Houman Barekat

A thoroughly modern 18th-century heroine: The Future Future, by Adam Thirlwell, reviewed

Thirlwell’s protagonist Celine flees malicious gossip in revolutionary France to ponder on sisterly solidarity, patriarchal violence, motherhood, colonialism and slavery

Adam Thirlwell. [Lewis Ronald]

Adam Thirlwell’s latest novel begins in revolutionary France and chronicles the travails of its embattled celebrity heroine, Celine, who is being subjected to a campaign of malicious gossip about her sex life. She resolves to cultivate a coterie of influential writers to wrest back control of the narrative – cue earnest meditations on power, misogyny and the ability of the written word to shape reality. Meanwhile, she finds solace in female company, reflecting:

In a society made of words and images and circulating and recirculating, all devoted to disinformation, it was very difficult to find any personal safety, and one minuscule form might just be this intense form of friendship between two women.

She later flees to America, where she further ruminates – on the slave revolt in Haiti and the vicissitudes of revolution and democracy.

Though notionally a historical novel, The Future Future is light on period realism. The characters speak as we do today and there is little world-building as such. Instead, we get a lot of existential stocktaking: ‘She understood the giant structures that she was meant to submit to and which constituted a vast, feral violence in the atmosphere, candy-coloured and poisonous.’ There are slow-dawning realisations of the sort that would normally punctuate a narrative rather than constitute the bulk of it. Passages begin ‘It was as if…’, and many things ‘seemed’ to Celine. She cogitates at length on the psyche of writers – their obsession with intensely inhabiting the moment and their megalomaniac yearning to penetrate the unborn future and thereby cheat death.

It is fitting, then, that the novel evinces an anxious preoccupation with today’s intellectual zeitgeist, cramming in almost every topic that has been fashionable in literary publishing in recent years: sisterly solidarity, patriarchal violence, motherhood, colonialism, slavery.

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