Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Tevis, Walter (1962, 2015), The Man Who Fell To Earth, Gollancz
ISBN 978-1-473-21311-1

Greene, Graham (1936, 2009), A Gun For Sale, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-099-28614-1

I read Walter Tevis’ SF novel on a hot summer afternoon in preparation for a paper that I will not, as it turns out, present at a conference (travel expenses to Salzburg didn’t work out, regretfully). The topic was the idea of the Good. Walter Tevis puts a curious spin on this, in a book that is as much a moving and plausible examination of loneliness as it is anything else. My original paper examined the many science fictional narratives of Alien visitation that were in some ways trying to communicate a sense of the Good to the human race, whatever the ends ultimately were. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is the most famous, I think, example of this. There’s a sense in which one can read Newton, the alien who arrives on earth with plans for advanced technologies and a secret mission to save his home planet, as another one of those aliens. Newton ultimately fails, and I’m not spoiling the story here, because the whole book is imbued with a sense of resignation, and the sad and shabby way in which Newton fails is notable more for its Kafkaesque ordinariness more than anything else. There’s a darkness at the heart of the novel, but unexpectedly, it’s only marginally connected to the science fiction story at the heart of it. Fundamentally, if you strip this novel down to its most essential elements it is a searing novel about the horrifying loneliness many of us feel, the desperation of being alone and the way alcohol offers a welcome but destructive recourse to it. Tevis manages to tell a heart wrenching story by not indulging in the sad parts of it – he employs shifts in perception and time to provide a distance, making the final confrontation all the more emotionally charged. I end these first paragraphs on the blog with a recommendation to read or not read the book. In this case, I assume you know you should read this book, right? It is a classic of science fiction, but even if you don’t like the genre it is a powerfully sad tale about the difficult to stay the course in the face of public resistance, and personal mistrust. The way Tevis depicts the attraction and use of alcohol to the lonely mind is exceptionally sharp and painful to read. Go, go and read the damn thing already.

His planet having run out of fuel – and soon sure to witness the death of his race, Newton was carefully selected by his peers to do this job: use the knowledge about his planet’s advanced technology to quietly build a business empire on Earth and within a few years, assemble enough money to build a large rocket and send fuel back. In 1963, Tevis’s vision of the dying planet “predicts” our own trouble with fuel, but then, these kinds of predictions were in the air – just think of JG Ballard’s first three novels. Newton isn’t personally brilliant – he was chosen for the task, the plans were given to him. He was chosen for his resilience – an important factor, since even he, an exceptionally resilient member of his race, is pale and thin, basically walking on bones of glass. The first time he rides and elevator, the mild gravity pressure lands him in a hospital. More importantly, for people around him, Newton is weird. He talks weirdly, he looks weird with his long limbs and pale skin, and he doesn’t do well at the usual social games. He doesn’t comply with the expectation of heterosexual masculinity, he’s just himself, a weird person. And his reaction to seeing this reception is to retreat, and restrict contact to humans to the absolutely necessary. He keeps a servant around, an isolated, somewhat weird woman, who I will talk more about below. Eventually, he takes an engineer into his inner circle. That engineer, too, is a bit on the strange side. Clearly, he attracts people who are a bit “off,” just because he himself is perceived in that way.

And increasingly, he starts drinking alcohol to balance himself emotionally. The pressure of his mission, the complicated relationship to the human race (and the humans around him), all of this becomes just the teeniest bit smoother with alcoholic lubricant. And In Tevis’s novel it is alcoholism, but this mechanism is absolutely true for all kinds of coping mechanisms of people who feel they have to deal with a kind of intense loneliness. Looking at someone in front of you and seeing your insufficient self reflected back, and still having to deal with that person and people like him – it explains many addictive behaviors and choices, from drugs and alcohol, to the barely-better-than-placebo world of psychopharmacology (I comment on it here). At the end, in Newton’s most human moment of the whole novel, a bartender remarks to another customer: “I’m afraid that fellow needs help.” And he doesn’t mean: help to reach his home planet. He means help dealing with what is clearly a severe case of addiction, desperation and loneliness. Newton, throughout the book, operates on the margins of sanity and while the alcohol doesn’t help, Tevis demonstrates with enormous skill the attraction of it as a coping mechanism. And despite all this, Newton manages to maintain a solid performance, until, in the novel’s dramatic finale, his professional self, the part of him that worked on the mission, also fails. That’s when everything truly ends, when his half-imagined pride in his work, his confidence of sorts in its success collapses.

And he’s not the only one with such problems and such coping mechanisms in the book, but before I expand on that, I want to pivot for a second: I decided to make this a double review of sorts. Recently, on a train ride home with dampened spirits, I was reading Graham Greene’s novel A Gun For Sale. I have not read as much Greene as I should have, but this is, as far as I can tell, considered a minor novel. Greene split his work into serious fiction and what he called “entertainments.” A Gun For Sale is such an entertainment and indeed – what you have is a very entertaining noir crime novel, with murder, shootouts, twists, betrayals, and dark conspiracy. It tells the story of a contract killer, the gun for sale from the title. He kills an ambassador and is then framed for a robbery and soon, the police is closing in on him – not for the crime he committed, but the one he did not commit. On the surface, the novel does not seem to be very similar to Walter Tevis’ novel of alien visitation, but as I was reading it, I kept thinking of Newton and his isolation. Raven, Greene’s protagonist has a cleft upper lip and he’s always painfully aware of his reflection in the eyes of the people he talks to. When a woman offers him genuine trust and affection, he, raised to be lonely, has a hard time understanding it – and by the time he accepts it, the facts on the ground already changed and he has lost that trust without realizing it. Yes, Greene’s novel is about crime and murder, and Greene depicts various seedy characters extremely skillfully, including a Thénardier-like couple, but at the same time, it is an extended study in loneliness. Raven, fleeing the police, is trying to clear his name – or rather: he’s trying to find out who cheated him, who disturbed his professional routines and environment, in order to exact some revenge on him, to regain some balance. This is not about being declared innocent, as it is about fighting to maintain some professional pride. Because really, that is all he has. Even an occasional love interest in his past admits openly to be repulsed by his harelip, and the structures and connections he expected to be able to trust prove to be slippery and deceitful. His reaction is not anger or noir cynicism. It’s a desperate confirmation of his profound loneliness: “ He was touched by something he had never felt before: a sense of injustice stammered on his tongue. These people were of his own kind […]. He had always been alone, but never so alone as this.”

Now, of course, Newton is a kind of benefactor to humanity, and is on a mission to help his own race, while Greene’s Raven is a cold and particularly brutal killer, and so on some level their situations are not comparable (though Raven’s efforts to exact revenge on the man who tricked him do lead to a beneficial outcome for his country, but unintentionally). But the way they are isolated from their fellow man, the way a profound experience of loneliness is mediated by both men on the professional level, until, for both men, that level, too collapses, leading to catastrophe. I’m sure that’s not the most common or popular reading of Greene’s novel, I suspect many readers are more interested in the connections it makes between class and war and gender. And it’s true, it’s a frightfully complex and interesting novel on those levels as well, but I am fascinated by the thread of loneliness that runs through it all. In a way, Raven’s abject loneliness helps motivate others to deal with their own fears of abandonment, from a recently-engaged couple, to a young muscular bully, who, forced by Raven at gunpoint to strip down to his underwear, is seized with immediate social anxiety. In a sense, class pressures, predatory capitalism and war are presented as weapons that only work because we are lonely and isolated and cling to our fears and coping mechanisms. There are not as many carefully detailed characters in The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is more of a character study of Newton, but even there, loneliness abounds. Newton “learns” his alcohol habit from his servant, a woman who is also riven with fears of dying alone, and who drinks to compensate. It is meeting Newton that leads to her and another character to eventually marry, to avoid the strange and unpleasant isolation Newton spends his life in. Newton’s desperation is encouragement enough.

The right street for our time

As with Greene’s novel, I focused on one aspect of Tevis’s novel to the great detriment of many others. It does offer a take on the idea of the Good and how it is connected to human actions (I suspect Tevis shared Iris Murdoch’s distrust of what she calls “the rational man”). It also makes very interesting observations on race, on reality, on hope, language and many more topics. There’s a reason Tevis’s novel is considered a classic of science fiction, and it’s not because it’s a very realistic and harrowing portrayal of loneliness and alcoholism. But I think these are important aspects of the book, and it, in itself, is a very important book, but it is not a happy one. Maybe I should close with the words Greene uses to describe Raven’s death:

Death came to him in the form of unbearable pain. It was as if he had to deliver this pain as a woman delivers a child, and he sobbed and moaned in the effort. At last it came out of him and he followed his only child into a vast desolation.

How is that for an outlook on life. And indeed, some of us will be heading into a vast desolation with pain as the only companion. In this, Walter Tevis and Graham Greene agree. Cheerful.

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3 thoughts on “Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth

  1. I wonder if the vast desolation comes in part from Greene’s Catholicism and a sense that Raven is estranged from god? It’s not a thought that struck me when I read it years ago, but it did just now.

    Nice review(s). I like the common thread you draw out in such dissimilar books. I don’t recall the Tevis that well, though I have read it. For me it was overwritten by the film. Always a danger of course.

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