Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bright Young Things by Scarlett Thomas

Of the thousands who reply to an advertisement wanting “bright young things” for a big project, six are chosen. The six have everything and nothing in common - different tastes, attitudes and experiences but all are simply marking time in their life, with no ambition. None feels they would be missed if they were to disappear - which is exactly what happens to them.

After initial chapters introducing each of the six, the story really starts with:

“Where the hell are we?”
“What the fuck are we doing here?”
“Who brought us here?”
“Can you remember anything?”
“Is this some kind of island?”
“This is totally fucked up.”
“Please tell me I’m dreaming.”
“I still feel sleepy.”
The six are curiously unbothered about being stuck on an island with no apparent way off and no inhabitants: they make a bit of a game out of why they might be there, and show some fear that maybe they're going to be attacked, but ultimately seem pretty OK that they might have been kidnapped for some sort of experiment. By the second night, they have figured out how to make things work - they have what appears to be a self-sustaining house, with loads of food and drink.

Things I had read had claimed that the novel was something like Lords of the Flies but, really, it was the complete opposite. Instead of the isolation releasing the beast within, there is a recognition that they have got it made, that they have no need for any hierarchy of leadership and in fact it is the world which is the danger to be avoided (so, more Matthew Arnold than William Golding). The author certainly nudged reader expectations along by including several books about utopias in the library.

And so, within a couple of nights, the characters were content to play party games. It seems like half the book was given over to an extended game of truth or dare - it did drag on somewhat. But it did come across as authentic - the way in which the truths about the characters were gradually revealed, and the way in which characters would go on and on about the things they were passionate about. Given that these are 20 something graduates at the end of the millenium, it is no surprise that computer games, films, TV (even bad TV, like Home and Away) would be what they were passionate about. It is equally unsurprising that when it comes to the practicalities of existence, they don't have much of a clue.

Each of the six were quite distinct, but my favourite character by far was Anne. At age six, she stopped speaking because she was terrified she might lie by accident and go to hell. At twelve, she was given books to dumb her down, so she wouldn't be so weird. She spent four years in a special high school, during which she wrote 700 poems and attended no classes, a pattern she was to repeat when at University (English and Philosophy). Luckily, her University wanted her to write dissertations rather than exams: she does one on the meaning of zero one year (so it was kind of nice that on the island there is a math's geek, with whom she can discuss zero and its status as a number), then submits a "videogame" called Life the next. Her take on the importance of videogames is important:

"I was quite inspired by playing games ... where you do almost feel like your character has a real life, and you're able to earn money and then spend it on things. One of the problems in the real world right now is that a lot of the time you can't earn money even if you want to. So, if a game like mine allows a person to have a normal life, even if it's just in a game, which is basically ... fair and makes sense. Real life so isn't like that."

The one thing I had a lot of trouble accepting was that there was a seventh person on the island - their kidnapper is sequestered in the attic. I just don't buy that he could stay cooped up there, thinking he could go about his daily existence, without being detected. Apart from that, I really enjoyed the novel, and although its action only lasted a few days, think that these guys might have a shot at making it on their island.



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