Early in Clemens J Setz’s novel Indigo there is a discussion of the uncanny valley – the theory that as simulations (for example, robots or animations) approach human likeness, they cause revulsion in the final moments before reaching complete realism (the valley refers to the dip in the graph that records how comfortable people feel):
“…people were shaken, profoundly shaken. That’s known as the uncanny valley…The uncanny effect is always present with particularly realistic-seeming simulations, especially of babies.”
In Setz’s novel this revulsion is caused by children suffering from Indigo Syndrome, a condition which manifests itself by its effect on others:
“People were getting sick by the dozen and didn’t know why. Mothers vomiting over their baby’s cradle. A big mess. Dizziness, diarrhoea, rashes, down to permanent damage of all internal organs, these are serious symptoms after all which can’t be explained psychosomatically.”
The reader himself also enters something of an uncanny valley in the novel’s construction, though this is more likely to result in dizziness than nausea. Told from the point of view of two different characters, though not chronologically, and with other texts inserted at regular intervals, the novel is something of a puzzle, requiring the reader to keep careful track of events. A gap between novel simulation and reality is created by one of the charters sharing the same name as the author, though Setz has said this is simply a result of originally writing in first person, changing to third when he admitted to himself that the narrator basically shared his personality.
Clemens Setz (the character) comes into contact the Indigo children (the author plays a clever game where, as he moves back and forward in time, the acceptable term for referring to the children changes) when he works at the Helianau Institute, where many of the children from Austria have been placed. His time there ends after an altercation with the Head of the Institute, Dr Rudolph, over the ‘relocation’ of the children. Over the next few years he investigates the events surrounding the Institute, compiling folders of evidence, some of which is reproduced in the novel. The author presents Setz in a nuanced way that leaves the reader uncertain whether he is uncovering the truth or dangerously obsessed.
The other main character is Richard Tatzel, one of the Indigo children. We meet him, however, as an adult, with his effect much faded, but struggling to fit in with social norms. When, for example, a neighbour comes to the door to apologise because she fears her son has insulted him, he replies with an invented story of further abuse:
“You should see what they do with the mongoloid from the yard next door!…They took turns punching him the stomach. Your son was there too.”
When he reads that Setz has been acquitted in a murder trial he slowly develops a desire to see him and find out what he has uncovered.
This summary makes the novel seem like a straight forward thriller, but Setz’s story is not told coherently, and Tatzel’s lack of 100% humanity makes his motivation difficult to understand. It is also scattered with further texts, some more clearly linked to the main narrative than others – it begins, for example, with a (true) story about the use of steel from the German fleet scuttled at Scapa Flow. In some novels this can, of course appear gimmicky, but here I found it worthwhile as the reader’s experience of the novel reflects society’s reaction to these children.
Interestingly, it is not long since I read another contemporary novel about children who cause illness in adults, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet. I would have to agree with Setz’s translator, Ross Benjamin, when he says that this is not simply about illness:
“I wonder whether it doesn’t say as much about our attitudes to anything we can’t understand, explain, master or control, to what we’ve been calling the uncanny, the strange and creepy and slippery and elusive. A frequent “attitude” explored in this novel seems perhaps a very basic human one: a simple incapacity to get a complete handle on things that profoundly and uncontrollably destabilize our world.”
In this way it explores a very modern anxiety which arises from a belief we should be able to understand and therefore control everything coupled to a realisation we cannot – something that is experienced by most people in relation to their children, but might also be a reaction to much of the modern world. This is a demanding but rewarding novel which will hopefully find a readership beyond it’s the one its rather pulpy cover suggests.