Taken separately, the two narrative threads of Angela Meyer’s A Superior Spectre are straightforward.
In one, Jeff is dying. Set in a recognisable near-future time, he is at first fleeing Australia for Scotland, and then withdrawing entirely not just from his past life, but from life itself. The specific reasons for his withdrawal drip-feed into the story gradually, and while he may not be a sympathetic character, and at time severely strains the reader’s ability to empathise with him, there is a pervasive sadness to his existence.
Jeff’s world is dusted lightly with vague details of future technology: a robot servant that Jeff is both in need of and repulsed by; implanted identification; and digestible tabs that allow an individual to ‘trip’ into the consciousness of an individual from the past. He is escaping from himself, one chapter at a time.
In the other narrative, Leonora is reaching adulthood in mid-19th century Scotland. At first she struggles with her father’s new marriage, then her arranged relocation to Edinburgh, she isn’t so much wanting to live her own life as she is wanting to be allowed to discover just what her own life can be. At one point she is struck at the possibility that she can be a woman and choose not to get married, not to follow a path that is defined by her relationship to other men.
Leonora’s story, however, takes on some Gothic trappings when she becomes haunted by voices and hallucinations. Her grip on her waking reality is impaired, her interactions with others – particularly men – become fraught with confusion as she doubts her own decisions, her own desires, and how much the haunting is taking over her life.
Taken separately, a reader can comfortably compartmentalise each narrative and each protagonist into coherent and distinct genres. But put together, at first through duelling points of view and then later through an increasingly fractured and fluid first person voice where one character bleeds into the other, A Superior Spectre becomes something else entirely.
Jeff is not just escaping his life to die alone in Scotland, he is escaping reality to haunt Leonora’s consciousness. Meyer infuses the reader’s experience of the story with the trauma that Jeff is inflicting on Leonora. Her story becomes not her own, and her consciousness is defined by Jeff’s vicarious invasion of her mind. He is reading her story for his gratification, and by reading it confirms its tragedy. It is gaslighting by way of time travel.
This dovetailing of the two voices in A Superior Spectre creates a hall of mirrors about reading. To compare Leonora’s story to other historical fictions is to become complicit in Jeff’s haunting: do we read other stories to escape our own? And, in reading them, do we confirm on these characters a life of conflict and tragedy and trauma that only exists because we are there, spectres in the minds of these characters?
To judge Jeff harshly is easy. There is something Frankensteinian about his macabre retreat to remote Scotland, complete with a humanoid creation, designing to manufacture life through the erasure of a woman’s story. But we can’t escape him and feel salvaged, because we are there, too. Meyer collapses the distance we might have from the story by removing any objective point of view, acknowledging both the limitation and the implication of first-person narrative:
“It will feel strange, to start with, speaking as Leonora into William’s ear. I don’t, for example, know how to represent her accent (which does also occur in her thoughts)…I am tainted by my own time, my own context. We always experience other people’s stories this way, though, don’t we?”
We do. For all the distaste readers might feel in Jeff’s story, we are a part of it. Are these Pirandello-esque characters in search of readers for their stories, or trying to be free of them?
This is not to say that A Superior Spectre is lamenting the impact of reading, but rather it is an opportunity to acknowledge what reading does to us and for us. We cannot escape forever to these favoured characters, longing for release from the reality of our lives. To read is to empathise, whether it be the detestably sad Jeff or the admirably tragic Leonora, but if all we do is read and keep ourselves removed from the act of reading, then nothing is gained.
For men, in particularly, the suggestions of Meyer’s story are profound. Would we read Leonora’s story if it were not through Jeff? Beacuse if we do, we might then allow that empathetic reading to bleed into our realities, to avoid the othering, the dehumanising, the removal of agency from women that men seem to manage so often.
A Superior Spectre doesn’t just transcend the genres of its protagonists, it transcends the act of reading. You can’t help but emerge from the novel, waking as Jeff does from his trips to Leonora’s mind, and be struck by both the temporal magic of reading and the responsibility it bequeaths you, the spectral reader.