N by John A. Scott
Our bookshelf is a space where the editors (and, perhaps, guests) can share what we’re reading and thinking about without the formality of a longer review or the focus on recent books, or even sticking to fiction as we usually do.
John A. Scott’s novel N (Brandll & Schlesinger) is a big, complicated alternate history of WWII in Australia told in multiple modes and styles from the Pynchonesque to magical realism to inserted documents to moments of slapstick(ish) comedy (including a cameo by Douglas MacArthur that turns one of his most famous lines into a gag so hilarious I got some concerned looks while reading it on the subway). It’s set in the past but very much engaged with the present as the large cast of characters — politicians, artists, soldiers, spies — get caught up in the incremental creep of authoritarianism and oppression accepted one moment’s expediency at a time. The juxtaposition of voices, styles, and experiences creates a panoramic sense but Scott never loses the intimate, individual presence and pathos of his characters despite so many moving parts to keep track of and to keep the reader engaged. As others have noted elsewhere, it does get a bit too “tidy” at the end, tying things up perhaps more insistently than I felt I needed, but even that approach took on a gravitas of its own that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, so I wouldn’t quite call it a complaint.
N isn’t the easiest book to get your hands on in the US but it’s worth the effort. I requested it via interlibrary loan after enthusiastic recommendations from by Australian writers Ryan O’Neill and Jane Rawson (both of whom are also well worth your reading time). I’d love to see a US publisher bring N over to make a more readily available edition, though it seems unlikely. In part, perhaps, because of the Australian setting and context because I suspect an equivalent novel written about the US or UK instead of Australia would get far more attention, acclaim, and international republication, which is really a shame. Especially right now as novels like Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America and even Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here are drawing renewed interest post-election. Like those novels, N depicts an unexpected rise of alternate-history authoritarianism in ways that force readers to contend with unpleasant questions about our present, without becoming a “mere” novel of ideas because its literary qualities and execution avoid being thinly didactic. I’ll definitely be looking to read more of Scott — his earlier novel Warra Warra will be next — and I hope to see N get more attention in the northern hemisphere, too.