Travel is one of the rare times I read fiction these days. So it was with good timing that my fiction-savvy friend Cat lent me this chunky thriller before my trip to Italy. His particular impetus to present it to me came from the focal place that the theory of entoptic patterns and shamanic trance states in prehistoric rock art has in the novel. McAuley has read his Lewis-Williams thoroughly, and added his own twist pitched in that limbo between kind-of-silly and almost-believable that makes for an exciting but disposable yarn. Briefly, the plot hinges on a particular configuration of abstract Palaeolithic art found in the hills of northern Iraq, glyphs which have the power to rewire the neuropsychology of viewers under the influence of haka (a fictional plant from the same region, with the suggestion that it is the fabled haoma of Persian legend). Adopted from prehistory by an itinerant, nominally Islamic tribe, the secret of the glyph’s power escapes, via a group of archaeological hobbyists mixed up with the British secret services in the 1930s, into the shadowy world of 20th century espionage, psy-ops and corporate advertising. Our hero is a drifting thirty-something living in a caravan on land in Islington inherited from his dead father, subject to epilepsy induced by his exposure as a child to the glyphs and haka (an accident in the study of his grandfather, one of the spooks digging around in Iraq before World War II). When he gets tripped out by some anti-American graffiti in Stoke Newington (framed by said glyphs), he’s thrown into a bumbling and often violent quest to uncover the truth about his family’s past.
It’s an interesting premise, especially for anyone fascinated, as I am, by the issues around the trance theory of rock art. Of course it’s more trashy thrills than particular insight, but as far as the realities used by the piece go, McAuley’s got a good grip on the field. It’s amusing to find him consulting a British museum specialist who acts as the Paul Bahn figure, giving a detailed description of the theory that abstract glyphs in rock art are derived from visionary states of consciousness only to dismiss it as a recent theoretical fad. Also, the way he threads this theme through the graffiti subculture and trendy media world of London, not to mention the messy politics of post-invasion Iraq, is compelling enough. Generally, good for passing some time, but with an extra level of fascination for anyone interested in the archaeological field it uses as its stomping ground.