A long time ago, some prehistoric innovator made up the first story. Then along came the clever inventor of the meta-narrative, who gave us the "story within a story." But it took Brian Aldiss to come up with a story within a story within a story within a story within a story.
On just such a precarious concept was born Mr. Aldiss's Report on Probability A, perhaps the most peculiar novel in the oeuvre of an author who pushed genre fiction to the outer limits, and sometimes a step or two beyond. Alas, few science fiction fans were willing to travel along on this circuitous novel, in which very little happens, and what few things do take place, get repeated over and over again. One critic dismissed Report on Probability A in the most succinct terms, entitling his review “Report on a Total Waste of Time.”
Publishers apparently shared this verdict. Although Aldiss wrote the book in 1962, five years elapsed before Report on Probability A was published. In the interim it was turned down by editors in three countries.
Others, more generous in spirit or perhaps merely more patient, have lauded Aldiss's willingness to sacrifice plot and development in favor of high concept stasis. They see Report on Probability A as a kind of anti-novel or a British sci-fi variant of the so-called 'New Novel' movement associated with Alain Robbe-Grillet. Indeed, the influence of Robbe-Grillet, especially his The Voyeur from 1955, is marked throughout Report on Probability A, not just in narrative style, but even to the point of subject matter (Aldiss's book could justly been named The Voyeurs) and a fastidious imitation of the French author’s use of abnormally precise language in describing settings and situations. But to Aldiss's credit (or discredit), he develops this conceit even further than Robbe- Grillet, creating a novel in which the precision of the observation becomes so extreme that it overwhelms the few paltry incidents observed.
The book is divided into three sections, with each describing an individual who is watching the house of Mr. Mary. In part one, G (the former gardener) watches from a wooden hut a few meters away from the house. In part 2, S (the former secretary) is on the lookout from an old stable at the back of the house. In part 3, C (the former chauffeur) is staking out the house from a garage on the other side of the residence.
I couldn't help being reminded, throughout my reading of this exercise in excessive scrutiny, of the opening lines of Samuel Johnson's poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes":
Let observation with excessive view Suvey mankind from China to Peru….
The trio of vision words (observation, view, survey) here are perhaps two too many. Johnson’s phrase is elegant, but might as well be paraphrased as "Let the watcher watch watchfully." And that, my dear reader, is exactly what happens in Report on Probability A—watchful watching at the chamber door…merely that and nothing more.
But these three observers are also studied by a group of people in another location, perhaps an alternate universe or different facet of the known universe. These observers, researchers with unusual names (Domoladossa, Midlakemela) are reading a report about G, S and C. And these second-order watchers are themselves under scrutiny, studied by a group of so-called Distinguishers who are perhaps located in a still different universe or dimension, and can view Domoladossa and Midlakemela via a manifestation on a hillside. The Distinguishers are watched, in turn, by some gentlemen in New York. The men in New York are watched by two men and a boy in a warehouse…..
You get the idea. We never quite get to China and Peru. Even so, Samuel Johsnon seems like he's sleeping on the night watch by comparison with Aldiss's vigilant crew. Never before in fiction have so few been watched by so many to such little purpose.
Aldiss claimed that he was inspired, in part, by the hypothesis, linked to Werner Heisenberg (and often confused with his "uncertainty principle"), that the act of observation influences the phenomenon observed. But, in the case of Report on Probability A, it is hard to comprehend even the most basic implications of the phenomena under observation, let alone how they are changed by the long chain of watchers and meta-watchers. Our observant former household employees stare long and hard at Mr. Mary's house, sometimes with the aid of a telescope and periscope, but they don’t see much— an occasional movement in a window, a woman at a sink, a man talking (or at least his lips are moving, although what he might be saying remains a mystery) to another woman, who appears upset or sad, a cat in the garden stalking a pigeon, the changing illumination of afternoon, dusk, evening. Occasionally one of the characters travels to a café across the street, and engages in a curt, almost incoherent conversation with the proprietor.
As the story unfolds—or rather fails to unfold, instead merely repeats—the reader begins to detect a few strange details in the world under observation. All three of the characters watching the house have a reproduction of the same work of art in their respective hideaways, namely William Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd. The community in which these individuals live suffers from an epidemic of flat tires on vehicles, and hints of death and strife are conveyed in several indirect ways. But the closest any of the characters comes to an actual conflict arrives in a fleeting moment, when the man in the house, presumably Mr. Mary, appears briefly in the window carrying a rifle. But, contrary to Chekhov’s famous rule, no shots are fired. This isn't that kind of a novel.
But the second- and third-order observers watch on in rapt fascination. Domoladossa and Midlakemela scrutinize every bit of information, hoping to learn how closely this world of Mr. Mary and his ex-employees matches their own. And so on down the chain of observers, each hoping for some revealing moment or exciting bit of action. And at the very end of the line, we find the poor readers of Mr. Aldiss's novel, who watch the whole lot of these watchers. Alas, if they are hoping for a payoff from all this time invested in observation, they will be sadly disappointed.
Indeed, I walked away from this book reminded of Yogi Berra's famous tautology: "You can observe a lot just by watching." Obviously Berra never read Report on Probability A. (Okay, we will forgive him—Yogi was busy winning a World Series the year this book was written.) If he had, he would have assured us that you don't observe much if you just watch the watchers watch the watchers watch the watchers. Or better yet, he would have told you to pick up another book.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.