NYRB Classics, 2016
I would normally post about a novel like this one at the oddlyweirdfiction page of my reading journal, but reading The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe solely as science fiction is just not accurate. It is a novel that, as Jeff VanderMeer notes in his introduction to this edition, offers its readers a
"portrait of an intelligent, middle-aged woman grappling with the ultimate existential crisis: How does one conduct oneself while dying?"This book was my real-world book group's read at the end of June; it is also one of the most thought-provoking novels I've read in a long while. Written in 1974, and alternatively titled The Unsleeping Eye, it is almost prescient, as it deals with issues that are at the center of much debate forty-plus years later. It's also one I can highly recommend.
In a society where disease and serious illness exist no more, forty-four year-old Katherine Mortenhoe is facing her last four weeks of life. Terminal illness is rare in this version of the future, but Katherine is suffering from "an affliction of the brain cells," and for the short remainder of life she will be slowly deteriorating. But NTV has an idea: Katherine's final weeks and her death will be televised for the "pain-starved public" on Vince Ferriman's "Human Destiny" show. The company has invested fifty-thousand pounds in Roddie, their star reporter, surgically replacing his eyes with cameras, and has offered him a three-year contract that would as he puts it, "keep me in luxury the rest of my life." As he also notes, with his new eyes, he now had the "most staggering tool for reportage the world had ever known." Katherine Mortenhoe's death is something he has to get right. The more immediate the coverage, the more empathy will be garnered from the public, and the higher the ratings will climb:
"The point of suffering in the Human Destiny shows was that it could continue to excite horror and compassion because it was never trivialized - it was always real. And because there was time for study in depth, the participants could be shown as individuals, not merely as newsreel symbols - the legless soldiers, the starving baby, the shredded bomb victim. They were real people, with real mothers-in law, and real dinners burning on the stove unheeded. It was details like this that kept the show alive, kept alive the capacity to involve."
There's only one problem: Katherine wants nothing to do with any of it. For her, death is not a commodity to be bought and sold; her only option, it seems, is to disappear. To work around that problem, Roddie follows her until he finds himself in a position of trust, but soon he begins to have qualms about what he's doing, even as the cameras are "rolling."
As VanderMeer says, the world in which Ferriman and Roddie do their work is
"an uncanny mirror of our own, of an age in which everyone really is a camera eye, or at least carries one around in his pocket."Aside from the focus on the overreach of technology and reality television, which caused no end of discussion with the ladies in my book group, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a very human novel at its core. It unravels slowly to eventually become a story of not just death and dying, but also of relationships in a society where everything is driven by technology. Each of the people in Katherine's life sees her differently; it is only through Compton's careful writing that we can begin to put her together as a whole. My group also noticed that when Compton is writing about Katherine, he does so using a third-person point of view, whereas Roddie narrates his own sections, which I think is appropriate given that we're seeing her then through his eyes, aka, the camera, broadcasting to us, the readers, if you will.
There is so much more to this novel than I can ever throw into a few words for this post, but it is a deeply-moving story that kept me reading almost without stopping. It is also most pertinent to our own time of intense media saturation into private lives, or as Roddie's ex-wife puts it, "Peeping Toms. Voyeurism. Selling misery." It's also not hard to imagine while reading that yesterday's fiction has become today's reality, which for me at least in this instance is a rather disturbing thought.
Just fyi: there is also a film based on this novel which I'll be watching this week before the spouse gets home -- Death Watch (1980). I'm a bit nervous since I'm not sure a film could actually do justice to this book.