The author of acclaimed stories and novels – including the Acorn Prize-winning The New Animals (2017) – is known for her risk-taking, absurdist works. Her latest book, Audition, a blend of space opera and social realism, is a fine example of Pip Adam’s ingenuity and imagination.
Audition has a non-linear structure. Time’s arrow is swapped for marked shifts around corporeal space, reflecting the inner and outer constrictions of the novel’s protagonists. Its first section plays out inside a tight, cramped capsule. Subsequent sections introduce other aspects of the confinement experienced by the characters as well as a gradual expansion of the world around them. Eventually we’re left with the possibilities on the edge of the event horizon, before its closing passages swaddles us close once more. There are echoes of the journey of womb to birth but I hesitate to draw any inferences along these lines, mostly because Adam’s world-building is its own precisely constructed and glorious reimagining of our universe, and her clean, stripped-back sentences tend to shy away from metaphor.
The first section begins on a spaceship where we are introduced to Alba, Stanley and Drew. Giant-sized on Earth, they have continued to grow within the confines of the ship. The claustrophobia is compounded by a rule that they may or may not have imposed themselves: that if they are to keep themselves from growing, they have to keep talking. The endless loop of repetitive conversation mostly consists of discussion of the ship itself and their own predicament.
‘We could see each other growing. In front of us,’ Drew says. ‘The beautiful ship Audition was built big to accommodate us but not now. Now we are twice as big as we were when we arrived.’
‘Six cubits and a span on Earth,’ Drew says. ‘At least eighteen feet tall now.’
‘I had room in the basketball court to start with,’ Alba says. ‘So much room I thought, maybe, we’d all overreacted. But now, I’m bent over from the part of my back that is just below my shoulders. My knees are sitting on either side of my head.’
Stripped of description which may have provided context, propelled only by dialogue which circles around itself, is a discombobulating read initially, but before too long this reader was lulled by its rhythm. In recovering their shared memories of their time before the ship – and/or constructing themselves from the memory-scripts brought on by the ‘training’ they received back on Earth – this endless chatter might be the only way the characters can hold themselves together. It’s a keenly induced nightmare of how it must feel to be trapped in a confined space, stuck with your own recycled thoughts, and proves a masterstroke in drawing us into their interior worlds. There’s much talk of food they remember eating:
‘The story is: Monday is vegan superfood buddha bowl day,’ Drew says. ‘And I will list the story of the week’s menu – as a gift, like a song, or as entertainment. But really as fuel.’
When the lens widens to include the perspective of Torren, hired to prepare the giants for their space journey, we learn about the contents of the food they talk about. Although space food isn’t meant to be gourmet fare, these astronauts are getting a particularly bum deal. The food is only the tip of it.
All the controls needed their attention now. And then he remembered, for a while they had all wondered if the controls were only there so they had something to do. That really the ship was controlled from outside the ship. Like the months of training were only there to train them better into being compliant. All of it was just to get them on the ship. The beautiful spacecraft Audition.
Adam references Hollywood fairy tales in several places – Pretty Woman, You’ve Got Mail – but the novel’s cinematic vision is less rom-com and more the single-minded perspective of films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Some of the most arresting and inventive passages lie in the sections set in the event horizon.
The firm paved ground gives way to something more erratic and organic. Although, even the most permanent of structures and buildings here seem to move. Alba thinks it’s the wind, that maybe they move in time with that, like a windmill, but more subtle – a rippling, a pulsing. Like a way of getting energy. But then she realises they’re possibly alive and like the inside of an ear vibrating.
Alba, Stanley and Drew are humans who ‘take up too much space’, according to systems of power. A major theme of the novel is how society deals with offenders, and the sections which deal with the giants’ incarceration experiences adeptly show some of the issues of the prison model.
When your sweatshirt went missing you weren’t always given another one – that was up to the guards. So, you had to get another one from someone else, so you stood over someone for one. No one ever stood over you for a T-shirt but occasionally they would go missing. They all looked the same. It was one of the worst places Alba had ever been which was saying something because she had slept outside a lot, and once spent the night in the boot of a car while people outside the car talked loudly about setting it on fire, but she hated the prison so much. Stanley had never been anywhere like it, he had grown up in a loving house with parents who understood and supported him. But it was bad, no matter who you were. Some of the women said they liked it, but Alba doubted this. This sounded like whistling in the dark. It sounded like something you would say if someone asked you what you thought of the place and you wanted to look brave.
The break away from social realism, particularly towards the end, might suggest that Adam’s solutions lie in an escapist fantasy. But this reductive view isn’t right. In the intimacy and the insight she demonstrates when writing about her characters, it is evident that Adam has examined all the arguments of how we should deal with offenders.
What she offers then, is an understanding of how we are all constrained, if not overwhelmed, by the structures of our lives. The only real solution, the novel suggests, is to shatter them altogether and reimagine a whole new world. A different way of thinking and being has to manifest in order to accommodate all of us, including those who ‘take up too much space’.