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False Prophets: Prophet Song Review

Science-fiction is a confused genre. The strangeness of fantastical alternatives to our world can be both apposite and conducive to commentary on contemporary times. Fantasy can readily promote allegory. Yet, imagination may invent for the sake of the invention, to capture something wholly unorthodox and distinct from the period in which it is written. It might be said there are two kinds of science-fiction writers, the columnists and the hermits. The former twist their presents into futures to envisage trajectories of their times; they are in the business of prediction, anticipation, and conditions. The latter detach themselves from their worlds entirely to become immersed in separate realities, which echo for all times, more philosophy than fantasy. The columnists and the hermits, these are the Orwells and the Phillip K. Dicks of the literary field. Paul Lynch’s book Prophet Song, on the other hand, strays between the two, at times self-engrossed in the complexities of an invented world, at others, an explicit replication of the modern refugee crisis. 

As an oracle, Lynch aims to feasibly envisage the breakdown of civil society, to write, as he reflected, “the book as a long equation of truth.” The book’s political thread is not invention but appropriation, for the rise to power of the Nazi party is duplicated. From the Enabling Act which secures Garda Síochána’s control over the Irish state, the creation of the National Services Bureau, a faintly disguised SS, to the internecine paranoia of citizens turning against one another, Lynch offers no original ideas about how the unique configuration of contemporary democracies could collapse. The hallmarks of great science-fiction, of Orwell’s ministries of truth, of Huxley’s procreative playgrounds, were potent because they projected the potentialities of specifically contemporary issues, borne from the experiences of wartime media and a new technological-sexual culture. The traumas of the World Wars, American standardisation, Soviet imperialism, Communism, and the rebuilding of Europe were where their fantasies were historically located. Lynch falters because his politics is fictionalised history, inappropriately applying a threadbare model of political dissolution to a world vastly different to the mid-20th century. 

Herman Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf, written in anticipation of Germany’s turn to fascism, was an influence on Prophet Song, in which case, the novel conflates prophecy with history. Fascism was an historically contingent development, the product of specific combinations of factors in early 20th century Western Europe including socialism, nationalism, the First World War, and secularisation. In 21st century Europe, there are few marked similarities within the liberal democracies of our time, in a part of the world which has not experienced war for over 70 years, or indications of illiberal regression. It takes an uncreative and insincere leap to reach Lynch’s claim that Europe is heading towards a repetition of popular authoritarianism. Wherever the politics of Europe is going will be new, which is to suppose it is going there at all. For the problems of Prophet Song’s Irish state are internal, but the 1920s was an era in which an international order broke down, a situation unrecognisable from a Europe largely incorporated into the European Union and NATO. Lynch described his novel as an attempt to “see into the modern chaos… the unrest in Western democracies,” but instead, the book dwells on an imagined past. Prophet Song is not so much a liberal warning against totalitarianism as it is a repetition of that which it stands against: the overzealous hyperbole of the immoderate. Lynch evokes authors of pre-war Britain, particularly Buchan, with a tone of scaremongering and millenarianism.

Such loquacious irrationality is easy to dismiss. The stupidity of a book might hopefully be assumed to negate its impact on the reading public. Yet Prophet Song represents a pattern of literature, like Margaret Atwood’s dystopian works, which suggest a broader interest in discussing the despotic. In the early 20th century, vast collections of literature were written exacerbating and intoxicating the English reading public with Germanophobic plots and schemes. Britain nonetheless remained one of the most Germanophile nations in Europe among the Edward Greys of Britain, but a rampant fear of the German was nonetheless significant among many who were enraptured by tales like A. C. Curtis’ A New Trafalgar. The power of books to drive a split between the world as perceived and as it is which becomes self-substantiated, has been great in history. Lynch stands within the tradition set down by Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, Downey’s London’s Peril, through Martin’s Berlin-Baghdad in 1907. It is imperative that the Charles Lowes of our time, a critic who lampooned Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser, mock the literary gunpowder with which authors like Lynch play. 

The sections articulating the fear of the refugee are by far the most compelling aspects of the book. If the author had wished to make a moral case about the plight of refugees or the apparent absence of sympathy of the western world, a dystopian melodrama which reshapes the dimensions of those experiences to bizarre proportions imposed by the genre was unwise. The novel engages in prolonged investigations into Lynch’s fantasy Ireland to the detriment of its political subject. One cannot reconcile a concern of present issues with the repeated returns to reverie. The tension between inventing and representing is continual. The problem is perhaps one of genre. Lynch wrote, “I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism.” Yet the dystopian is defined by its abstraction. Realism reshapes the dystopian by denying its capacity for allegory while simultaneously investing the invented with the weight of the contemporary. As such, to have a ‘realistic’ dystopian novel is to choose the detached approach of the genre, and minimise the novel’s capacity to commentate.

The focus on refugees through the lens of Ireland is, more importantly, conceptually misplaced. Lynch’s attempt at ‘Radical Empathy’ is the ambition to fully understand another’s predicament by relocating their experiences into translatable circumstances. There is nothing radical about this type of empathy, for it would be more powerful to ask the reader to attempt to place themselves in the mind of another, in an alternative situation. Moreover, it is self-contradicting, for to empathise is to understand the feelings of an individual separate from yourself. Lynch’s ‘radical empathy’ assumes the opposite, by using a subjectivist approach so that we can only understand others through approximate surrogates.  

Prophet Song is neither prescient nor melodious; it is a self-proclaimed seer’s message which reads as an exhausting description of current events, warped by piety, drunk on righteousness. The arrogant sacrality of the book’s mission, Lynch’s unsanctioned venture to save the world through unparagraphed complaints, is outrageously self-serving, for this work is submerged in its own significance. Receiving the Booker prize, Lynch pretentiously remarked:

“I had to write the book… we do not have a choice. To quote the apocryphal gospels, ‘if you use what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not use what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.’”

What piety! What self-importance. The assumption that Lynch can subject the reading public to the literary medicine he must take to save his soul, that his internal turmoil had the necessary profundity for expression and publication. Perhaps Paul Lynch is a prophet, in the pejorative, secular sense; a comical visionary, every breath filled with conceit. Even in his moment of earnestness, pressing hard into the podium, was an act of supreme vanity. 

“I believe that literary style should be a way of knowing how the world is met in its unfolding. Sentences should press into the unknown moment, into the most obscure, hidden aspects of life. That which is barely known but asking to be revealed.”

An indecipherable barrage of words describing the obvious through the convoluted. In other words, authors should use words to describe how people feel in different situations. The second line dramatically asserts that sentences should be used to express things not usually expressed. Lynch writes in the tone of a revolutionary, but without a revolution. 

Ironically, Lynch’s egocentric, mock-humble attitude is the very image that he fears in his political villains. An absence of deprecation, an assumption of profundity, a projection of chaos, makes Prophet Song dismal reading on reflection. As Lynch himself noted in his acceptance speech, “the rational part of me believed I was dooming my career my writing this novel.” One can only hope that he was right. This is a book of whim. As quickly as it rose to fame, it will disappear. Yet its popularity and award success suggest a reading public more eager to complain than consider. For all of Lynch’s protestations – “this was not an easy book to write” – its character, as an observational, historical reproduction suggest that this book was unconsidered. 

My views on Prophet Song may seem vitriolic. Its elements are tedious. The narrative structure, confused between parable and description; the political commentary, indiscreetly replicating history to the cost of contemporary struggles; the project of ‘Radical Empathy’; even the pretence of Lynch himself. It is fitting that a novel about the breakdown of empathy and reason exhibits both traits superbly, by Europeanising a real plight, and lackadaisically forecasting a future from the past. This book nonetheless represents other forces greater than itself: the constraints of the science-fiction genre in making political commentary, and one concerning avenue of popular literature: the overstated dystopian novel. 

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