Nnature versus nurture, animal cognition, order and chance, the climate crisis, the structure of the brain and the nature of consciousness… Global in scope, Amanda Svensson’s hefty novel boasts even heftier themes. To address the question of whether there is an ultimate pattern to existence, she carefully assembles her materials, sets up stringent laboratory conditions, and runs a series of rigorous tests. But because she’s a novelist rather than a scientist, her discoveries of her are carefully planted; and, as you might expect of Ali Smith’s Swedish translator, she is playfully experimental.
The Izaksson triplets – Sebastian, Matilda and Clara – are puzzlingly dissimilar, each having fled their native city of Lund for different reasons: angry Tilda to Berlin in pursuit of love, depressed Sebastian to London to work for a scientific institute, and confused Clara to Easter Island to report on a cult-like group of environmental pessimists waiting calmly for the end of the world. A possible clue to the triplets’ disparity comes with a belated revelation from their mother: their birth de ella was so chaotic that the ailing newborn who was whisked away for urgent care may not have been the same baby that returned. But which triplet is the changeling?
Each sibling is convinced they are the anomaly. Though the birth mystery forms a significant thread in the narrative, it’s not the main one; the triplets’ lives provide in effect three stories, woven and intercut. Svensson seems least interested in the conventional family, that of Tilda and her de ella boyfriend de ella Billy, though Tilda’s love for her stepdaughter Siri is another demonstration that maternal affection transcends genetics. The bulk of the narrative is shared between Clara, who finds a strange community of waifs and strays on the barren rock, and Sebastian, navigating the elaborate protocols at the fictional London Institute of Cognitive Science (LICS), a warren of treatment rooms and labs. filled with animal subjects.
His patients exhibit a range of bizarre ailments; one unexpectedly becomes an artistic genius, another experiences the world in only two dimensions. The building itself adds to Sebastian’s sense of alienation: a Bloomsbury labyrinth of which no individual saves the secretive director, Corrigan, knows the complete floor plan. Corrigan also believes terrorist organizations make the perfect organizational model, dividing his teams into independent cells with no knowledge of others’ work.
For a novel largely concerned with dysfunction, depression and existential despair, A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding is surprisingly funny. LICS is part nightmare, part farce, with Corrigan presiding as both magus and maniac. I can see Chris Morris, irascibility dialed up to 11, playing him in a future TV adaptation. Corrigan is also a parody author-figure, seemingly all-knowing, holding the fates of the characters in his lofty hands.
There’s much tenderness, too, particularly for the animals in the scientists’ care. Sebastian’s sole ally, Travis, loves only her cicadas, while Sebastian is entrusted with “a very moral monkey”, which he silently disapproves of when he embarks on an affair with a married patient. On Easter Island, Clara becomes closer to the group’s messianic leader, both sex pest and visionary, while also befriending a fragile former child star obsessed with Dakota Fanning.
Other strands concern the photographs of the tragic prodigy Francesca Woodman and the poetry of Philip Larkin, while haunting images cross-cut and recur as the paths of the triplets converge. There may be a system, and Corrigan may even be at the bottom of it – or he may simply be off somewhere drinking and shouting, a deity absent from his creation of him. Svensson’s riddling magnum opus is eerily enjoyable.