Tuesday 7 April 2015

Book Review


A few months ago I had the misfortune to read the play "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard. It's among the worst things I've read, and by far the most pretentious pile of wank that I've ever cast my eyes across.

It wasn't written to entertain the poor souls who paid money to go and see it, I think it was for the critics, the other playwrights, and the fawning sycophants. There isn't a page of it that isn't spoiled by his own smug self satisfaction. Stoppard does have a reasonable vocabulary and turn of phrase. He rams that down our throats at every turn, the schoolmaster in particular is so busy spouting pithy speeches that he never says anything believable.

The play is set in two timeframes, the early 1800s and the early 1990s. All the scenes take place in the same room of the same country house no matter when they are set. To start with, this contrivance seems like a shameless display of his abilities. When you realise that the play is about time and history, it becomes garish and heavy handed.

(Like everybody else who turned on Horizon or read a popular science article in the 90s) Stoppard has gained a rudimentary grasp of entropy. The entire play is his attempt to teach us that disorder increases and that time seems to flow in one direction. We have to sit through a rehash of all the popular examples from that era that display a chronological asymmetry: Stirring milk into coffee and then stirring backwards, discovering a book left in a library, population cycles, death, many more. They even magic up a fucking steam engine at one point!

I read a lot of hard sci-fi, and I have no problem with getting a science lesson mixed into my entertainment. Unfortunately in Arcadia the entertainment was missing. The characters seem like mindless pawns put in place to either parrot carefully crafted lines or do juvenile science demonstrations. The most compelling and believable character is the tortoise, and even he is on a table at one point.

There is no story. There was almost a subplot, something to do with a duel that didn't happen and escaping on a tea clipper (maybe, I forget), but it all happens unseen, and is revealed slowly through dialogue about rediscovered evidence.

For a play that is half set 200 years ago, it has aged surprisingly badly. The science is embarrassingly dated, the youngsters having a party are worse. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there was a rare first edition where the stage directions specify baggy jeans, white Adidas, and a twist of cheap speed, and where they are all talking about The Criminal Justice Act and The Hacienda.

My favourite review of Arcadia came from Tom Stoppard's niece who was being interviewed about her diaries. She said that she'd sat through the whole thing in The Almeida and her lasting impression was that in the same amount of time she could have flown economy to New York. It would have been more comfortable and more rewarding. If you're thinking about reading it, I urge you instead to squeeze lemon juice into your eyes, and then read the Wikipedia article on The Arrow of Time. It'll be easier, less painful, and you'll learn more.

When I finish a brilliant book I find myself missing the world that it conjures up. When I finish a good one I often think about the stories and characters. A bad book doesn't leave much impression on my mind. Arcadia was the first time that I have closed the back cover and wanted to punch the author squarely in the face.

Richard "twiglets make me violent" B

1 comment:

  1. Note to self: no more giving my boyfriend books for his birthday. ;)