I've yet to pick up and read an NYRB Classic that I've not loved or admired and usually I both love and admire the stories I read. I need to get back into my habit of reading my subscription books as they arrive as nearly always each one is a new discovery for me. The August book is John Wyndham's Chocky and it seemed a perfect RIP read. Although I have a couple of his books on my shelves and often pick them up and consider reading one, I had not yet gotten around to any of them. You know what's coming next, right? Now that I have one very good book by Wyndham under my belt, I will be reading the rest. I've even ordered a couple that sounded quite appealing that I am watching the mail for.
Chocky was Wyndham's last book, published in 1968 just a year before he died and after an eight year hiatus. His earlier novels had been written in fairly swift succession of each other. It wasn't quite what I expected but that doesn't mean it was in any way a disappointment. As a matter of fact I can easily see it as a strong contender for my favorites list (if I don't read another one by him still this year that knocks this one off the list). In Margaret Atwood's afterword she calls Chocky "close to a domestic comedy" and it is quite light in tone. Apparently his books are known as "cozy catastrophes", which I quite like the sound of. I was expecting end of the world devastation or something equally as suspenseful, but Chocky ends on quite a pleasing and hopeful note. It does have an underlying message to it, which is just as pertinent today as it was then.
Margaret Atwood was a great fan of Wyndham's books when she discovered The Day of the Triffids at the age of eleven. Can you imagine Atwood with a Venus flytrap as a pet when she was young? She had one she kept in a goldfish bowl and she talks of feeding it pieces of lean meat on a toothpick. So it is not much of a stretch to imagine her reading Wyndham's adventure stories, or those end of the world stories where earth is being invaded by monsters. Or her own subsequent writing (did you know her father was a biologist and they had some interesting mealtime discussions about genes?).
So, what then, is Chocky? Rather, who is Chocky? Actually Chocky is hard to describe. Matthew's parents are sure Chocky must be an imaginary friend, since they often see him talking to someone who isn't there. And not just talking, but sometimes having heated discussions that border on arguments. Their younger daughter went through a phase where she had an imaginary friend, too, though she dropped her quickly enough when she met a real little girl who was more interesting. Matthew, however, is eleven. A little old maybe to have an imaginary friend? And this imaginary friend seems to be very well informed to say nothing of talented and intelligent. So how could it all being coming from Matthew's imagination?
Matthew isn't the story's narrator. We see him talking and listen to his conversations, but it's his father who is sharing this story. Matthew is an adopted child, and his sister Polly came as a surprise after the fact. Matthew's parents will wonder if there is something about him they don't know that they should when Chocky comes to light. Matthew is somewhat hesitant to share Chocky with his family. And when you learn something about Chocky you will understand why. Chocky is not physically there, yet she/he inhabits Matthew's consciousness from time to time. I guess you could consider Chocky an alien? Once Matthew and his father determine to call Chocky 'she', she seems to be a palpable presence, and an interesting one. Not threatening, but seeking. She chooses Matthew (and isn't it always a child that seems most inviting--their naivety or freshness, maybe?--like a blank page--one that is open to new ideas and experiences) as her way into the earth's realm, to study it.
Chocky doesn't feel in the least threatening to Matthew, though his parents will, unsurprisingly, find the situation confusing and unbelievable. But things begin happening. Chocky comes from a place so far away that she cannot even begin to describe to Matthew about her planet so unlike earth is it, though she'll try. She thinks much of what we do here doesn't make much sense--and I refer mostly to our science and inventions and use of natural resources (you can see what was on Wyndham's mind here), yet Matthew has a hard time conveying to his parents and later to doctors what Chocky is trying to tell everyone. He understands mostly, but being only eleven he doesn't have the words to explain.
It's when people, other than his parents, begin noticing that things are not quite right that the story gets especially interesting. How can Matthew know the things he knows or do the things he does when he seems very much an average eleven-year-old boy? This is very much a page-turner of the story (sorry to rely on the cliché). I don't want to give too much of it away since the fun of it is to see how things steamroll and how Matthew must cope, and Chocky as well. As interstellar beings go, Chocky is quite likable, if aggressively opinionated. And Matthew is one of the more admirable and likable characters I've come across in a long time. I feel like I ought not say this about a science fiction story, but it's really quite sweet. It might not be the typical sort of story filled with menace to drive its point, but in this story, the point is well-taken anyway. I'm virtually sliding this one into your hands. If you've not read it, I think you should.
My September NYRB subscription book is Leonard Gardner's Fat City, which I think just might be finding its way into my bookbag this week. I've already decided I will be subscribing again next year and hope to do a better job of reading each monthly release. If nothing else, I will enjoy reading this year's previous books at my leisure.