Friday, December 12, 2014

'To be on Earth is to be frightened': Reading Matt Haig's 'The Humans'

I haven’t had a spare second to write this in the last few weeks but I really enjoyed Matt Haig’s The Humans. To be honest, I was a Matt Haig fan before I even started reading his books. He writes some really great, balanced incisive and rational things on Twitter and on various other sites/newspapers/comment sections – promoting reading and empathy above all. I can relate to or agree with a lot of them. His new book, Reasons to Stay Alive is coming out early next year.

The Humans is great because of Matt Haig and his voice. He manages to balance a Douglas Adams Hitchhiker-esque sense of humour and satire with some profound and affecting insights into human life. On one level it’s very simple, the plot is even quite predictable, but following it as it unfolds is still very rewarding. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s a sense of integrity that I associate with this author where you can really trust what he’s saying and know that he means it – and if you can relate to it- it’s wonderful.

I think it’s absolutely necessary that readers try and empathise with this alien and view human life for what it is – from an outsider’s perspective. It’s something the world can really do with – learning to be objective, to step outside the familiar and be an alien for a while. The alien is kind of a metaphor and/or vessel for doing this. It can point out the inconsistencies in our lives and the illogical nuances of human behaviour that society has bred.  I loved Camus for doing this in a way with Meursault in The Outsider, and I appreciate how Rand did it with Howard Roark and co. It’s important to step into different shoes, to question everything, even if it reaffirms what you think already – there’s never anything to lose from doing it. The people we cast as the outsiders and disassociate with – sometimes it’s important to put them in context and look through their eyes (this doesn’t necessitate agreeing with them or endorsing them). Instead of vilifying people, try to first understand them. Human life may not matter in the grand scheme of things – in the infinite universe, but it matters for each individual and the relationships they foster and the actions they take and the things they write.

In The Humans, the alien narrator is sent to earth to take the form of Cambridge professor Andrew Martin in order to prevent him making a mathematical breakthrough that would render humanity too advanced – and would give this ‘ugly’ species too much power to be trusted with. All traces of Martin’s discovery – including the people he may have told and those too close to him (his wife and teenage son) to be trusted – must be eradicated. The alien coming to understand and relate to human life is not particularly new for a conceit and the story could be seen as simplistic as it evolves - but there is something in this eclectic bunch of characters (the suicidal teenage son and the tired, neglected wife) - as well as the genuinely funny, interesting and ambitious narrative voice - that makes this book feel special and unique.

Haig has talked openly and refreshingly about his mental health struggles and mental health in general and these certainly play into the novel on occasion - and, in a way, this book is about rediscovering that sense of wonder that can be found in some human behaviour – in love and family and friendship. Whereas his species had typecast humanity negatively as violent and brutish and irrational, the alien narrator discovers the wonder and joy and positivity that is also present in human life. The chapter entitled ‘Advice for a Human’ is kind of a love letter to anyone struggling with depression or emotional problems of any kind. Below I have listed some of my favourites of the points (there are 100! I have separated my comments on them with a dash) – they are great reminders and corrections to habits of thinking:

Advice for humans:

13. You shouldn’t have been born. Your existence is as close to impossible as can be. To dismiss the impossible is to dismiss yourself. – think about it for a minute. Think about the chances of fertilisation and the combination of genes and nature and nurture and every component of who you are and what it took to make you right at this moment. The millions of sperm, the generations before you – the chance of your parents meeting. You are utterly unique and utterly unlikely.

14. Your life will have 25,000 days in it. Make sure you remember some of them. – you are finite. You have limited time. Decide what to do with it and have no regrets.

19. Read poetry. Especially poetry by Emily Dickinson. It might save you. Anne Sexton knows the mind, Walt Whitman knows grass, but Emily Dickinson knows everything. – I love Emily Dickinson. She’s my favourite poet. I love that Matt Haig loves Emily Dickinson. I feel like our minds are related.

30. Don’t aim for perfection. Evolution, and life, only happen through mistakes.

38. Walt Whitman was right about at least one thing. You will contradict yourself. You are large. You contain multitudes. – this is so important and something that I needed reminding about. It’s not important to be right. No one is always right and nothing is always right. Embrace contradictions but still don’t shy away from thinking.

39. No one is ever completely right about anything. Anywhere. – ditto.

52. If you are laughing, check that you don’t really want to cry. And vice versa. – emotional extremes can be so interlinked.

53. 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.  – I love this. Sure it’s sentimental, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Don’t apologise or feel guilty for what you feel.

66. As a black hole forms it creates an immense gamma-ray burst, blinding whole galaxies with light and destroying millions of worlds. You could disappear at any second. This one. Or this one. Make sure, as often as possible, you are doing something you’d be happy to die doing.

72. Most humans don’t think about things very much. They survive by thinking about needs and wants alone. But you are not one of them. Be careful. – thinking and feeling too much is both a gift and a curse. But never give it up in favour of the alternative.

82. If you think something is ugly, look harder. Ugliness is just a failure of seeing.

88. Which is to say: don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars. – he’s addressing this to Andrew Martin’s son.

90. But know this. Men are not from Mars. Women are not from Venus. Do not fall for categories. Everyone is everything. Every ingredient inside a star is inside you, and every personality that ever existed competes in the theatre of your mind for the main role. – we are of the same material as stars. Categories are not everything. Often, they’re not anything.

I keep recommending this book to people and I’ve said what I wanted to say about it. Ultimately it will affect each individual differently – I know that it is one I will return to and I can’t wait to read more from Haig and to keep thinking and reading along with him. I love books that make me think and reach me deeply and this did both brilliantly. I love Haig’s style – combining mathematics (prime numbers especially) and logic with human feeling and negotiating some of the irrationalities too. There aren’t so many straightforward divisions as we think.

Some more great quotes:

‘For those that don’t know, a human is a real bipedal life-form of mid-range intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small water-logged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe’ 1

‘Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead. But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rainforests mainly, still do so. So we must conclude that madness is sometimes a question of time, and sometimes of postcode.’ 32

‘To be on Earth is to be frightened.’ 33

The narrator’s instructors: ‘the humans are an arrogant species, defined by violence and greed. They have taken their home planet, the only one they currently have access to, and placed it on the road to destruction. They have created a world of divisions and categories and have continually failed to see the similarities between themselves.’ 46 – they’re absolutely right – but the alien narrator is also absolutely right.

‘As well as religion, human history is full of depressing things like colonisation, disease, racism, sexism, homophobia, class snobbery, environmental destruction, slavery, totalitarianism, military dictatorships, inventions of things which they have no idea how to handle (the atomic bomb, the Internet, the semi-colon), the victimisation of clever people, the worshipping of idiotic people, boredom, despair, periodic collapses, and catastrophes within the psychic landscape. And through it all there has always been some truly awful food.’ 77

To be a human is to state the obvious. Repeatedly, over and over, until the end of time.’ 78

‘Everywhere you can see in their sky, or almost everywhere, is lifeless. That must affect them. That must give them ideas above their station. That must send them insane.’ 123

‘That’s what starts to happen, when you know it is possible for you to feel pain you have no control over. You become vulnerable. Because the possibility of pain is where love stems from.’ 165

‘Life, especially human life, was an act of defiance. It was never meant to be, and yet it existed in an incredible number of places across a near-infinite amount of solar systems. There was no such things as impossible. I knew that, because I also knew that everything was impossible, and so the only possibilities in life were impossibilities.’ 172

‘Social networking: it was the news show they had been waiting for. It was the show where the news could be all about them.’ 184

‘Love is scary because it pulls you in with an intense force, a supermassive black hole which looks like nothing from the outside but from the inside challenges every reasonable thing you know. You lose yourself, like I lost myself, in the warmest of annihilations.’ 196

‘The problem lying behind the lack of human fulfilment was a shortage not just of time but of imagination. They found a day that worked for them and then stuck to it, and repeated it, at least between Monday and Friday. Even if it didn’t work for them – as was usually the case – they’d stuck to it anyway. Then they’d alter things a bit and do something a little bit more fun on Saturday and Sunday. One initial proposal I wanted to put to them was to swap things over. For instance, have five fun days and two not fun days. That way – call me a mathematical genius – they would have more fun. But as things stood, there weren’t even two fun days. They only had Saturdays, because Mondays were a little bit too close to Sundays for Sunday’s liking, as if Monday were a collapsed star in the week’s solar system, with an excessive gravitational pull. In other words one seventh of human days worked quite well. The other six weren’t very good, and five of those were roughly the same day stuck on repeat.’ 197

‘The single biggest act of bravery or madness anyone can do is the act of change’ 260

‘You see, before coming to Earth I had never wanted or needed to be cared for, but I hungered now to that feeling of being looked after, of belonging, of being loved.’ 264

‘Everything in human life was a test. That was why they all looked so stressed out.’ 33

Please let me know what you thought about this book – and if you have any great recommendations, let me know!