I love it when a book leaves me feeling so deeply ambivalent. I mean, I would prefer it if I could just outright love Genesis, no ambivalence necessary. But I would rather ambivalence than apathy. Bernard Beckett has clearly put a lot of effort into crafting this deep, philosophical dialogue. It’s a beautifully constructed piece of literature.
But I also didn’t really like it that much.
Anaximander, or Anax as she is called, is taking her Exam for entrance into the Academy, the school/university/ruling body of this wonderful little island set in a post-apocalyptic world after humanity’s Fall, if you will. Anax tells the three Examiners about the life of Adam Forde, a disruptive element who lived near the beginning of the Republic. At first it seems like the story is about how Adam allowed a young woman trying to reach the Republic in a boat live instead of executing her on sight. Actually, though, this is a story about artificial intelligence, philosophy of mind, and the capacity within ourselves to do violence—and what that means to be human.
Genesis is essentially an extended philosophical dialogue between Anax and the Examiners, with a story-within-the-story element where Anax is telling us about Adam’s life and his eventual, philosophical debates with an AI named Art. Immediately I was disappointed. I think some of my disappointment comes from what I expected, given the name and the cover copy—together, these just screamed “standard YA dystopia” in my head, and that’s what I was thinking about when I started reading. Never mind that the book kind of transcends that somewhat overdone setting.
When you get right down to it, though, reading a whole book—albeit a short one—about someone taking an oral exam is just … um, dull. Even with the story-in-a-story, there’s just too much stasis. Anax grows and changes very little throughout the book, and everyone except her and Adam (and maybe Art) are very vague, stock characters. Genesis wrestles with deep, thought-provoking questions—yet as a story, it’s actually very shallow. There is little enough plot here.
I really admire this moxie on Beckett’s part. And, as my recent re-read of Sophie’s World, or any number of my reviews of Doctorow or Stephenson works, will attest, I’m happy to read books that are more philosophy than they are well-executed stories. Still … when you get right down to it, the story is the thing. Genesis is a philosophical dialogue that is only barely dressed up as a story, and it doesn’t quite pass muster for me.
Even if I could set that aside, the philosophical elements didn’t stir up much thought from me either. Beckett really only skims the surface of these ideas. I don’t think this novel is actually very YA, so I don’t think that’s an excuse—and even if it were YA, I think teens can handle more than Beckett throws at us here. Adam’s conversations with a smarmy and self-satisfied Art are more grating than gratifying. The twist at the end is uninteresting, because there really is no consequence to it. As an arthouse style move, I suppose it’s supposed to put the cherry on top of the clever cake Beckett has just spent an hour unveiling for us.
In the end, Genesis reminds me why I love novels so much. It’s really easy, actually, to do what Beckett does here, and just carve out any semblance of plot or story. This might work better as some kind of small-cast play (tighten up the scenes, of course, add in a swordfight or two…). It’s much more difficult to take these kinds of deep ideas and then tell them through allegory. I think there is a lot of good, thoughtful stuff in this book, and I’m not sorry I gave it a shot. But it didn’t leave my jaw wide open or my mind blown to pieces. It’s just kind of … a book, with good parts and bad. I don’t want to diminish what Beckett manages to do here, but I’m also not that impressed.