Brainy and sexy
Without pain

Fingerposts and celluloid smiles

I don't know if anyone noticed, but in my previous post Brainy and Sexy I started with the idea of 'original and familiar' being the two poles between which a storyteller operates, moved those terms along till they became 'literary and commercial', and ended up with 'brainy and sexy'. Only of course all those pairs don't map neatly onto each other and, anyway, nothing about writing is as polarised as that. Even so-called black and white photography is almost entirely shades of grey, as you discover when you learn to print it.

I've just finished An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. I do see that it's not to everyone's taste (what book is?) but for me it exemplifies the fact that brainy and sexy aren't true opposites, any more than love and mathematics are. It's not sexy in the conventional way - he's too good at the smelliness and brutality of history - and there's scarcely a comfortably likeable character in the book, but reading it I felt sometimes as you do watching an oil refinery lit at night: here is a vast, sprawling world of points of light and deep dark, in which every part is nonetheless connected up to every other part, and all depends on harnessing or resisting the fundamental nature of the elements involved. Perhaps it helps that Fingerpost is set in the middle of the 17th Century, when the personal was intensely, newly political, and religion, which had always been handed down from above by Church and State, was suddenly a truth for any person, however low, to work out for themself. Somehow Pears uses the big philosophical debates that powered both religion and the new experimental science to power and deepen his detective story. Tensions of faith and reason, evidence, deduction and reasoning, lies and truth, sins of omission and commission, draw together the plot and the structure, and the acts and agonies of the characters.

But there are only two directly narrated sex scenes in it: one is a rape, and the other the narrator keeps to himself. So where does sexy come into it? Well, as a friend put it when I asked if she too finds hereself fancying speakers on the radio, the mind is an erogenous zone. If you like thinking, then really exciting thinking is arousing. Teasing out a pattern of cause and effect, seeing connections between different ideas and knowing immediately they're right, is like meeting someone's eyes across a crowded room. The shape and form of it comes complete before your eyes, and everything else fades into the background. Everything, for a moment, seems clearer, but not simpler, because the clarity comes from the sense of a complex whole lying within it. That's an excitement which for me can rival many a celluloid smile.

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