P.D. James has attracted notice for how well she is able, within the confines of her mystery novels, to write about contemporary British society. Reviewing Devices and Desires in the New York Review of Books some time ago, Hilary Mantel made the suggestion that it was perhaps time for James to “slide out of her handcuffs, kick off her concrete boots, and stride onto the territory of the mainstream novel.” James had been getting this advice for some time, not least, one suspects, from herself. One might have thought that James would write her first serious novel by carrying on in the same vein as her earlier mysteries, minus the bodies in the billiard room. Instead, the result of her first attempt is The Children of Men, for which James chooses as her scenario nothing less than the end of the human race. It is, however, the end of the race as only a writer long practiced at finding innovative ways of knocking people off could depict it.
The year is 2021, and Britain, like the world, is ending with a whimper rather than a bang, for in 1995 the last children were born to a humanity whose males have inexplicably become sterile. In the opening chapters, Theodore Faron, Oxford don and historian of the Victorian age, introduces us to this world by reminiscing in his journal, briefly summing up the intervening years. The 1990’s were years of tribal warfare, Volkerwanderung, religious upheaval, lawlessness, and hedonism; the cataclysm was intensified in the next decades by the desperation and impotent rage of a dying species whose god—science—had failed it.
By 2021, though, things have settled down into a decidedly non-utopian, but mostly cozy, Britain. An aging race has increasingly less energy and motivation for war or violence, while managing to preserve certain 20th-century creature comforts. Early in the novel, James writes with simple grace, lulling us into Theo’s Britain, a land in which we can picture ourselves peacefully living out our existence, both individually and as a people. With Britain gently depopulated, we find not a cluttered I990’s countryside, but rather one which is returning to a slightly wild rusticity that Tennyson or Byron might more easily recognize. Now the domain of staid ladies and gentlemen broadening their horizons, Oxford still stands, no longer the sole privilege of bureaucratic research institutes and saucy undergraduates. Humans being what they are, not all is well, but conditions seem acceptable. There is corruption, decay, and selective lawlessness (the pampered Omegas born in 1995 can literally get by with murder), but these things are not different in kind, or even necessarily in degree, from what we in the 1990’s experience.
Overseen by Theo’s cousin and boyhood friend, Xan Lyppiat, Britain’s government is decidedly authoritarian. Yet Theo’s world seems, if anything, a little more stable and free than our own, and with the help of James’s well-crafted prose, we are made to feel satisfied with this. Britain has found what apparently is a dignified via media by which ladies and gentlemen can confront the close of history with composure: it is not hard to imagine the last tottering old man in Oxford closing a dusty volume of poetry in the Bodleian, drinking a last glass of claret, and drifting off into eternal sleep as the birds sing and the tendrils curl in an overgrown courtyard outside the windows.
More predictable dystopian novels convey a sense of foreboding from the beginning. Although the brainwashed, bought-off, drugged, or otherwise numbed masses are outwardly content, the reader knows better; he is revulsed at seeing humans losing their liberty, independence of thought, and humanity. Not so in this book. When James introduces a small group of would-be reformers and revolutionaries, they strike us as nuisances who are getting in the way of the Jane Austen novels, the drives in the country, and the bottles of vintage wine that must be consumed while there is still somebody around to consume them. We, like Theo, wonder why anyone would bother about politics, legal systems, or even religion in a peacefully dying world. But having thus seduced all but the more doctrinaire anti-statists, James hardens her prose as the revolutionaries make their case. By removing the comforting beauty of her earlier chapters she forces us to a more objective consideration of Xan’s Britain, even as the reformers are revealed for the largely unheroic and unlikable people that they are.
In The Children of Men the Utopian desires of the 20th century, barely altered, become the dystopian realities of the 21 St. This is, of course, not a new device; James’s twist is to provide no evidence that man has wrought his own destruction. It is as if man’s will has been heeded by the world of spirit, as if a hand as invisible as that which deluged the earth in the days of Noah has reduced man not only to sterility of the flesh but to impotence of the soul, denying him even the Promethean satisfaction of self-annihilation. Thus the self-imposed sterility increasingly favored in the early 1990’s gives way to the mysterious universal sterility of the late 1990’s; the trend actually goes unnoticed at first, owing to man’s desire not to reproduce himself. Theo writes in his journal: “Much of this I can trace to the early 1990’s: . . . less and less in the West we made love and bred children. It seemed at the time a welcome development in a world grossly polluted by over-population. As a historian I see it as the beginning of the end.”
James is one of those increasingly rare entities: an unpretentious, traditional, bread-and-butter Anglican. Theo impassively notes the insipidity of the Church of England, which in 2021 has a female “Christian Rationalist” as Archbishop of Canterbury, and concludes that, were infants still being born, she would surely ban their baptism as superstitious. He is not as sure that she would object to the growing practice of bringing kittens and dolls to church for christening. Though unconsciously drawn toward faith, and bearing the name of God, he remains a calm, detached agnostic who makes no leaps of faith on his own
On Wednesday he invariably attended the three o’clock service of Evensong in Magdalen Chapel. A small number of colleges with more than usually eccentric collegers or an obstinate determination to ignore reality still used their chapels for worship, some even reverting to the old Book of Common Prayer. But the choir at Magdalen was among the best regarded and Theo went to listen to the singing, not to take part in an archaic act of worship.
Hilary Mantel, in the above mentioned review, suggested the difficulties that the more literate genre writers face: “Wherever P.D. James’s books are discussed there is a tendency, on the one hand, to exaggerate her merits; on the other, to punish a genre writer who is getting above herself.” P.D. James will likely be urged to return to the mystery genre by both her hardened “whodunit” fans and her more pretentious critics— the former because they want her to skip the boring stuff and cut to the drawing room denouement, the latter because she doesn’t write like Graham Greene. One hopes that she can resist such pressures and devote a part of her remaining decades and all of her engaging assortment of literary talents to writing more novels like The Children of Men.
[The Children of Men, by P.D. James (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 241 pp., $22.00]
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