BOOK REVIEW: “A Voyage to Arcturus” by David Lindsay

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison
 

Back in the winter of 2000, while living in Cleveland, Ohio, I crewed on the Academy Award Nominated film American Splendor starring Paul Giamatti and my friend Madylin Sweeten.

A few days into the production, I handed out copies of my first novel, The Gothic Rainbow, to various members of the cast and crew. Two days later, Paul Giamatti gave me a copy of one of his favorite books – A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay.

Paul Giamatti is a bright guy, earning degrees in both English and Fine Arts from Yale, where his father was a professor. When such a well-educated gentleman recommends a novel, you tend to listen and Paul told me, “This is a really bizarre book. But I think you’ll appreciate it.”

Wow. He was right on both counts.

A Voyage to Arcturus is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. David Lindsay is like a literary Terri Gilliam, even though A Voyage to Arcturus was published 20 years before Terri Gilliam was born.

David Lindsay was 40 years old when A Voyage to Arcturus was published in 1920 and it was his first novel. By today’s standards, this book is completely surreal and strange. “Kooky” as my grandparents would have said. I can’t imagine how people must have reacted when it came out almost 100 years ago. Readers must have been tripping their balls off. The story is about a man who travels to another planet and goes on a voyage across the alien landscape, meeting a myriad of outlandish characters along the way. I’ve always loved stories that are very avant-garde and experimental in nature. Stories that break the conventions of writing and don’t follow the standard paradigms and established story structures are often the greatest joy to read. In that sense, A Voyage to Arcturus does not disappoint. The saga has no real plot per se. I mean, the main character is traveling across this planet, but there isn’t much of a defined goal or purpose in mind. Or, maybe I’m just not educated enough to understand the purpose. Supposedly, the characters he encounters represent different teachings of philosophy and his experiences in the tale are reflective of these various principals. Heck, I didn’t catch any of that. I just enjoyed the story as a very queer odyssey into a strange universe (not like “limp-wrist” queer I mean like “far-out” queer). In truth of fact, critics who have cited the philosophical metaphors may be over intellectualizing a little. After all, when an alien at the start of the fable asks the main character why he came to the planet, the main character even replies, “Will you think it foolish if I say I hardly know?… Perhaps I was attracted by curiosity, or perhaps it was the love of adventure.”

Our protagonist has no idea why he’s there, or what he’s doing, and neither do we. It’s fantastic. How exhilarating to encounter a piece of fiction that doesn’t lay out a storyline, but instead merely says, “Come along with me. I’m not telling you where we’re going or why. Let’s just go.”

The journey of the main character, named Maskull, is entirely solitary and linear. Meaning as he meets different people along his pilgrimage, they never reappear later in the story. That approach to storytelling certainly breaks conventions. We’re accustomed to the hero meeting people who join him on his quest and accompany our hero until the very end. But such is not the case in A Voyage to Arcturus. Maskull meets people, interacts with them, sometimes only briefly, sometimes for several days, then he moves on. Again, it’s a very weird way to tell a story and yet, it still works. There’s something quite refreshing about reading something so unusual and unexpected.

Not only is the world filled with astonishing landscapes and peculiar creatures, but as the story goes on, the main character develops new appendages like a tentacle growing out of his chest which later is turned into a third arm through some magic crystals. At one point he grows a third eye, which of course gives him the power to see things differently. In that way, it kind of reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Just as Alice changes size and shape as she moves through Wonderland, so too does Maskull in A Voyage to Arcturus constantly have new sensory organs appear and wither away, depending upon where he is and whom he is with on his adventure.

One part of the story that I loved and really stood out to me (and again, from reading more philosophical studies of the narrative, it seems I’m not the only one who was left awestruck by this passage) was the part where Maskull describes the color of a plant, which reads:


But what was peculiar about it was its colour. It was an entirely new colour – not a new shade or combination, but a new primary colour, as vivid as blue, red, or yellow, but quite different. When he inquired, she told him that it was known as “ulfire.” Presently he met with a second new colour. This she designated “jale.” The sense impressions caused in Maskull by these two additional primary colors can only be vaguely hinted at by analogy. Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful, and jale dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous.

 
Wow. Was that amazing or what? Therein lies a case where the book will always be better than the movie. How could you possibly capture ulfire and jale on film? Impossible. Unfilmable. You couldn’t do it. That is the kind of writing I love. The idea of a new primary color and the attempt to describe it? What an inventive and innovative thing to write. And how intriguing to describe something that truly defies the imagination. I have a damn vivid imagination, but I can’t picture ulfire or jale. I see ulfire as maroon. I see jale as a shade of violet. But those aren’t primary colors. So the way I’m picturing them isn’t correct. This is why I adore a book like A Voyage to Arcturus. Not only does it challenge you on a philosophical and intellectual level, but the author paints such a grand and fantastical world, it even challenges our imagination to visualize it. Heck, I even love the names of the colors. Ulfire and jale are wonderful words. Easy to pronounce. Not outlandish and ludicrous. They sound like genuine names of colors. You can easily imagine those words printed on Crayola Crayons… only I have no idea what the hell the crayons look like.

If you’re looking for a novel that is very mystifying and beautiful and imaginative and literally paints a world in colors you have never seen, check out A Voyage to Arcturus. As the book is nearly 100 years old, it is now in the public domain, so you can get ebook versions for free. As Paul Giamatti said to me, “This is a really bizarre book. But I think you’ll appreciate it.”