The Devil’s Garden, by Edward Docx

Review copy courtesy John Self, The Asylum

My personal history with Edward Docx’s two previous novels made The Devil’s Garden one of the books that I most looked forward to this spring. My first exposure to Docx was actually his Booker-listed second novel, Self-Help (titled Pravda in North America); it featured an extensive cast of damaged characters who went through their struggles in an ever-expanding plot that eventually involved London, Paris, New York and St. Petersburg. I liked it enough to search out his debut, The Calligrapher, and enjoyed it even more. That one features a smaller cast but an equally entrancing plot (the 29-year-old calligrapher of the title has a contract to produce versions of 30 of Donne’s songs and sonnets but his libido gets in the way) and is also a “wandering” novel — London, Rome and New York in this one.

One of the most impressive things in both books was the author’s ability to convey a sense of place. His evocation of the Paddington area of London in The Calligrapher was particularly memorable, but there are certainly other examples (his description of St. Petersburg gets high praise from those who know that city). Both novels also excelled in the way that Docx carefully developed his characters, put them through their paces and supplied a dramatic twist at the end — the plots stretch credibility but I was happy to grant him licence and was more than rewarded by the results.

The pre-publicaton description of The Devil’s Garden promised something very different. The central character, Dr J. Forle, is a scientist studying ant colonies, his research project based at the last inhabited station on the Amazon River. I’d say that is literally as far away from cosmopolitan London and New York as you can get — as Docx makes clear in a short preface from Forle:

I came here as a scientist to conduct experiments on other living things. I believed that the most fundamental questions of our existence could be answered in the lab. I believed in rigorous method and the unemotional reporting of results. But I have come to see life itself is the real experiment and that the answers to these questions are to be found only in what we do — as individuals, as a species. What results there are might better be called experience, and experience soon teaches us that they are not the results we would want. I will leave here under another name because of what I have done. All the same, I will leave here as a human being.

The entomology metaphor (actually it is a sub-set, myremecology, the study of ants) that flows from that introduction will continue as a framing device throughout the book, so let’s deal with it first. The altruistic, colony behavior of ants represented a threat to the very core of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the idea of survival of the fittest:

This extreme cooperative behavior runs counter to everything we have come to accept about natural selection and the prevalent idea that the genes that get passed on most often over time are the ones whose consequences serve their own interests. The societies of ants must therefore be reckoned with at the centre of all evolutionary questions. How can there be so many altruistic individuals and yet so many successful species?

And they are very successful. More than any other creature, the ants saturate and dominate the terrestrial environment. There are something like thirteen thousand species with roughly that number again yet to be discovered. Their total population is probably underestimated at ten thousand trillion individuals.

We call them ‘eusocial’ insects, meaning ‘truly social’. Some ants farm, some use tools, some fight terrible wars, others enslave and still others are inquilines — disguised interlopers who rely on their hosts for food and shelter.

The distinguishing characteristic of the species that Forle and his colleagues are studying is their ability to destory all vegetation, except for that that specifically serves their needs, in selected areas of the jungle, creating what the local Indians call the Devil’s garden.

On the other side of the metaphor, we have homo sapiens, represented by varied “species” as well. The staff of the research station represent one: Forle and two Caucasian assistants, supported by four indigenous people “who were all on the payroll of the state”. They represent the peaceful, scientific subset of homo sapiens.

There are of course others, the extremes of which are represented by two visitors who arrive at the station early in the book, Colonel Cordero and the Judge, ostensibly to register everyone living in the area, perhaps to vote, perhaps for other reasons. The Judge’s explanation is enigmatic:

‘Everyone. We are registering everyone.’ He was annoyed to have been distracted from looking at Sole’s legs. ‘Outlaws, smugglers, gun-runners, rat-eaters, monkey-fiddlers. If it shows up alive…we register it.’

‘Surely they need some kind of proof of identity?’ I [Forle] was not so naive as to believe this, but because of my continued irritation with Cordero, I was determined to be affable with the Judge. ‘Otherwise anyone could turn up and there would be no record for next time and the whole electoral register would become –‘

‘A farce.’ The Judge interrupted me. ‘A protracted farce.’

And the Colonel?

Cordero spoke only to ask questions. I could not gauge his intelligence, nor the nature of his relationship with the Judge, but I was forming an opinion that he was the sort of a man who took a steady satisfaction in rooting down for the worst of things — perhaps to prove to himself that nobody else was free from the fears and weaknesses he harboured in his own mind; perhaps because he found that he could not be sure of anything but the lowest motives.

If the Colonel and Judge represent two aligned species of homo sapiens on this side of the metaphor, the Judge’s list indicates some other non-native people who are also at play in this environment: drug dealers, loggers, oilmen — various types of invaders who have various levels of support from the state in exploiting the resources of the area, all in conflict with the scientific project.

And then, of course, there are the tribes indigenous to the area. Some merely move further into the jungle when the inevitable conflicts between different exploiters arise. Others oppose all invaders. And still others choose a side, conflict-by-conflict, motivated by what looks best at the moment rather than any choice measured against long-term benefits.

In this world of conflicting human “colonies”, the members of the research station are at the very bottom of the totem pole, since they don’t even have the option of melting further into the jungle. It is this aspect that Docx chooses to focus on as the novel moves forward — the metaphor remains, but the non-ant side of the story moves into thriller-like territory.

Despite the author’s considerable talents, none of this worked for me. The metaphor initially held appeal, but Docx doesn’t take it anywhere — the novel illustrates it, rather than develops it, which seems to me to be an abuse of the reason for metaphor (they are supposed to make things clearer, not require illustration). The characters, both the invaders (including Forle) and the indigenous people, are two-dimensional cutouts, moved around to serve the active parts of the plot rather than driving it or becoming fuller as a result. And, while it is possible that Docx’s description of the jungle may be every bit as good as the urban sense of place that I loved in his two previous novels, this time it simply didn’t land with me — although that conclusion may say more about my interests than it does about the author’s ability.

While The Devil’s Garden was a disappointment for me, I won’t be abandoning Edward Docx — and those who are attracted by that entomology metaphor may well find more in this novel than I did. Unlike many contemporary authors who tend to write different versions of the same book as their career progresses, Docx, with three books now to his credit, has already shown an interest in exploring dramatically different story threads in each of his novels. Any author willing to take those kind of risks is bound to fall short of the mark — for some readers, at least — on occasion; the innovative effort itself deserves to be recognized.

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19 Responses to “The Devil’s Garden, by Edward Docx”

  1. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    Very thoughtful and articulate review, Kevin–thanks. I picked up The Calligrapher as you suggested and I’m halfway through it. I’m enjoying it very much, although I can’t help feeling that it’s a bit of a “guy’s novel,” if there is such a thing. Anyway, I am loving the John Donne poems and how they are woven into the story, and I, too, love being transported to London! Thanks again for the recommendation.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: Keep going. To say any more at the halfway point would involve a spoiler.

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    I liked The Calligrapher too – I read it in 2007, which must be before you started this blog (?) because I can’t find a review here. But for me, it was the link to Donne’s poems, I’m not so sure about insects LOL…

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: My reading of The Calligrapher was pre-blog — I was impressed with the way that Docx balanced Donne (and the formality of calligraphy) with his generous portrayal of London — adding the tension of the central character’s involvement with women — all leading to the excellent plot twist at the end.

    This novel has a similar number of elements but I didn’t find that any of them reeled me into the story the way his previous two books did.

  5. Trevor Says:

    Hmmm, I’m not sure whether to give this one a try or not. I lived in the Amazon region for a couple of years. So, on the one hand, if Docx can bring that back to me I’d be willing to forgive any number of other off-points; on the other hand, I’d be paying that much more attention and would be that much more annoyed if he failed. I’m not sure I’ll take the time out of other reading to try this one unless it finds its way on the Booker list later this year.

    That said, I’m certainly more interested in his older books. I’d never really looked into them before.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I was hoping that you would find this one interesting enough to try, since you are the only reader whom I know who has some personal experience in the area. Despite that, I can’t wholeheartedly urge you to go out and buy it — maybe once it gets released in the U.S. (I can’t find a release date) you could try a couple pages in a bookstore sometime. I don’t like its chances for making the Booker longlist. And I underline my recommendations for the two previous novels.

  7. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    Kevin, I have just finished The Calligrapher and as the Brits say, it was brilliant. I thought it was immensely clever, seriously well-written, and laugh-out-loud funny. And now I want to read more about John Donne and his poetry! From your review above, I will probably avoid The Devil’s Garden but will look for Pravda. Of course, I must read A Visit from the Goon Squad first and see what all the fuss is about! Thanks so much for introducing me to Docx. I will be recommending him to others…

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: See what I mean about the conclusion? Yes, it read like a guy book — but the guy was being set up for an outcome that he totally deserved.

    And if you are reading Egan (and she deserves to be read, regardless of my opinion), save some time for The Privileges which made the runnerup list — review is on the blog.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The Darwinian benefits of eusocial behaviour in ants have been understood for decades. It’s not remotely a mystery. It’s well explained.

    Does the novel seem to be aware of that? I have a pet dislike of authors who use scientific metaphors without understanding the science. I read books on Darwinian theories of altruism at school back in the 1980s and I don’t think it was new then. It’s beyond the scope of the blog to go into it, but it’s not a threat to the theory of evolution.

    Otherwise it sounds a bit obvious. Always a drawback. Interestingly I have heard that Self-Help is an attempt to write a Russian-style superfluous man novel set contemporaneously. It’s why I’ve not read it yet. I want to read more of the 19th Century novels he (may) have been alluding to first.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I won’t pretend to understand the science, but my reading was that this research project was designed to fill in the gaps in explaining the eusocial behavior. Forle’s mentor who set up the project but has since died in a plane crash is portrayed as the visionary type who can make break throughs (as is one of Forle’s young assistants) while he himself is cast as a plodder, disciplined and good at reporting results but a spear carrier when it comes to innovative science. I would have found the book better, actually, if that angle had been pursued more thoroughly.

    As for Self Help, I’ve read some of those comments that see allusions to the Russians in Docx’s work. I think they are forcing the issue for little value — the novel stands on its own.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks Kevin.

    It’s not my field so I may be wrong, but I honestly didn’t think there were gaps (in ants and other eusocial insects). Kin selection in species like ours is more complex and the subject of ongoing research I admit.

    The debate isn’t about whether Darwinism works but whether it always works at the level of the individual gene (as Dawkins and so on argue) or at the level of organism or even at the level of the group.

    It’s an interesting issue actually. Few writers are from a scientific background which makes writing about science (even where here it’s a means to an end rather than the end) very challenging. It’s very easy to get it wrong or to misunderstand the issues. Alternatively, as I’ve seen in plenty sf, it’s easy to get the science right but the writing wrong. The chemistry is correct, but the prose is dry and tedious.

    Here that’s not the issue from what you say. It sounds more like he falls between the stools of different types of novel. Giles Foden’s Zanzibar for me was an awkward mix of thriller and literary novel and ultimately succeeded as neither. They’re not easy things to combine and the result is often a rather unengaging thriller or (from another perspective) an overly plot driven literary novel with weak characters.

    Anyway, for me I have Docx already at home (and I note your final para, thanks for that) and here I fear my knowledge of the metaphor might actually get in the way of enjoyment. One to pass on I think, at least for now.

    The Calligrapher on the other hand…

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I won’t comment on the Darwin issue — what you say makes sense and my guess is that you would find the “ant” issue an annoying distraction. My bigger complaint with this novel is the literary/thriller problem. (SPOILER COMING UP) Docx writes himself into a box which means that the last 100 pages or so is an uninteresting, depressing “thriller” where Forle becomes a hunted human “ant”. The metaphor falls apart completely, alas.

    I do think you would find The Calligrapher would fit your tastes when you are looking for a not-too-challenging read. You know London well, so I think you would find the location passages effective. The Donne angle is very well-done. And the plot (and it is a “plot”) is handled most effectively.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds like it runs into the same issues as that Foden I mentioned then.

    Donne is one of my favourite poets so The Calligrapher does sound like something I should look more closely at. After all, there are always those times when a good but not too challenging literary read is precisely what’s required.

  14. Trevor Says:

    I have Docx’s previous books ordered. I will see how I get on with them and maybe give this one a good faith go after. Donne is also one of my favorites, and for some reason the comments about The Calligrapher have led me to think of Frayn’s Headlong, at least in terms of some literary fun. Am I way off?

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I liked Headlong very much as well and there are some comparisons, but I wouldn’t push them. Both novels take very interesting premises, with a somewhat misdirected central character, and explore what would, or does happen, in contemporary London. In that sense, both Frayn and Docx (at least in The Calligrapher) are playing with the same elements.

  16. Tom C Says:

    I have vaguely heard of Docx but never ventured so far as to read anything by him. He certainly seems capable of a very wide range of topics and from your review he sounds like someone to watch out for. I also greatly enjoyed Frayn’s Headlong (Trevor’s suggestion above) and will now search to see if you mentioned that book elsewhere in your blog

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Alas, I read Headlong and most of Frayn’s other novels before I started this blog — and he hasn’t hit the re-read cycle yet, but I suspect he will eventually.

  18. Tom C Says:

    I was able to get hold of Self-Help at a ridiculously low price in the Kindle spring sale and so will now be able to explore this author you have written so much about.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Self-Help is a much better book than this one and a better place to start. The Calligrapher would be my favorite of the three.

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