‘The moment I drunk-tweeted something about liking Taylor Swift’

Matt Haig, The Humans

Canongate, 304pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780857868756

reviewed by Abigail Williams

In a charmingly honest postscript Matt Haig explains why he wrote The Humans, his fifth novel: ‘I first had the idea of writing this story in 2000, when I was in the grips of a panic disorder. Back then, human life felt as strange for me as it does for the unnamed narrator … I imagined writing it for myself, or someone in a similar state. I was trying to offer a map, but also to cheer that someone up.’

The novel is told from the perspective of an unnamed alien who has been sent to earth to masquerade as Andrew Martin, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. He has been sent by an extra-terrestrial group known only as ‘the hosts’ to destroy evidence of Andrew Martin’s final piece of work: the solution to the Riemann hypothesis, a conjecture about the distribution of prime numbers and one of the most popular unsolved mysteries of mathematics. In Haig’s novel the alien race fear the solution will equip humans with the knowledge they need to accelerate their technological development, enabling, amongst other things, far-reaching space travel and the colonisation of other planets. For the aliens’ own safety this knowledge must be destroyed, as must the lives of anyone who may have encountered it.

The Humans is part science-fiction thriller and part romantic novel. While the alien Andrew works out how much his human counterpart’s wife, son and friends know, and whether or not he should kill them, he finds himself taking on human characteristics — described in the novel as becoming ‘infected’ with humanity — and falling in love with the real Andrew’s wife. The novel is profoundly preoccupied with the notion of ‘humanity’, and engages in a determined search for the redeeming features of life on Earth (or at least life in Cambridge). Attempting to discover why humans ‘don’t spend their whole lives screeching and howling in terror, clawing at their own bodies, or rolling around on the floor’ at the prospect of their own mortality, the alien Andrew discovers Emily Dickinson, Brahms, Talking Heads, dogs, love, Australian white wine and peanut butter sandwiches.

This should give you a sense of the novel’s tone, which balances some fairly earnest high-mindedness with an enjoyably light-hearted lack of pretension. Upon his arrival on Earth, for example, the alien teaches himself English by reading Cosmopolitan magazine; at one point he hacks into Facebook to change the names of all his son’s bullies to ‘I Am the Cause of Shame’. This reluctance to become over-serious is also part of Haig’s online persona. On his website he writes engagingly about the myth of the literary genius, admitting that his mystique may have faded ‘the moment I drunk-tweeted something about liking Taylor Swift’. He positions himself as writing against the tradition of literary fiction, and now considers his 2008 novel The Possession of Mr Cave — a critically well-received portrayal of complex familial relationships — as a kind of literary sell-out. ‘It obeyed most of the rules for literary fiction’, he writes; ‘I hate myself for writing that novel’. For Haig, ‘literary fiction’ means ‘snobbishness’, generic constraint, and exclusion: ‘Our minds aren’t VIP rooms that only allow Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence past the velvet rope.’

Haig’s conscious rejection of a certain type of acceptably ‘literary’ writing is both refreshing and enjoyable. There is, for example, a popular but irritating trend in contemporary literary fiction where intelligent men in their mid-to-late forties write novels about intelligent men in their mid-to-late forties embarking on tumultuous affairs with their nubile female students, generally upsetting their long-suffering wives in the process. After reading a few of these one ceases to appreciate this plot’s opportunities for exploring self-doubt, ageing, human relationships and so on, and starts to feel tired of their authors’ and protagonists’ self-absorption. In The Humans Haig reverses this plot: the human Andrew was having an affair with his nubile female student and neglecting his long-suffering wife; the alien Andrew begins to fall in love with his long-suffering wife and must extricate himself from the clutches of the nubile female student. Haig’s rejection of the genre also allows him to write with a level of earnestness frowned upon in a certain type of literary fiction, and the result is a life-affirming and cheerful work.

This earnestness, however, sometimes leads to an uncomfortable focus on the moral. Emotion and sentiment become part of the list of redeeming qualities of human existence, and to reject either is tantamount to embracing villainy. The human Andrew Martin, for example, is clearly the novel’s absent antagonist: he is egocentric, uncaring, unfaithful to his wife and uninterested in his son. Sentiment and emotion make him ‘want to throw up’, we are told, along with a pop-psychological analysis of his rejection of sentiment: ‘You have always been scared of emotion, and so saying that you don’t like sentimentality is a way of saying you don’t like feeling emotion.’

For Haig, the main redeeming quality of human life appears to be love, and in The Humans ‘love’ tends to mean faithful heterosexual married love accompanied by offspring and a comfortable house. While the reversal of the affair-with-student plot is enjoyable, it also serves to teach us about the immorality of extramarital sex. Maggie, the nubile female student, is the antithesis of Isobel, the long-suffering wife: she’s exotic and highly sexual, having travelled widely and worked as a lap-dancer; she also enjoys having sex on the floor. This brand of sexuality is deemed frighteningly unpleasant: in an unexpected encounter with Maggie, the alien Andrew notes that her ‘level of exoticism bordered on terror’. We are left with the sense that sex with Maggie is unpleasant because it’s just about sex and not about love. ‘This wasn’t the kind of kissing that brought you closer’, the alien Andrew says of Maggie, ‘the kind that Isobel was good at. This was self-referential kissing, kissing about kissing’.

The problem with Haig’s tendency to embrace the sentimental and reject the ‘literary’ is the occasional oversimplification in which it results. We are told that music, poetry, the night sky, sunsets, and love are redeeming qualities of human existence because these things are ‘full of the complexity and contradictions that I would soon learn made humans human’. This complexity, however, is never fully explored: these redeeming qualities are deemed good simply because they are good. The love story is compelling and at times convincing, but when we witness Andrew reading poetry or watching the sun set it is like watching something at a great distance: we know what is happening, but the details are missing.

I found reading The Humans enormously enjoyable. Haig’s characters are very well-drawn and the novel is intelligent and funny. It has become the ‘map’ the author hoped to create, one that can help us navigate away from the almost universal feeling that perhaps everything is awful. Read it when you are depressed; read it after watching a speech by George Osborne. But though I engaged with what Haig created, I finished reading his novel feeling curiously underwhelmed. I hope that his next novel retains some of The Humans’ refreshing earnestness and mistrust of literary labels while also pushing itself further, away from the sentimental and away from the trite, and closer to the ‘velvet rope’ separating enjoyable fiction from writing that somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Abigail Williams is a freelance writer and researcher based in London.