So you’ve gone into hospital for some routine neurosurgery, and as the anaesthetist’s putting you under you make small talk about the surgeon who’ll be operating on you.
‘Don’t worry, he’s very experienced,’ the anaesthetist says. ‘Actually, he’s won a Nobel Prize.’
‘Really?’ you say. ‘What for?’
‘Yes, he’s a very distinguished rocket scientist.’
‘Rocket scientist? Hang on a minute …’ At which point you lose consciousness.
Obviously that would never happen. But writing novels isn’t brain surgery, so it doesn’t really matter, in a life or death sense, that the entomologist E.O. Wilson’s recently published first novel, Anthill (Norton, £17.99), carries on its cover the words: ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize’. This is a true description of Wilson – he’s won two Pulitzers, in fact, in the ‘general non-fiction’ category, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991) – but slapping the accolade on the front of a novel comes close to false advertising.
Anthill tells the story of Raphael Semmes Cody, a sensitive boy from rural Alabama who’s happier watching the activities of ants and other animals in the forests around Lake Nokobee than going hunting with his (working-class) father or discussing family history with his (upper-class) mother and her relatives. It’s set in the part of the world that Wilson grew up in, but isn’t straightforwardly autobiographical – Raff was born around 1980, making him a good 50 years younger than Wilson – and it’s not straightforwardly a novel, either. More a set of notes. Wilson appears to subscribe to the unorthodox ‘tell don’t show’ school of fiction-writing. Raff’s cousin, for example, is introduced as ‘a strikingly pretty blonde but something of an airhead whose principal interest was boys and whose idea of high culture was Nancy Drew books and rock concerts; she was considerably less promising academically than Charlotte.’
Summings up of conversations take the place of direct speech: ‘Pleasantries quickly gave way to family news, then gossip, and finally stories of recent travel and amusing gaffes.’ What dialogue there is usually has Important Information awkwardly shoehorned into it; Wilson’s characters have a way of telling each other things they surely already know: ‘My parents would kill me if they found out. They already think you’re going to get me into trouble. They don’t like me to go out with you anywhere.’ The descriptive writing is reminiscent of choose-your-own-adventure stories from the 1980s:
A dirt path, cleared of grass and leaves, led about a hundred feet to a small box-shaped house with a slanted galvanised metal roof. The dwelling was well kept. Although unpainted, it appeared solid, with no sign of decay. Several planks on one side were much lighter in colour and probably newly installed. Three steps led to a narrow porch at the front entrance.
As the tower is set back on the edges of Darkwood some fifty metres away from the path you have been following, it is difficult to find. Finally you walk up to the huge oak door … A large brass bell and gong hang from the stone archway.
One of these passages is from Anthill; the other is from Ian Livingstone’s ‘fighting fantasy’ classic Forest of Doom.
There’s an explanation of sorts for the thudding amateurishness of the storytelling. Near the beginning the narrator introduces himself: ‘My name is Frederick Norville. I am a professor of ecology at Florida State University, though now emeritus.’ He’s peculiarly omniscient for a first-person narrator, but accounts for this by saying: ‘I have filled in a few gaps – confidently, because I knew Raff so well.’ When Raff arrives at FSU as an undergraduate, Norville observes: ‘His handshake was sweaty. This was not the easygoing kid I knew at Nokobee. He was responding, it was clear, to my professional persona in an intimidating new environment.’ With a narrator who thinks like that, no wonder it’s all so clunky.
Embedded within Anthill is another, much less conventional and more interesting story, ‘The Anthill Chronicles’, a virtuoso account of the rise and fall of four competing colonies of ants. ‘It is written in a manner that presents the lives of these insects, as exactly as possible, from the ants’ point of view,’ Wilson writes in an afterword. Watership Down or Bambi this isn’t. Wilson’s ants really are ants. The chronicles begin with the death of a queen – ‘The workers were at first unaware of this mother’s death. Her quietude said nothing, and the odours of her life, still rising from her, signalled: I remain among you. She smelled alive’ – and go on to document the wars between the colonies:
The brain of a soldier was wired for battle. In a gland at the base of each jaw, each carried quantities of alarm pheromones ready to be spritzed into the air when the ant met an enemy. When challenged, the soldier not only produced more of these substances than did an ordinary worker, but was also more sensitive to them. On detecting even a faint trace of the chemicals, the soldier rushed about in search of enemies. Soldiers in combat attracted other soldiers.
These formicine struggles are authentically compelling in a way that the boardroom dramas (Raff grows up to be a lawyer, battling to save the wilderness from predatory developers in league with loony Christians), melodramatic chases and gunfights of Anthill’s human world are not.
Wilson wants his novel to show how alike ants and people are. ‘There are of course vast differences between ants and men,’ he writes in the prologue. ‘But in fundamental ways their cycles are similar. There is something genetic about this convergence. Because of it, ants are a metaphor for us, and we for them.’ We routinely use figurative language drawn from the human sphere when talking about ants – queen, soldier, worker – and there’s a long literary history of comparing people to ants: the Trojan soldiers leaving Carthage in Book Four of the Aeneid, for example. But in both cases it’s important not to confuse resemblance with identity. Anthill means to continue the project Wilson began in Sociobiology (1975), arguing (with some rather unpleasant implications) that human social relations are biologically determined, that in some fundamental and important way – ‘there is something genetic about this convergence’ – people are just like ants. And yet what Anthill actually demonstrates is the precise opposite. Wilson’s human characters may exhibit antlike behaviour, but that proves nothing because they’re so unlike real human beings. While his ants – and this is a rare and marvellous achievement – are absolutely nothing like people either.