‘“But I don’t know, Mary-Lou,” he went on, “sometimes it feels like all our great futures are already behind us.”
I knew what he meant. There was a distinct feeling that the age of wonder was over.’
The House of Rumour is the sixth novel from Jake Arnott, and like his previous books it is an historical fiction. This is not the conventional linear historical fiction that we have come to expect from the likes of Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory. This is history in an altogether different register, more concerned with marginalised, obscured, or overlooked subjects. Arnott’s characters constitute a rogues’ gallery of homosexual gangsters, hippy anarchists, prostitutes (male and female), wannabe popstars, decadent occultists, and disgraced establishment figures. Arnott’s outré concerns mark him out as a fellow traveller of contemporaries such as David Peace and Cathi Unsworth; all these writers construct intricate pop culture historiographies that reveal a fascination with the corrupt undersides of history. It seems only fitting then that for someone who so often adopts an outsider’s perspective, Arnott’s most recent book presents its readers with multiple counterfactual accounts from the edges of history.
This is Arnott’s most adventurous novel to date, folding Aleister Crowley, Ian Fleming, pulp writers, rocket scientists, Nazis on the run, suicidal cults, and L. Ron Hubbard into an ingenious concertina-like structure based on the twenty-two major arcana cards of the tarot pack. What marks this novel as an ambitious step forward is precisely this intricate formal arrangement. The disparate events, characters, and formats are loosely connected by the figure of the writing and personality of fictional Canadian sciencefiction writer Larry Zagorski over a period of seventy or so years that approximately coincides with key periods in the history of science fiction as a genre. The writing references pulp, New Wave, cyberpunk, and the post-cyberpunk burn-out that has left us struggling to imagine a meaningful future different from the present to which we remain stubbornly tethered. In Arnott’s ‘post-utopian’ dispersed narrative, the future collapses into the past. The novel constantly gestures toward the dislocation of the science-fiction trope of the ‘Jonbar Hinge’ – a generative point in history at which the future could have taken a different turn.
The individual chapters shift point of view, time and place, and even style. Instead, what connects this fabulist constellation is a paranoid, associative logic. What appear initially as unrelated micro-narratives incrementally come to constitute a secret, alternative history of the twentieth century that finds parallels, analogies, and echoes between espionage, occultism, and science fiction. Arnott has lots of fun imagining meetings between real historical figures – Ian Fleming confronting Aleister Crowley is one notable example, in which the creator of Bond takes the Great Beast as a blueprint for a Bond villain. Among the mash up of fictional and non-fictional personages are a number of oblique allusions that return again and again to recurrent concerns linked to the art and mechanisms of propaganda. Sometimes this happens almost subliminally through the repetition of certain words – ‘mistletoe’ is a key one – and sometimes the references are both outlandish yet historically specific, such as the reference to Murray Constantine’s Swastika Night, a 1937 alternate history fantasy whose Jonbar Hinge leads to a Nazi-dominated global empire. (Constantine was the pen name for Katherine Burdekin, a minor member of the Bloomsbury set – wheels within wheels here.)
This shuffled, not quite random, associative structure is not unique, but is in fact part of a trend toward a networked novel, a form that reconstructs the novel (and especially the historical novel) as a collection of intertwined short stories rather than a grand narrative. David Mitchell is perhaps the best know exponent (Ghostwritten, 1999, Cloud Atlas, 2004), but there have also been entries from Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010), and Hari Kunzru (Gods Without Men, 2011). Such networked novels often have a transnational feel, and House of Rumour is no exception, gliding from wartime London to the Mojave desert to the Amazonian canopy that envelopes Jonestown in the seventies. But these novels also have an explicit temporal as well as spatial dimension, tracing cartographies of history as well as location.
Arnott’s networked novel, however, has perhaps more in common with an outlier in this trend. Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire (1996) is a more provincial entry in this field, focusing on the author’s hometown of Northampton, each chapter ventriloquising a different voice at a different time. The global connections are kept just out of sight, but make themselves felt in the presence of the Roman Empire, medieval crusaders, and Barclays Bank. What Arnott has in common with Moore is a fascination with occult connections. The chapters in both books are linked by notions of magic that resist both literal and allegorical interpretations. As with Moore’s under-rated and overlooked novel, The House of Rumour can be read in any order and pieced together retrospectively. Conspiratorial patterns flicker then disappear, the reader being forced to make their own connections. This is a substantial achievement and one that entices the reader back to look again for new, hidden patterns.