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Claire North's previous novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, was an ambitious and surprisingly good exploration of identity, with a tale of a group of people who are born again and again, life after life, starting out the same each time but having memories of all the previous lives. In Touch, North again brings up philosophical issues, with the unusual ability is to transfer from one body to another, when physical contact to the person's skin is established. The story is told in the first person by an individual called Kepler. He jumps from one body to another time after time, rarely staying there for more than a few days, and sometimes just for a few seconds. He goes from male to female, old to young, white to black, and back again. He has been doing this for centuries. There are not many of his kind, with this amazing ability, and they do not often talk to each other. With their immortal lives, they can live however they like, inhabiting the bodies of whichever persons they choose. But they almost always do this without the consent of the person whose body they are occupying, and they often show no more care for the bodies they are using than someone who is renting out a motel room by the hour. Most people who have had their bodies used never realize it; they just have no memory of that period of time. But they may see the changes to their bodies: diseases, damage to skin, too much eating, or maybe even gunshot wounds. Kepler leaves some bodies just before they die. So the life of these body jumpers raises many ethical issues, as might the life of vampires. Kepler does sometimes get permission from people to use their bodies and he compensates them for the use. The novel starts off with the death of a young woman, Josephine Cebula, with whom Kepler had just such an arrangement. The main plot of the novel has Kepler finding out who is trying to kill him, and why they killed Josephine when they didn't need to. It ranges over Europe and America, with a grounding in Turkey.
Touch is a disappointing after the expectations from North's first novel. Part of the problem is that it is far too long. The unabridged audiobook lasts 25 hours. There are 88 chapters, and while some are short, many are not. The themes are repeated again and again, and the book feels in need of radical editing. Maybe the more fundamental reason why the book is too long is that there just isn't enough to the central character for us to care about him: he has no central life. He skips from body to body but he has no real friends and no love. The main question regarding Kepler is whether he is a monster or a sympathetic character. He seems to care somewhat about what he does and how he affects the world, but ultimately he seems to create havoc.
The most interesting aspects of the novel are the philosophical questions it raises. What is the essence of a person? Are our sex, age, race and even bodies not essential to us? North presents us with a logical extension of the idea of Cartesian mind-body dualism, with bodies just being temporary and accidental parts of our lives. Yet at the same time, the problems of setting out this idea coherently become apparent when it comes to what knowledge and skills Kepler has. How does he manage to speak the new languages that he has never learned? Oddly, North has Kepler magically speaking completely unfamiliar languages as soon as he occupies a new body, as if language skills are a separate skill lodged in a body, but Kepler's other memories of his life and the skills he has learned are entirely separable from a particular body. Similar issues come with people's smiles: when occupied by a new spirit, the body starts smiling in a different way. The facial expressions of a person are apparently controlled by a person's spirit in a way that is independent of their brain. It is with such examples that the whole premise of the novel starts to fray at the edges.
Then there's the question that many wonder about: would a life of immortality and great power grow boring? Kepler doesn't complain about boredom, but he does seem like a boring person. He just has nothing in his life that is rich or beautiful. The novel presents an argument that it is through our limitations and mortality that our lives have meaning. Maybe we need to identify with one life, one body, one identity, for us to be able to create an existence that is capable of being worthwhile.
So the idea at the heart of the novel is one that can provoke a great deal of thought. But it would have been better as a short story.
Peter Kenny's performance is valiant, but it is hard for any performer to maintain the listener's patience through such a long book. He gives a good emotional range and does well with different voices, but his tone is a bit whimsical where a more gruff and humorous voice, with a touch of film noir, might have worked better.
© 2015 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York