie's bizarre theory just part of a dedication to completing the study, whatever it took? Similarly, is McMann's claim to now be faking a continuing mental imbalance in order to conduct a study of the institution from the inside to be taken at face value, or is he just a loony?

This is the third Alison Lurie novel on this list, after The Truth About Lorin Jones and Foreign Affairs, but the earliest one in terms of its date of publication - it was her third novel, published in 1967 (the other two are from the 1980s). I'm not sure if that has anything to do with why I found it
less satisfying than the other two. Basically once the set-up is complete and the sociologists are embedded within the group very little of any consequence (or, arguably, interest) happens until right at the end when McMann suddenly loses (or appears to lose) his marbles. It's unclear who the target of the satire is here - if it's the cultists (and it presumably it at least partly is) then there's a suspicion of shooting fish in a barrel. To be fair there is probably also a more subtle point being made about the impossibility of observing people's behaviour from close quarters without unconsciously influencing that behaviour in some way. Nonetheless for a fairly short book (less than 300 pages in my Penguin paperback) it sags quite a bit in the middle, and could probably have been 50-60 pages shorter without suffering too much. I mean, it's not actually bad, but if you want Alison Lurie books then Foreign Affairs and The War Between The Tates are probably better places to start.

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