A Maggot - John Fowles _A Maggot_ is an interesting novel. It can be approached as an historical mystery, a meta-fictional experiment of mixed narrative form and genre, and a meditation on the injustices inherent in the 18th century social, political and religious mindset. The story proper details a mysterious journey undertaken by five individuals across the English landscape whose destination and purpose is unknown. In addition to this each of the individuals is not what they appear, and may not even be what they themselves think they are. This ‘simple’ mystery plot form is expressed with a variety of narrative techniques: a somewhat distant 3rd person with occasional authorial asides taking place “now” interspersing longer passages of first person question-and-answer that are occurring in the “then” of 18th century England. As the story progresses the reader begins to see that even the genre boundaries of mystery and historical fiction are being crossed and significant possible elements of science fiction begin to creep into the tale.

Accepting this novel at face value as a historical mystery would be a mistake, especially since it seems to be a mystery whose whole purpose is not to be unravelled. Rather the mystery ‘plot’ is the vehicle which allows Fowles to show how each character’s own conception of this mystery of which they are a part, and its possible solutions, is determined by their own social standing and personal background, by the hidebound preconceptions they each bring to their experience of the world. These disparate characters allow Fowles to put on display a particular aspect of human society that he perceives as having been distinctly strong in 18th century society due to its make-up, but that still exists today: that we are determined by our perceptions and expectations. The question and answer segments are particularly useful in this regard for making explicit how differently each character interprets the same events; how they look to the expected, the known, or the conventional, in order to explain something that is beyond their experience. Even the visionary falls back onto traditional (to her) paradigms in order to be able to interpret her life-changing experience.

The juxtaposition of perceptions and assumptions of the modern era (as witnessed in the 3rd person intrusions) with those of the 18th century when the novel takes place are well done, and seem central to the novel. These are characters who very much feel like authentic inhabitants of their era. Their modes of speaking and even of thought are truly alien to the modern reader in many ways. As a result Fowles is able to use these differences to indulge in his thematic hobby-horses of free will vs. pre-destination, the fear of change vs. the need to progress, and unthinking acceptance vs. the belief that change can and must be effected. These are ideas that many of us take for granted, but Fowles shows how new and strange many of these concepts were when the novel takes place and they were still in their larval stages. Another major cultural difference between the reader and those whom the book purports to represent is seen in Fowles’ notion that their sense of individuality is not even close to our own (would not even be considered as “individuality” at all by our standards). Fowles goes so far as to draw comparisons between the constraints of people from this era and those of a character in a book, the “plot” of their lives pre-determined according to their role and function in society (certainly if born below a certain social level), and harps on the fact that this was utterly natural to them, something which the vast majority of the people of the day would not even consider an issue worth considering. It is an intriguing idea and allows the more obvious meta aspects of the narrative to gain a further level of depth. Ironically Fowles notes both explicitly and implicitly that that the “birth” of the individual, one of the key elements that broke up the injustices inherent in the 18th century social, political and religious mindset, was as much a blessing as a curse.

All that being said I still found the book to be one I felt more obliged to finish than one that carried me along with the rush of its passage. At times the question and answer sections of the novel seemed to carry on too long and the 3rd person narrative parts could perhaps have been more liberally interspersed into the text than they were. I can accept that not all mysteries have to have a solution, but the utter lack of any real understanding of what happened in that cave in western England, and the impenetrable nature of the young lord’s real purpose and end, is certainly frustrating. In the end I guess I would consider this a highly successful meditation on the birth of modernity and the ways in which we have both learned from, and ignored to our peril, the lessons of the past, but only a moderately successful novel. I think David Mitchell would have written something on the same subject and with the same elements with just as much depth, but that was much more interesting.