by James Flint
Published by St. Martin's Press
415 pages, 2000
Buy it online
A New Gestalt
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Habitus isn't a word easily found in dictionaries; it isn't in any of mine. Conveniently, in the epigraph to his novel of that name, James Flint, by way of Gilles Deleuze, provides a contextual definition: "We are made of compacted water, earth, light and air.... The eye binds light, it is itself bound light.... This binding is a reproductive synthesis, a Habitus."
By novel's end, events conspire to remind us just how important the title of a work can be. Certainly, the fate of the protagonists, Joel Kluge, Jennifer Several, Judd Axelrod -- and their gestalt offspring, Emma -- can only make sense by keeping the book's title and its meaning in mind. And, then, it not only makes sense but takes on significance.
Joel Kluge is the prodigal son of a Hasidic Brooklyn baker. His mathematical genius leads him away from the constraints of the fundamentalist religious community that can neither nurture nor abide his talents. Combining math theory, computer science, Holocaust lore, Kabbalah and gambling, he immerses himself in the arcane world of chance and randomness and seeks to create a new golem for the electronic age. Judd Axelrod is the black son of a white English actress and a self-made black American deeply involved in the early computer industry. Although born in the United States, around age ten Judd is temporarily living in the United Kingdom, where, in the early 1970s, he meets and has sex with Jennifer Several, three years his senior and white. The ensuing scandal caused by the the discovery of this tryst by Judd's image-conscious parents -- and the reaction of the prudish community -- separates the young lovers. Several months later, Jennifer meets and seduces the virgin 20-something Joel. By some complicated process involving cosmic radiation, at that moment, one of Jennifer's eggs is impregnated simultaneously by both one of Judd's spermatozoa and one of Joel's. The result is not twins, but a new kind of two-hearted gestalt being, Emma, who prolongs her gestation period by several years, much to the deterioration of Jennifer's life. Once born, Emma, gifted with supermental powers, strives to expand her innate state of gestalt to her three parents and beyond.
This synopsis is just a bare skeleton that doesn't adequately convey the intricate complexities of Flint's novel. Habitus is the story of Laika, the first dog in space, abandoned to die by the Soviet space program. Here, Flint honors her memory by providing her with a destiny much grander than humanity can hope for, without ever glossing over the cruelty and pain she suffered. Habitus, spanning the last five decades of the 20th century, is the public and hidden history of computer science and the computer industry. Habitus is a testament to how the ubiquity of television has transformed human consciousness -- a human consciousness that is vividly probed, examined and imagined by Flint as he leads us through the tortuous inner lives of not only his major protagonists but of most of his supporting cast. Fantastically, all of these seemingly disparate elements intermingle to express Flint's rich vision.
Although the structure and tone of Habitus, a sardonic kaleidoscopic tapestry, recalls Joseph Heller's Catch-22 or John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar or Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, James Flint's novel is imbued with a fragile tenderness much more in line with the work of Theodore Sturgeon, especially when allied with the gestalt theme so crucial to Habitus. Indeed, Sturgeon was obsessed with the concept of gestalt evolution and repeatedly explored it in his fiction: "Rule of Three," "Make Room for Me," More Than Human, Godbody, etc. The aspect of Habitus that deals with Emma, her evolutionary leap and the idea of an atheistic uberconsciousness that encompasses and transcends individuality to create a new "gestalt" identity is an obvious reference to More Than Human. In Sturgeon and in Flint, this gestalt idea is not to be confused with the Jungian collective unconscious or an insect-like hive mentality. Their gestalt beings are created from specific individuals who are drawn together because they complement each other and, united (biologically, emotionally and/or psychically), become more than the sum of their parts.
Habitus, a first novel, is a work of startling confidence and assured artistic vision that blends theory, technique, wit and depth of compassion. It engages aesthetics, intellect, emotion and the thirst for a freshly told -- and insightful -- tale. It describes the contemporary human experience: growing in complexity like an ever-expanding fractal, forever beyond the grasp of any one individual. | April 2000
Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.