They have lost themselves but not their ambitions

Matt Haig, The Humans. Canongate paperback, 2014.

When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year I’d never heard of Patrick Modiano, so I thought I’d better do something about this. For my birthday, among the books I asked for from family friends, was his Occupation Trilogy. Last week I read the first novel in that trilogy: La Place de l’Étoile. I found it a bit of a struggle, but might write about it here soon.

I craved something less dark and serious over the weekend, so devoured Matt Haig’s The Humans, first published two years ago, in two binges. At first I thought it too slight to merit a post here, but I’ve done some thinking and online digging and have changed my mind.

As I read it I thought it rather derivative. It’s about a highly advanced alien race – so advanced they have learnt, through the mastery of higher mathematics, to become immortal, to have almost magical powers (they can revive the dead, for example, or heal wounds instantly simply by thinking themselves better) – who send one of their own to earth in order to prevent a mathematical discovery by a Cambridge maths professor (named Andrew Martin) accidentally destabilising the human race, and possibly the universe. As the novel starts they seem already to have killed Martin; our protagonist, the alien, has assumed his bodily form and begun his mission – to seek out and destroy anyone to whom he might have divulged his secret discovery.

After a few pages I was thinking this reminds me of numerous sci-fi narratives: Mork and Mindy, the Robin Williams vehicle from the seventies in which another naïve, largely well-meaning alien struggles comically to understand the peculiarities and defects of a flawed human race, while reporting back to another increasingly alarmed host planet (‘Mork calling Orson’) that he’s beginning, like our protagonist ‘Andrew Martin’ here, to find it rather endearing. As his masters see it he is, like Mork, becoming ‘corrupted’ or impure by contact. Also like Mork he has a repertoire of super-powers (like the capacity to learn English after hearing or reading just 100 words; later he learns to communicate wordlessly with dogs).

Here’s ‘Andrew’ musing judgementally on humanity after watching the news on TV for the first time soon after moving in with Andrew’s wife, posing as her husband:

The term ‘news’ on Earth generally meant ‘news that directly affects humans’. There was, quite literally, nothing about the antelope or the sea-horse or the red-eared slider turtle or the other nine million species on the planet.

His relationship with the 40-year-old professor’s wife Isobel becomes, however, increasingly close as he learns to overcome his initial revulsion with the (to him) alien human form and to appreciate our human capacity to cope with our weaknesses and mortality, our vulnerability and our selfishness.

IMG_2983The Isobel plot resembles that of Starman, John Carpenter’s 1984 film in which Jeff Bridges, another innocent alien on earth, assumes the form of a young widow’s husband and befriends her. Like Haig’s ‘Andrew’ he revives the dead and has other special powers, and gradually falls in love with his ‘wife’. The book’s front cover points out other influences: David Bowie’s alien in Nick Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

The other parallel that I found most obvious was the ‘Martian poetry’ of the kind instigated in 1979 by Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian sends a postcard home’- it’s surely no coincidence that human Andrew’s family name, Martin, is so close to ‘martian’. In this poem a Martian visits earth and describes (as ‘Andrew’ often does) with unintentional poignancy, wit and puzzled, oblique insight the mundane objects and rites of humans (books have ‘wings’ not pages, and rain ‘has the property of making colours darker’).

As I became engrossed with the progress of ‘Andrew Martin’ and his increasingly reluctant murder quest I began to realise that this was, like Raine’s poem, not really sci-fi at all. When I’d finished and read Haig’s short afterword it became apparent that it was about the defects and vulnerabilities of the human condition and psyche, and how we learn to come to terms with them. Here’s ‘Andrew’ on seeing Isobel fall in love with him, believing him to be her human husband: she was, he thinks,

someone who had lived enough to know that loving and being loved back was a hard thing to get right, but when you managed it you could see forever.

Haig explains that he’d suffered from depression in his early 20s, and I’ve since read how he struggled to deal not only with his condition, but with the stigma attached in our culture to those who have mental health problems (see for example this interview in the Guardian from Feb. this year, about his recently published book about depression, Reasons to Stay Alive). The Humans, then, is about alienation – that feeling experienced by the person with depression when everyone around them is ostensibly ‘normal’.

He’s particularly good on the Martins’ troubled teenage son, Gulliver, who’s experiencing that adolescent angst, anger and turmoil that most people in their mid-teens grapple with. The human Andrew had been a remote father and husband, self-absorbed and lacking emotional intelligence and empathy. He’d also been unfaithful to Isobel, whom he’d taken for granted to such an extent that he hadn’t registered her unhappiness when she sacrificed her own successful academic career to play the role of mother and housewife. He’d betrayed her and his son.

But the alien Andrew learns to recognise how important it is for humans to endure and overcome our deficiencies and confront our mortality in order to be able to love. Although this ‘love conquers all’ moral becomes a little sentimental at times and the lessons are spelt out a little portentously, as when ‘Andrew’ is kicked out by Isobel for guilelessly blurting out that he’d had sex with human Andrew’s student girlfriend, being naively unaware – a touch implausibly, given his ability to assimilate a culture’s communicative codes in seconds — of the concept of fidelity in marriage, and writes out a 97-point manifesto of aphoristic advice for Gulliver, who he’s also come to love, to help him survive being a teenager surrounded by treacherous adults. This seven-page document fills one whole chapter, and slips at times into whimsical mawkishness.

There’s a great deal of warmth, wit and charm in this novel, despite the derivative plot and tendency to overdo the moralising (‘Humans learn the errors of their ways’, insists ‘Andrew’ to another clone sent, like the Terminator, to complete the murderous job he’d abjured). Its heart is more honest and sincere, to my mind, than Curious Incident’s. It shares that novel’s witty take on the relations between mathematics and poetry, music and, ultimately, the transcendent beauty and purity of this troubled sphere that is the planet earth, and of the inhabitants of that sphere. There’s also a dark, almost metaphysical seriousness beneath the slight lyric charm, to paraphrase Eliot. The frequent doses of Emily Dickinson add to the experience.

Haig is very good on dogs, too. The Martins’ dog Newton is one of the best dogs I’ve encountered in fiction for some time. There’s a hilarious scene when alien Andrew learns about the delights of peanut butter with Newton.