Report on Probability A – Brian W Aldiss (1968)
I remember reading this novel when I was about fifteen. I liked it, although I didn’t understand it one bit. I’d previously enjoyed Aldiss’ short stories and had read ‘Earthworks’. Thinking about it now, why, if Earthworks at the time had seemed a more satisfactory novel, can I remember very little about it, while ‘Report…’ hangs in my mind like a stubborn dream?
These days, it makes a lot more sense to me, but the persistent dream element is still present.
In some ways it is reminiscent of Ballard’s ‘Concrete Island’ in its minimalist setting and is one of those books that should have been a cult classic. If it ever was, it was a very minor one, which is a bit of a shame. As strange and surreal as it is, it’s a brave and oddly compelling novel which begins on an ordinary suburban setting, bordering on the banal, and grows steadily weirder.
Written in the form of a report, it is composed in the main of a third person monologue of obsessive detail, following the movements of three men who inhabit various outhouses in the garden of a Mr Mary. These men are known respectively as G, S & C.
They spend their day watching the house, each of them obsessed with observing the mysterious Mrs Mary.
The report is being analysed by humans in a parallel universe, who themselves are being watched by another group who are also under observation. The chain, we are led to believe, continues into infinity.
It is a tribute to Aldiss’ power of narrative that the very obsessiveness and banality of the observed ‘probability’ detailed (literally) in the report becomes an intriguing portrait of a world in which the process of Time has broken down. The various characters are trapped in their respective roles while the world decays around them. G is an ex-Gardener, bound to his garden shed where his clocks have wound down and stopped. S is Mr Mary’s dismissed Secretary, living in the attic of an old coach house and re-reading the same episode of a Boy’s magazine adventure serial; ‘The Secret of The Grey Mill’. C is a Chauffeur who lives out his dream of driving Mrs May about while sitting in his garage home, behind the wheel of a car which will never leave the garage again.
Outside the grounds of the house, the world becomes even more surreal. The men in turn visit Mr Watt’s café across the street and engage in stilted conversations about – ironically – the price of fish and a possibly non-existent strike at a local factory. Mr Watt also watches Mr Mary’s house while his customers eat poached haddock.
The link between them – which is a metaphor for the universe in which they exist – is the painting ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ by pre-Raphaelite artist, Holman Hunt, a copy of which hangs in each of their respective domiciles. It depicts an ambiguous relationship between a hired hand and what might be (as is suggested in the text) the wife or possibly daughter of the employer. It is obvious that the shepherd has an interest in the woman. He has his arm around her and is attempting to show her a deaths-head moth he has in the palm of his hand. She is not looking at the moth. She is looking at him, but whether with a look of romantic interest or amused contempt is not clear.
The artist and painter, in differing forms, are also common to the other universes too, although the watchers do not recognise the painting’s significance.
Like the painting, the universe of these people has become fixed at a point of potential. They are trapped in their roles, but unable to function or progress.
The chauffeur does not drive, the secretary reads but does not write. The gardener sits watching from his shed while the asparagus beds sit empty.
All the men seem to have been dismissed but cannot leave the environs of the house, and Mr Mary seems powerless to even attempt to make them leave.
The chauffeur has a home-made periscope which gives him a view of the street from the garage, but the view is a disturbing one. Images of Death abound: hearses, people dressed in black, men carrying a mangled bicycle on a stretcher; men riding in cars with their hands over their eyes.
The servants seem to be all waiting for Mrs Mary to initiate something, just as the Hireling Shepherd is waiting for the woman in the painting to give him some sort of sign.
In the last few pages we discover that Mrs Mary herself is a watcher, employing a screen in her bedroom to view events in the next universe down the line.