Bona Fide Brain Food: Head-to-Head with Bernard Beckett

Bernard Beckett is the author of 10 books and lives in Wellington, New Zealand, where he continues to work as a high school teacher of English, drama and mathematics. This is despite increasing international recognition as the creator of a unique brand of metaphysical fiction for young adults. His first title to be published in the UK and Ireland was Genesis in 2007, winner of the Young Adult Fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards and the Esther Glen Award. His latest novel, August, was fittingly published in August 2011 by Quercus. Tom Donegan caught up with the man himself down the wire to Down Under.

At the climax of his award-winning breakthrough novel Genesis, Bernard Beckett confronts us with a future where knowledge is but a download away. As Art, a robot that comes to embody the ‘tipping point’ of artificial intelligence’s ascendance over humanity, so eloquently puts it: ‘Thought, like any parasite, cannot exist without a compliant host [but…] words are an old and clumsy mechanism. A more efficient means of transporting Thought was always on the cards.’

It is a compelling vision that taps into very real anxieties about our increasing reliance on technology and its ever-expanding reach into all areas of modern life. But for now at least, words remain the best tool we have for transferring ideas between one another; and in the hands of a master craftsman like the author in question, a pretty powerful one at that.

Though it was the international success of Genesis that first brought Beckett to the attention of readers on these shores, in his native New Zealand he was already well known as a writer of novels for teenagers, with several prestigious accolades to his name. In 2006, he was awarded a Royal Society fellowship, which allowed him to take a year out from teaching to work on a project studying DNA mutations. The experience led directly to the creation of Genesis, which imagines a post-apocalyptic world where evolutionary theory is pushed to its limits. The novel represented a dramatic departure for Beckett in terms of both style and substance, one that required a leap of faith on behalf of its original publisher, Longacre Press, as he freely admits:

They knew they were taking a risk with it. It wasn’t much like any other book in the New Zealand market, and I’m happy to say that risk paid off. In a way publishers do need to be risk takers, because it’s almost impossible to predict trends and so they have to back instinct, just as writers do.

This intuition proved well founded when Genesis subsequently received the largest international rights advance ever paid to a New Zealand young adult (YA) author, followed by critical acclaim from around the world. Not bad for a book which preferences ideas over action, and centreson a philosophical debate concerning the nature of consciousness and what it means to be alive. For Beckett, the global plaudits provided significant reassurance that he was on the right track in pursuing a more cerebral approach. As he explains it:

I think there’s always a tendency to second guess yourself as a writer. Is this the sort of book I should be writing? Have I got the voice right? Is it pitched at the right level?, and so forth. Writing seems to work best when you quieten the doubting voices and just get on with it, and maybe the response to Genesis has meant I’ve given myself permission to play around with abstract ideas a little more

This ‘permission to play’ can be seen working at the very heart of his latest novel, August, published earlier this year. The book opens in dramatic style, placing the reader alongside a young male driver and his female passenger as their car plunges over a cliff and into the black expanse beyond. With no other option but to wait until morning and the rescue they hope it will bring, the pair endeavours to keep each other conscious by sharing their respective life stories. It quickly becomes apparent that whatever expectations we may have formed about these characters and the world they inhabit after the first few pages are destined to be proven wrong. For a start they barely know each other. It transpires that Grace is in fact a prostitute who Tristan picked up earlier that evening. This may initially raise eyebrows in some quarters, but in the context of the story as a whole, the decision is entirely justified. Indeed, the real challenge posed by August to teen readers lies not in Grace’s illicit profession, but in the ethical and philosophical conundrums encountered as she and Tristan recall the ever-darkening sequence of events that led to their present predicament.

As they swap childhood memories, a picture emerges of a world bearing certain similarities to our own, but where an alternate turn of historical events has split society into opposing religious and scientific factions. Both Tristan and Grace have grown up within the confines of the City of God, where a quasi-Christian hierarchy founded on the teachings of Saint Augustine maintains a tyrannical hold over a fearful population. With his keen mind and passion for critical thinking, Tristan is seen as the perfect candidate to participate in a series of controversial experiments, wherein some of the central tenets of Augustinian theory will be tested out on living subjects. As the human guinea pig in the middle of this theological battle, Tristan becomes fixated on the key issue at stake, namely that it is impossible to be truly free in a world where we are all part of God’s almighty plan. Exiled to the heathen settlement beyond the city, Tristan’s obsession with proving that freewill does exist eventually leads him to Grace, the crash and all that follows.

If all this sounds very high minded, rest assured that the emotional payoff as their entwined stories are brought to a close is all the more powerful for the mental workout enjoyed in getting there. Trying to summarise a novel of such density in a couple of paragraphs is never really going to do justice to the original. However, the above should at least hint at the kind of enterprise we are talking about here. This is certainly not your average YA fare, but Beckett remains unapologetic about his attempts to put big ideas back on the literary menu. As he sees it:

The smartest teenagers are far more intellectually adept than most adults, and the assumption that ideas need to be simplified for teenage readers is a good one to challenge. I’m a high school teacher, and so I am reminded on a daily basis of the capacity and curiosity of the teenage mind. I have tried to write books that are both accessible and challenging. That assumes the reader is prepared to do a little work, and of course that varies from reader to reader. 

In a commercial environment where so many decisions seem dominated by achieving the broadest reach by pitching to the lowest common denominator, it is heartening that there are authors and publishers out there who are still willing to cater for young people looking for something more from their reading experience. What Beckett identifies as ‘a certain type of kid [who is] drawn to this stuff, the one who is drawn to abstract ideas, and to intellectual combat’.

If, like me, you have a similar appreciation for this unique ability to combine cerebral stimulation with a gripping storyline, the good news is that Beckett already has something new in the pipeline. Provisionally titled Lullaby, the book will follow the path cleared by Genesis and August in tackling no lesser matter of philosophical speculation than death itself. We await the results with interest, but there’s no question that, if handled with the same dexterity as the two previous novels, the subject has the potential to set forth the ‘thought parasites’ amongst teenage readers as never before.

Now there’s an interesting idea to chew over. TD