At the risk of sounding sentimental, I’m going to suggest that the main reason I responded to this book so profoundly is that I am the father of four boys, aged eight years to almost five months. One of the most wondrous things about my life right now is watching my children experience the world around them, seeing their minds grow and expand. It’s wondrous, yes, and, though I wouldn’t change a thing (except, maybe, to slow it down a tad), it is also heartbreaking: sometimes those experiences do not expand their world in good ways; indeed, they can also work the opposite direction and shut doors in their open minds. John Wyndham suggests such a moment so poignantly in his final book, Chocky (1968), that when I read it — at lunchtime, while on a walk in residential neighborhood beaten down by the sun — my throat caught and tears started to form in my eyes.
Wyndham is best known for his strange, science fiction works of the 1950s — The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955), and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). I hadn’t heard much of Chocky, in fact, until NYRB Classics announced they were releasing an edition of it. I note that John Self reviewed it on his blog (here) and I’ve read this review a few times since Christopher Priest got after John in the comments; nevertheless, it seems this late work gets overshadowed, and John Self also seems to have only been so-so on it. I think it’s a minor masterpiece, and I hope that this new edition gives it new life.
Though the book has a strange element, which I’ll get to in a moment, Chocky takes place in the mundane world of British suburbia. The Gore family — Dad (our narrator), Mom, twelve-year-old Matthew, and ten-year-old Polly — deal with work and family much the way anyone has to, and as the dad, David, recounts this narrative we get the distinct sense of middle-aged ennui, a frustration at socially-imposed responsibilities (especially when it comes to the extended family’s expectations).
The expectations are particularly terrible in the first years after he and his wife Mary got married. They couldn’t have children. Meanwhile, all of Mary’s siblings were having kids, expecting them to have kids, talking about kids, kids, kids. It was driving Mary crazy, not the least because she actually wanted to have children. This desire led them to adopt Matthew, and the adoption brought on its own set of expectations and condescensions.
Once we meet the Gores, though, they’ve adjusted. They moved farther away from the family, had Polly, and are normal. The book begins, though, with one sign of something extraordinary:
It was in the spring of the year that Matthew reached twelve that I first became aware of Chocky. Late April, I think, or possibly early May; anyway I am sure it was the spring because on that Saturday afternoon I was out in the garden shed unenthusiastically oiling the mower for labours to come when I heard Matthew’s voice speaking close outside the window. It surprised me; I had had no idea he was anywhere about until I heard him say, on a note of distinct irritation, and apropos, apparently, of nothing:
‘I don’t know why. It’s just the way things are.’
I assumed that he had brought one of his friends into the garden to play, and that the question which prompted his remark had ben asked out of earshot. I listened for the reply, but there was none. Presently, after a pause, Matthew went on, rather more patiently:
‘Well, the time the world takes to turn round is a day, and that’s twenty-four hours, and . . .’
He broke off, as if at some interruption, though it was quite inaudible to me. Then he repeated:
‘I don’t know why. And I don’t see why thirty-two hours would be more sensible. Anyway, twenty-four hours do make a day, everybody knows that, and seven days make a week . . .’ Again he appeared to be cut short. Once more he protested. ‘I don’t see why seven is a sillier number than eight.’
It’s a fantastic opening shot. We get the suburban scenery, the irritation, and the strange conversation where a little boy — or someone only he can talk to — is questioning basic facts about our world.
The voice we cannot hear belongs to Chocky. Who is Chocky? Not even Matthew knows entirely. When asked, Chocky doesn’t even know whether she’s a boy or a girl (Matthew and his dad settle on a girl to facilitate talking about her), and Matthew doesn’t know where she’s come from. He just hears her in his head.
This new voice in Matthew’s head is not fettered by the status quo. It does not care that something is just because it is. Chocky recognizes that such fetters can be terrible for innovation and improvement, though it isn’t easy to be the person who thinks differently. It also isn’t easy to be that person’s parent.
David, for his part, casts himself in an understanding light. Mary, though, is rather looked down upon, perhaps unfairly. She has a hard time accepting Matthew’s gift, and she’s upset when a psychiatrist doesn’t seem to have an answer but is fascinated by Matthew’s case. Here’s Mary, talking to David about the psychiatrist:
‘Matthew isn’t his boy. He’s just an unusual, rather puzzling case: quite interesting now, but if he were to become normal again he’d no longer be interesting.’
‘Darling, that’s a dreadful thing to imply. Besides, you know, Matthew isn’t abnormal: he’s perfectly normal, but plus something — which is quite different.’
Mary gave me the look she keeps for hair-splitting, and some other forms of tiresomeness.
‘But it is different,’ I insisted. ‘There is an essential distinction . . .’
She cut that short ruthlessly.
‘I don’t care about that,’ she said. ‘All I want is for him to be normally normal, not plus or minus anything. I just want him to be happy.’
Chocky is a fascinating book for many reasons. For example, Wyndham himself, in writing it, seems to have unfettered himself a bit from conventional thinking. He doesn’t just say Chocky questions the way we run the world; he provides us with those conversations, filled with unique points of view. Chocky is also fascinating because we can read Chocky to be a variety of things (though in the end Wyndham does provide a rather black and white explanation), and this openness is what made the book so emotional for me. We want our children to be smart and special; we want them to learn to think. But we want them to be “normal,” because there’s so much cruelty in the world, especially when we question it.