By James Flint
St. Martin’s Press
Published January, 2000
480 pp., hardcover
Price: $18.85 at Fatbrain.com .
Joel is a math genius. He escapes his Hasidic father, who is incapable of understanding him, by faking his own death and attending the University of Cambridge.
Judd, the child of a white Hollywood actress and a black IBM salesman, has a consciousness that tends to slip outside of time. His analyst, Dr. Schemata, damages Judd’s psyche in an attempt to make him a “normal” person. Trying to shake Schemata’s influence, Judd turns to gambling and discovers he has a rare talent with dice.
Jennifer, daughter of an inmate at an asylum near Stratford-Upon-Avon, tries to escape her past through sexual adventures, shoplifting, and scarring herself.
The lives of these three characters intertwine in Habitus, the first novel by James Flint, who lives in London and has worked as an editor for Wired UK and mute magazines. Habitus is a complex book. It’s difficult to summarize and to classify in a specific genre. It’s a book of dark humor, of grand visions, of physical, mechanical, and digital processes. It’s a novel of alienated lives that are shaped (warped?) by technology, media, and the unique, often invisible web of interconnections between people in the Information Age.
hab·i·tus:The physical and constitutional characteristics of an individual, especially as related to the tendency to develop a certain disease. (Source: www.dictionary.com)
Although Judd, Joel, and Jennifer’s encounters with each other are brief, the result of their meetings is monumental: a child—one child that, through a genetic anomaly, has the DNA of two fathers. Meanwhile, Laika, the first dog in space, circles the earth, observing everything through the media, feeding on the products of the datasphere.
Flint tells his tale in dense prose. I even am tempted to describe it as “condensed.” You absorb it into your mind where it expands, reconstitutes into its full form, and unleashes new ideas, new ways of experiencing the world. The prose often has a lyrical, surreal quality. Here’s a small sampling:
“Laika is a mill, forever grinding sounds and images into different forms. She’s a kind of motor now, a habitus in the manner of the eye, the next stage in the meander of violence and vision that began with that engine of death the Gatling gun—all barrel revolutions and straight line projections, creating no man’s lands out of lines of sight—and progressed to the film camera. This replaced bullets with photons and hurled them, a trillion rounds a second, at the screen, at the eye, at the brain, marking out a different kind of forbidden zone, one that was hostile to straightforward truth. Then after the camera the car, the motor now a petrol engine with spoilers and finds bolted on, the screen the scene outside the window, a plotless ever scrolling plane grounded by the infinite perspectives of crash barriers, chevrons, traffic lights and busy city streets. Now, via the circumfluous aircraft journeys of the jet set and Howard Hughes, the motor migrates from the roadway to outer space, where in a cybernetic frenzy it points its camera up and down, staring at the earth, staring at the sun, losing itself in vision.”
If you’re looking for a quick and easy read, Habitus is not the book for you. It’s long. It’s satiric. It’s detailed and challenging. But it also is a provocative exploration of time and space, of the nature of information, and the nature of existence. It’s worthy of your weekend reading time even though it might take a few weekends to finish it—and recover from it.
Thomas Pack is a freelance technology writer.If you'd like to share your opinion, please post a comment at the bottom of this page or send the editor an e-mail