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Washington Post Book World
Friday, September 14th, 2007
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Engleby: A Novel

by Sebastian Faulks

The Vanishing

A review by Michael Collins

Sebastian Faulks's brilliant new novel, Engleby, seems like a page torn from Camus, updated with a slew of scientific arguments questioning the very concept of selfhood. The edgy narrator, Mike Engleby, suffers bouts of memory loss and tells us up front that he might or might not have committed the brutal murder of his classmate Jennifer Arkland. He does not know for sure, but he is fixated on her.

Beware: Engleby is no ordinary whodunit. Faulks seems intent on bigger game in this psychologically and philosophically disturbing story. With artistry and skill, he turns a would-be murder mystery into a meditation on consciousness.

Early on in the novel, Engleby, a student of no small merit, switches out of English into the natural sciences, telling us, "I don't miss English at all. No one explained what we were meant to do." He is that near-anomaly, a man of letters in a world of science. As the plot develops, he struggles to define himself as he comes under police scrutiny.

Engleby's sense of estrangement from his peers seems rooted in being demeaned, bullied and tortured as a scholarship student from a working-class background, first at Wellington and then at Cambridge. He acquired the nickname "Toilet" after asking to be excused from class one day to go to the bathroom. The relentless taunting he endured went a long way toward creating his mordant sense of psychotic aloneness.

Most of the novel is set in the 1980s, and the voice in which Engleby narrates it can sound both shrill and estranged. With characteristic directness, he confesses, "The Churches, above all. Their emptiness. God has been to Earth -- and gone away. That did occasionally make me feel lonely." At other times, he relies on scientific metaphors. He speaks, for instance, of his sense of self as under threat by the "hostile otherness of my surroundings...such that my own personality was starting to disintegrate. I was vanishing. My character, my identity, had unraveled. I was a particle of fear."

This reduction of the self to atoms and molecules is not a mere conceit, but central to the notion of who or what we are. And in the mind of a disturbed murder suspect, this sense of examination takes on chilling portent: Are we a mere concoction of chemicals, as Engleby suggests? And if so, what does this do to our sense of morality and how we mete out justice?

As the novel progresses, the leads in the Arkland case grow cold, and Faulks seems to abandon the murder plot. Indeed, Engleby tells us, "I haven't thought about Jennifer Arkland for years." Instead, we spend untold pages watching as Engleby becomes a journalist. This section seems rife with details from the author's own career, including interviews with British literary and political luminaries that sound like the sort of thing Faulks might have conducted himself. He ably depicts the social and emotional landscape of England in the 1980s, a country in transition as a new conservative government dismantles social programs. While interviewing Mrs. Thatcher, Engleby asks her if she has any regrets over the riots in Brixton, the miners' strike or the Falklands War. The prime minister replies by quoting St. Francis: "Too much looking back is a weariness to the soul." This dismissal of the past is an eerie and haunting sentiment for a murderer to consider.

The latter part of the novel includes a solicitor's legal brief, with a detailed review of psychiatric literature and an assessment of Engleby's psychosis. While confined to a mental institution, Engleby reflects on his life, summarizing current scientific theories and asserting, after almost 18 years in confinement, that "self is an illusion generated by the chemical activity of the brain; that there is no such thing as 'mind,' that there is only matter....The idea of self has become a 'necessary fiction.' "

What is profoundly disturbing throughout the novel is Engleby's lack of remorse. He's caught up in a scientific theory that describes an arbitrary universe of mere molecules. One wonders, is this where the defense of defenseless acts will take us in the near future, to an indictment of atoms, and not the self, not the person?

Michael Collins's latest novel is Death of a Writer.

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