‘Spare a thought, toast munchers’

Sam Fisher, The Chameleon

Salt Publishing, 192pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781784631246

reviewed by Venetia Welby

There is a fashion in contemporary fiction to scorn the idea of the disembodied third person narrator. Who is it who knows all this, one can’t help but ask. And why are they hiding in the shadows, writing this book? Samuel Fisher turns this issue on its head in his debut novel by having his narrator be the book itself, writing itself. Not just any book, but any book: ‘every word that is written . . . every great work and every pulp entertainment, every suicide note and every shopping list.’ Fisher is a bookseller at Burley Fisher Books, an independent bookshop in East London and a director of independent publisher Peninsula Press, champions of the speculative and experimental. The Chameleon is a fine example of both.

This book of all books, named John (after a murderer whose skin it tried to bind itself with, obviously) is 800 years old and has seen some things in its time, not least being buried ‘alive’ with the odious Nathan Mayer Rothschild – as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations – and as a textbook on visible speech with a pre-telephonic Alexander Graham Bell. The story the Book wishes to tell, however, is that of its longest reader, Roger, a former British spy. Roger, now languishing on the borders of death is forgetful of his own stories, such as how he met his wife Margery. This is painful for the Book, who has seen Roger’s life in all its intimate moments unfold over the last 50 years. The Book wishes to set Roger’s affairs in order, to immortalise his life, love and family, spinning the truth of his story around a seminal event: an assassination at the height of the Cold War at the American Exhibition in Moscow.

The Chameleon is also, however, the self-confessed tale of the Book’s own extraordinary life; its growing self-awareness and attempts to pin its own voice down. The Book is as erudite and, well, bookish as you might expect, rifling through texts such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (another chameleon) and Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man to try to understand itself and its relation to humanity. A retelling of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Library of Babel,’ exposes the Book’s darkest fear, of a world in which everything has already been written. This raises interesting questions about identity, causing the Book to plead: ‘If I knocked down the sea walls that protect my island soul would the scraps of selfhood that I have spent centuries stitching come undone?’

The Book wears its learning deceptively lightly, and its compelling voice drives the pace. The Book’s wit and humour, particularly in regard to the physical upkeep of its bindings, is charming. ‘Spare a thought, toast munchers. Have some compassion,’ the Book implores after a moving depiction of crumbs in its gatherings, ‘like a stone in your shoe, one wet with saliva.’ Likewise it dreads the reader that licks their finger to turn a page, or the dangers and indignities of being taken to the beach, ‘home to a whole host of corrosive hazards.’ As a narrator, the Book convinces: it is as wryly amusing as it is cerebral, able to make acute and sometimes devastating observations about humans from its unique position. Its confidential tone is peppered with acerbic digs at such atrocities as exclamation marks, autobiographies and the ham-fisted bonking scenes of romantic novels.

Fisher’s exploration of the physicality of books is elegantly playful; he considers various non-literary uses for books, such as their essentiality as ciphers in the Cold War. It is in the Book’s own bodily yearnings that I found the story strongest. The Book is surprised, one day, to find Roger having sex on top of it: ‘it made me feel connected; it made me feel like I had never been more alone.’ Later it experiences an ‘agonised ecstasy of opposed desires (do it! don’t do it!)’ as it is annotated by Margery and succumbs to the erotic dance of her pencil in its margins. Most poignant of all is the Book’s tragic affair with a similar, though much younger, shapeshifting book, the first like itself the Book has encountered. When it realises it is not alone, the Book says, ‘I wanted to feel the electricity of contact. I wanted the life-affirming proof of touch.’ Here Fisher draws on ‘Astrophil and Stella’ by Sir Philip Sidney to imagine physical love between two transmuting texts, and it is transcendent.

Writing a book as the Book is no small feat. One would expect it to be formally inventive, rich with the works of others yet boundlessly original – replete with unusual vocabulary and recourse to every image ever written. It is a credit to the author and to Salt Publishing that The Chameleon carries it off with aplomb.