26.12.13

Walter Tevis - The Man Who Fell to Earth

Rating 7.6

As a non native English speaker, I discovered the adjective 'poignant' only six years ago thanks to a Canadian friend (thanks, Vicky).
She chose it to comment a photo I took involving a bowler hat hanging from a chair while an out of focus blonde girl in the background stood on her toes to take off a branch of autumn leaves from the frame of a mirror over a washbasin.
To be honest with you, the photo was nothing special. Perhaps my friend was ironic. Or maybe not.

What I know is that from that day on I have been struggling to find the right contest to use the same word.
The thing is that poignancy doesn't seem to apply to many things I see around me. Besides, the word 'poignant' doesn't come up very easily in conversation. 'Touching' and 'moving' are my natural choices.

Now my quest is over.
For The Man Who Fell to Earth is a poignant novel.  I wouldn't call it in any other way.

It's certainly a sad story, but there is a delicate almost intimate feeling around it and within it that makes poignancy at home. I've never watched the movie adaptation taken from this book and starring David Bowie, but I am somewhat sceptical on the ability of the Hollywood industry to create and deliver the same atmosphere of the book.

Walter Tevis was not your typical sci-fi writer and The Man Who Fell to Earth is not your typical work of science fiction either. No surprise that Tevis himself referred at his so labelled 'sci-fi novels' (this one and Mockingbird are his most famous works) as 'speculative fiction' rather than science fiction.

Given all that, you might not be surprised to find plenty of introspection here as well as recurring and symbolic references to paintings by Klee, Bruegel, Manet, and Van Gogh. Which is not the standard cup of tea for a sci-fi novelist.
At the same time, the 1980s and 1990s imagined by the author in 1963 are not that technologically advanced to leave you flabbergasted. No flying machines. No smell-o-vision cinemas. No androids dreaming of electring sheep. In fact, what happens is quite the opposite: there is no hint that humankind ever made it to the Moon (as it did only six years after this book got published) as well as that any significant leap forward took place either in mass production of goods or scientific research.

This is not a coincidence. The author wants the reader to focus on the main character.
And the main character might look like a man, but - as it happens - doesn't belong to the human race but comes from planet Anthea. That he 'fell' to Earth and brought with himself enough blueprints and chemical formulas to give humankind progress and make himself a billionaire in the process is all a part of a masterplan.
Now the problem for the Anthean visitor is that he starts feeling overtired and lonely. If he were a man, he would soon discover that money can't buy health, love and happiness. But he comes from Anthea, accumulates cash for a purpose and doesn't seek for disillusion thus going straight into alcoholism.

Walter Tevis was an expert on this. And I'm sure there's much of him in Mr Newton, the Anthean visitor. It's true that the author indulges way too much on what each character drinks, if they drink it straight, bitter or on the rocks and whether they stir their drink and,if so, for how long.
As a matter of fact, all the three main characters in the novel had, have or will have problem with the booze to the point that they often wish to get drunk. I cannot deny that this subplot is somehow simplistic: after all there's nothing new in alcohol seen as a painkiller, a nectar of wishful forgetting and - at the same time - a weapon of self destruction.

And yet Tevis' writing made me forgive him for all that first hand insistence on alcohol.
What ultimately wins here is a powerful story that is beautifully told and is still topical today. The uneasiness of Mr Newton, the Man who Fell to Earth, first in dealing with Earthlings and then with himself is non extraterrestrial, but very much a human feeling.

2 comments:

  1. Poignant is indeed the only word to describe this story. I would recommend checking out the movie. Though there were some changes from the novel (notably, the inquiry into the sex lives of everyone involved, the alien included), there's an air of silent tragedy that is very much faithful to the spirit of the book. If anything, watching Bowie's thin, frail, coke-addled self trudge through his miserable existence at the end of the movie was somehow even more affecting than Tevis's insight into Newton's thoughts.

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    1. Hello Anonymous :o)
      You convinced me: I will check the movie out. I thought that Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust period was perfect for the role of Mr Newton, but was a bit skeptical about the rest. I'll see, then!

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