Last Wednesday, P. D. James made a whistlestop appearance at the Harvard Book-store to promote her latest novel, The Children of Men. The audience of elderly ladies indulged the Baroness in her readings from the book, but clearly considered her apocalyptic sci-fi vision as an eccentric deviation from James' standard country-house butler and-candlestick whodunnit. When question and time rolled around, the crowd voiced their concerns about the suspension of the Commander Adam Dalgliesh detective series: would James please revert to her comfortable, tried and tested subject and style?
The literary world greeted the book with as much surprise as the Cambridge audience. No one expected James to part company with her life's work in murder mysteries and embark on an imaginative exploration of morality in a dying world. Her fans may feel cruelly deceived, but her latest work far surpasses everything else she has written.
The Children of Men portrays a world in which all the men have become infertile. Without the prospect of posterity, the human race collapses into a ruthless, apathetic society, craving only comfort and security. Deranged would-be mothers pamper kittens in prams, Christianity has generated into a backward folk, religion of animal sacrifices, and bloodthirsty Omegas, members of the last generation born on earth, terrorize the countryside, slaughtering innocent passers-by in orgiastic rituals.
In England, where the action takes place, a benevolentish dictator has seized total control. The public allows him this power in return for guarantees of order, and the uninterrupted supply of all modern conveniences. But Xan Lyppiatt, the improbably-named Warden, resorts to questionable methods to achieve those ends. Elderly citizens, who have become a burden on society take part in supposedly voluntary mass drownings; the regime deports all violent criminals to a penal colony on the remote Isle to Man, where they butcher one another indiscriminately, and everyone undergoes humiliating fertility testing in the hopes of discovering a fertile couple.
Into this demi-monde blunders Theodore Faron, Professor of History at Merton College, Oxford and cousin to the enigmatic Xan. A revolutionary cell, outraged by the injustices perpetrated by the Warden, approaches Faron to ask him to use his influence with his cousin. His mission comes to naught, but he falls gushingly in love with a soft-spoken revolutionary, and vows to help her change the world.
James claims that she "wasn't setting out to write a didactic novel," Yet the book has obvious moral overtones. She depicts a society in decay, and suggests that it can only be healed through irrational, selfless love. The Children of Men abounds in christological imagery, with a single child, born in a woodshed (sounds familiar), redeeming the entire world, and presenting mankind with a fresh chance. In James words, "It is only in learning to love each other that we shall find our second redemption.
The frustration with an indifferent, self-satisfied, aging society is redolent of late-life crisis on the part of seventy-three-year-old James Faron's attempts to cope with his grief over his accidental killing of his baby daughter subtly evoke a personal crisis, perhaps reminiscent of the death of James' mentally ill husband forty years ago. She also addresses the corrupting attraction of power, even in a world without future generations to remember and admire the achievements of the powerful.
James weaves all these themes into a knuckle-whitening story which keeps the reader avidly turning the pages, right up to the fabulously ambiguous conclusion. Her capacity to astonish with an utterly unexpected twist shines forth on several occasions she characterizes Faron with detail and insight: he occupies a different league from her standard murder mystery suspects. Her projection of the future manages to be both darkly visionary and depressingly realistic.
By contrast, her descriptions of Faron's childhood in Nineties England seem slightly artificial. Her perception of British aristocratic life lurks regressively in the Seventies, resulting in a plastic tone during the scenes of youthful ebullience.
Nor does James maintain the rich, though-provoking analysis throughout. The second half of the novel takes the form of a protracted car chase, fleeing from the forces of darkness, a desperate race against time. The narrative remains gripping and well written at all times, but the basic plot of this sequence could be from any stock thriller.
More importantly, James ultimately dodges the questions which she raises in the book. The issues which consume Faron's thoughts societal decay, the corruption of power, grief, and love-are resolved by a plot twist. A baby is born, and all the world's problems melt into insignificance.
In The Children of Men, James displays remarkable talent in setting up such a complex and intriguing moral and emotional puzzle. But she fails to extract any digestible conclusion from her imaginative spiritual exploration.