The word I first thought of to describe Juli Zeh’s Red Tentacle-nominated dystopian thriller, The Method, was ‘brittle’. Ordinarily, I’d use this word to characterise a novel most notable for its thinness: of plot, of character, or of ‘world-building’. A brittle work, I might suggest, is one which reads easily but feels less than substantial, or which made a sort of superficial sense but which either was either stretched too sparingly over a slim premise, or insufficiently plumbed the depths of a weightier one. This, then, would be how I’d think of a brittle novel. But it is not how I think of The Method.
Zeh’s novel takes place in what we can assume is a relatively near-future Germany, in which the challenges of late capitalism have been met by a rigidly enforced focus on maintaining the health of all organisms and ecosystems: for humans, it is illegal to drink alcohol or caffeine, to smoke or take unnecessary risk; it is forbidden not to follow the advice of your doctor, to the extent that failing to submit to regular testing for intoxicants, contaminants or anomalies is also a serious offence. Zeh’s protagonist, the distant biologist Mia Holl, commits precisely this faux pas – and the novel rolls onwards.
“Our society,” declaims Holl’s primary antagonist, Kramer, a sort of populist public intellectual-cum-media star, “has attained its apotheosis. Unlike every previous or current form of social organisation, we’re not in thrall to the market or religion. We’re not dependent on high-flown ideological beliefs. The smug, self-serving faith in popular democracy has no place in our system. Our society is guided by reason and reason alone.” [pg. 29] Kramer’s fanaticism is married entirely to this assumption: the state which begins to work itself against Mia’s apostasy is entirely confident in its own righteousness, but is blind to the fact that this emphasis on the primacy of the collective good is itself is a kind of ideology more complete and totalised than any other. “Infallibility is the bedrock of the Method,” Kramer concludes with the certainty of a Pope. [pg. 30]
The seed of Mia’s fall from a Kramer-like allegiance to the Method’s seamless certainties, however, is proof enough that, however well concealed, the dystopia has joins. Some time before the beginning of the novel, her brother was tried and convicted of the rape and murder of a woman he was due to meet for a blind date – and subjected to a kind of cryogenic freezing as punishment. Mia cannot believe in her brother’s guilt, and the squeamishness of his sentence – the body, simultaneously so sacrosanct as to be beyond the degradation of the electric chair or the noose, is at the same time treated dispassionately, like “a machine, a walking, talking ingesting apparatus” [pg. 70] – shakes something credulous into her consciousness.
Despite the importance of this conceptual shift to the shape of the novel, however, Zeh is little interested in bringing Mia closer to the reader than she is to any of the characters around her. “Science,” she insists at one point, “broke up the long-standing marriage between humankind and the transcendental.” [pg. 141] All human relationships, and with them the means and drive to express human emotion, have been attenuated by the Method’s relentless focus on commonality: couples are united by the state for their complementary genes. In this context, the only character allowed anything much like an engaging voice is Mia’s brother, who exists only in flashback, and in the externalised ramblings of the ‘ideal inamorata’ he leaves behind for his sister, an AI girlfriend which shared his particular perspective. In the context of the novel’s world, this unique individuality feels almost impossible, arising out of nowhere and floating in total isolation from everyone and everything around it.
I hope this begins to explain the adjective ‘brittle’. The Method has been compared with 1984, but in that novel the key is that nothing exists outside the system constructed by the authorities – even when it might appear otherwise. Mia’s brother is a genuinely sui generis free spirit, even as Zeh holds his sister, Kramer and all the other typologies she animates for the purpose of her civics lesson, at a rigid arm’s length. There is in the midst of this a powerful debate – “What is humankind compared to your dignity?” [pg. 206] – but the balance between individual and state is at times insincerely struck. “Whatever the system, everywhere in the world you see unhappy, unsmiling faces. In our system, there’s a respectable proportion of smiles. Isn’t that enough, Frau Holl?” [pg. 188] This is a limp kind of utilitarianism.
At the same time, however, The Method can be deliciously cute. At one point, Mia is convinced she will be made a martyr by the state – and Zeh is wily enough to show how a truly totalising system would deny the population even that catharsis, holding them, like the readers of this novel, in endless tension. The Method is in one way much scarier than Big Brother, because it shifts and changes without letting go of its most central, most destructive philosophy. Zeh evokes Kafka in the surreality of Mia’s trial, of the invention of terrorist cells and the insistence that the words ‘No one’, rather than a denial of accomplices, is a codename for one; and yet the intensified media, and fever-pitch fear of those who consume it, feels thoroughly familiar. Simultaneously, there’s a spinning of the assumptions of science fiction:
The Method is based on the health of its citizens, and health is the norm. But what is normal? Normal is that which already exists, the prevailing condition. But normal is also normative – an expectation, the thing to be wished for. The norm is a double-edged sword. A person can be measured against that which exists, in which case she will be found to be normal and healthy, therefore good. Or a person can be measured against an expectation and be found wanting. The norm can be changed at will. For those on the inside, the double-edged sword is a defensive weapon. For outsiders, it’s a terrifying threat. It has the power to make you ill. [pp. 129-9]
There’s something in this passage which rejects measurement, usually the means by which the heroes of science fiction devise their most ingenious solutions. The Method, we come to see, denies the human by understanding it as a collection of attributes to be assessed – “Humans are essentially the packaging for memories,” we are told [pg. 108] – and this hollows out the society it pretends to protect, just as it sterilises the environment previous generations did their best to destroy. At the same time, however, the didacticism of the prose, the discursive style with its constant commentary – “If we were to describe what is currently occurring between Mia and Kramer, we might compare it to the silent roar of a story about to unfold” [pg. 22] – casts a light on every corner of Zeh’s parable. There’s no space in this story – fittingly, perhaps, there is no human depth.
In a recent edition of Newsnight, the Financial Times columnist and assistant editor Gillian Tett gave in to the despair of the West European elite. “Maybe the next decade or two is going to be about people questioning this balance of how democracy works and looking at more technocratic solutions,” she suggested, “because the economic choices confronting the West right now are so painful that the pressure is not going to evaporate quickly.” The Method is the counter to what might in some quarters be seductive counsel: to pass all our futures to technocrats working in long cycles and for a concretised definition of the ‘public good’ will be necessarily to adulterate what we consider as the individual – and what this means for our ability to avert ecological disaster, should we wish to maintain our individuality, is an implicit question.
That Zeh chooses to enact in her novel’s characters precisely the enervation she understands the Method to occasion may weaken, through absence of convincing contrast, the impact of what is otherwise a direct hit. But it also makes The Method an impressively completed edifice: brittle, perhaps, but also rather bold.