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June 11, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | June 11, 2008 |

What is real, and what is illusion? What is the nature of the universe? Of time? Is it possible to cut through space and time and travel to worlds unknown? These are the weighty questions Ian McDonald tackles in Brasyl, the novel many are calling his masterpiece.

I won’t mince words: If you’re looking for a light, summer read that will be the perfect complement to a day at the shore, then Brasyl is not for you. McDonald makes his readers work for Brasyl, but those who slog through it can expect an intellectual payoff worth their efforts.

And efforts will be made, believe me. In fact, I very nearly succumbed to the complexity that is Brasyl. I turned so often to the six-page glossary at the end of the book that I actually photocopied it to keep it handy. (The numerous foreign terms are, in fact, one of my biggest complaints about Brasyl, as they distanced me from the text, continually forcing me to stop reading and look up a term, the definition of which often only confused me further.) Even more complex were the numerous theories referenced by the work, and I frequently found myself turning to Google and Wikipedia in an attempt to broaden my understanding of theories like Loop Quantum Gravity, M-Theory, the Everett many-world theorem, and Fermi’s paradox. If you find such ideas daunting, know that McDonald does a fair job of explaining these ideas in Brasyl, but those seeking to fully appreciate the plot should be prepared to do some outside research.

The plot follows three entirely different Brazils. The first begins in 2006, when Marcelina Hoffman, an ambitious, coke-addicted TV producer, sees her career implode when she’s accused of things she cannot remember doing. In her search for answers, she encounters a mysterious “other” who is so like herself it can only be herself. We then shift to 2036, following Edson in his quest to find the mysterious Fia, whose career in illegal quantum computing puts both their lives in danger. Finally, we return to 1706 as a Jesuit priest named Luis Quinn is sent up the Amazon to bring a rogue priest to justice.

Although these three entirely different plotlines span time and space (to say any more is to give too much away), it’s clear from the beginning that these three plots will eventually converge. Converge they do, but not before readers are subjected (although “treated” is more apt) to lessons not only in quantum theory, but also in the history of Brazil and its culture. That McDonald’s done his research is clearly conveyed through his detailed writing. I could almost hear the samba playing as he describes the gafieira (dance hall), the favela (Brazilian shantytown), and numerous other aspects of Brazil. (In addition to providing a selected reading list at the end of Brasyl, McDonald also provides a playlist for those who would like to listen to the music that inspired him.)

For those up to the challenge that is Brasyl, be aware that, while Brasyl is ultimately rewarding, it’s not perfect. I mentioned earlier the overabundance of foreign terms, which admittedly became more bearable as the story progressed, but this wasn’t my only gripe. With few exceptions, the main characters aren’t overly complex, or even all that interesting. The multiple plotlines could have converged a bit more satisfactorily at the end; it almost seemed that McDonald ended things a bit hastily, an odd observation considering that Brasyl felt like it lasted forever. Worse still, there were quite a few simple errors that one wouldn’t expect from a book backed by a major publishing house (dialogue without quotes, a lack of punctuation in places, that sort of thing).

Despite these flaws, Brasyl is still successful because it isn’t about the prose, the characters, or even the setting, for that matter. Rather, Brasyl excels for its ability to change the way the reader looks at reality. If, like Luis Quinn, you seek “a task most difficult,” you’ll find Brasyl a worthy challenge.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

Heart of Dark Matter

Brasyl by Ian McDonald / Jennifer McKeown

Books | June 11, 2008 |

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