308 pages, The Friday Project
Review by Pat Black
…In which sci-fi stalwart Brian Aldiss takes us on a journey to a strange new world: the far horizons of old age.
Comfort Zone is not concerned with distant galaxies or alternate dimensions, though it is fair to say it examines some strange creatures and baffling technologies. We follow Justin Haydock, a retired film and TV producer in his eighties, as he potters around Headington in Oxford, the very heart of middle class English life, in the summer of 2006.
A regular visitor to hospital, he’s got a few health problems, including some difficulties with his bowels. Sometimes Justin’s knees don’t work, and his memory is as prone to falling on its backside as he is. Sometimes he finds security in the fantasy that his late wife is not dead, but has in fact run away to Carlisle. Justin realises that he finds a little too much comfort in the idea, and that sometimes the chimerical construct encroaches onto fact in his mind.
Justin’s fifty-something son, David, has Down’s syndrome, and he is being cared for at a home just out of town. Justin visits when he can, but he is not happy with David’s treatment, nor the governess’ unpleasant manner.
Justin lives with his late wife’s mother, Maude, a ninety-something lady who wishes to convert to Islam. Justin’s an atheist and has little truck with any religion, seeing it as a largely destructive force. Maude’s conversion is being overseen by a young Iraqi woman called Om Haldar, who lives in a shed in their neighbour’s garden.
Om Haldar vanishes after the opening chapters. There’s some suggestion that she is an illegal immigrant; speculation over what she initially fled her homeland for, and where she has gone, casts a long shadow over the narrative.
On top of that, England are playing in the World Cup in Germany. Justin has a sneaking fancy for the underdogs the English players face. The Iraq invasion is continuing, driven by George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The local pub is going to be closed down and taken over by a Kuwaiti company. There is a dark suspicion that a mosque will be built on the site, and the good Christians of Old Headington are not pleased.
Justin has a fancywoman: Kate, a spry seventy-year-old charity worker who often disappears to Egypt for long spells. Justin’s a game old bugger and still has a glad eye for the ladies, but needs Viagra to get his engines running. He fails to wonder exactly what Kate is doing out there in Egypt.
Meanwhile, there’s a lunatic going around town – a homeless man, knocking on people’s doors and making a nuisance of himself. Sometimes what he says and does is disturbing. Justin can’t seem to avoid this man on his journeys into the town centre to visit his friend Ken.
Justin’s friends begin to die. At one funeral, he speaks to the widow and discovers that she’s quite glad to be quit of her husband.
Justin’s real name isn’t Haydock; it’s Haddock. The call centres who get in touch with Justin from distant former colonies know what his real name is. He is jolly pleased with their contact, though, and the new and improved policies they offer him.
Justin sees existence as largely a result of crude chance, with religions having sprung up in order to avoid or mitigate it. Thus, if you believe Sodom was levelled by an angry god, instead of a wandering chunk of space rubble which happened to land on the city thanks to a piece of incalculably bad luck, then you better believe people will want to placate him. The idea of removing religion from the human experience casts new light through old windows, and Justin begins work on a thesis which could form the basis of a new TV documentary. And yet, Justin wonders if he’s on the right track after all; if perhaps religion acts as a moral safeguard in the merry old England of village greens, red brick lanes and leafy pubs.
If you’ve stuck with me so far, then you may be wondering: what’s the score here? Is there a plot? Is there even a narrative? But in depicting an old man’s journey through life, Aldiss has done something unusual. This is a novel where you’ve no idea where the story is going to go. There is no frame of reference. In its examination of quotidian matters, Comfort Zone defies what we usually expect from novels. I’d say its closest tonal relative is soap opera, but there’s little of the histrionics. Things are grounded, all the same. In Justin’s bowel difficulties, Aldiss falls back on a few fart jokes, but it’s also a sobering account of the sort of thing we can all expect as the clock begins to wind down on our bodies.
Aldiss is a sleekit old bugger. Race, immigration and religion frequently pop up in Comfort Zone, and when these things clash with a fixed idea of middle England, I am on my guard. The only thing that keeps it out of unsavoury realms is the author’s sly sense of humour, and his firm control of Justin, the well-meaning liberal dodderer. Justin has left-leaning principles; he is as likely to pour scorn on Christian precepts as much as Muslim or Jewish. The contempt we feel on his behalf when he meets a sniffy Church of England preacher straight out of Dorothy L Sayers is explosive.
But Justin can also be gloriously offensive. He jokes about his cleaning lady’s deity of choice, the ancient god Baal, and is stunned when she flies into a rage. He is also complicit in a rather condescending ribbing of the psychotic homeless man Jack Hughes (“J’accuse!” ) at the start of the book, which could have far-reaching consequences.
Comfort Zone is an oddity. But, as time goes on, and you stack up more and more books on your shelves, and you get used to plots, characters, heroes, villains and all the tired concepts and constructs, it’s a welcome one. (When was the last time you failed to guess who did it in Silent Witness?)
I was intrigued by Justin’s mental meanderings and gripped by his reactions to everyday life. Comfort Zone would seem to be the very antithesis of a page-turner, and yet for that very reason, it was a page-turner to me. I can’t remember ever reading a novel like it, and yet it’s a story where very little seems to be happening. Make of that what you will.