Let’s be honest. This book by Matt Haig, about an alien sent to earth to destroy a brilliant mathematician’s theory so the human race doesn’t progress too much, but then the alien learns to love the humans and see their flaws not as a curse, but a blessing, is not exactly a novel concept. It’s been done. However, don’t take that awful preface as slamming the book or telling you it’s not worth your time. Because any iterations of this theme and plot beforehand didn’t have Haig’s writing behind it. This one does.
Simply put, I haven’t binged on a book like this in a long time. Sure, it’s a light 279 pages, but it’s such an enjoyable read that still manages to engage that part of my brain that makes me think and go, “Hmmm,” long after I close the book.
Throughout the book, the alien comes to love Emily Dickinson and it’s through her that he comes to appreciate and love humans. This poem highlighted in particular is worth re-posting here:
How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity—
Peppered throughout the novel are poem snippets or quotes that illuminate the subject. There were quite a few gems that I could sit here and duplicate all night long. Suffice it to say, this damn book with its seemingly simplistic plot made me think. Humans are a weird bunch, indeed. But that’s what makes us…us.
The book at its core, at its absolute core, is about how fucked we are as humans. We have this unbelievably dark dichotomy constantly at play: We are conscious, thinking animals, which is great, right? We also die. No matter what, we will cease to exist. We cease being. Those two facts of life — that we can think and that we will die — create the tragedy of life, the tragedy of trying to live. We can contemplate that we will die; we can contemplate that the approach of death is ever-growing closer AND WHAT ARE WE DOING WITH THAT LIFE?
Thirty thousand days. 30,000 days. Thirty with four zeros. That’s how many days the average human has to DO SOMETHING. And what are we doing? Largely, we’re existing in tragedy; the tragedy of not doing. Or the tragedy of ever progressing decay (think disease and general body deterioration — you know, mortality). Life is a constant battle with our own mortality.
And to the alien in this book and by proxy, then, to Haig, the only way we make this life worth living, the only way we can cope with it without losing our fucking minds is two-fold: 1.) Love, as love conquers all, right, and all that jazz, but as cliche as it may be, it’s true. Sure, we’re spinning to our deaths on this fucking rock in the infinite space, but if we love something or someone bigger than ourselves, then at least it’s bearable. 2.) Art, culture, things like books and music and poetry. Things that help us scrape away at what the fuck it means to be alive and to deal with this duality of THINKING and DEATH.
Yeah, man, we kill each other stupidly, we do stupid things, we go to jobs we hate, we WASTE TIME, but we’re trying. We’ve had thousands of years of evolution and sure, we’re still trying to catch up to what the hell all this means, but we’re trying. We ain’t so bad.
Toward the end of the book, the alien makes a list for his “son,” advice for the humans. It’s 97 things-long, a nice prime number, as the alien comes from a place that loves prime numbers, and there are quite a few gems worth contemplating.
Such as, “There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called “book.””
Or, “A paradox: The things you don’t need to live — books, art, cinema, wine and so on — are the things you need to live.”
Perhaps, “Don’t ever be afraid of telling someone you love them. There are things wrong with your world, but an excess of love is not one.”
Maybe, “Be alive. This is your supreme duty to the world.”
Finally, my favorite, I think, “Start fires. But only metaphorically. Unless you are cold and it’s a safe setting. In which case, start fires.”
Well, okay, my other favorite, “Don’t think you know. Know you think.”
Anyway, I know a lot of people could see a six-page list of “life lessons” as a bit ostentatious or self-indulgent of Haig, but eh, it works. I’ll accept it.
Now that I finished this supremely interesting, funny and insightful book I don’t know if I’m going to go start fires (METAPHORICALLY), but it certainly tapped into something deep within me and I suspect deep within others of the human species.
We all relate to the tragedy of trying to live. It’s the universal angst.