DECEMBER 22, 2012
IMAGINE YOU ARE a celebrity harboring a secret that could make you a national pariah overnight. One day the phone rings, and a young woman representing a mysterious online publication called the Moral Foundation informs you that her organization has learned of unseemly behavior committed by you or someone close to you. No details, no chance to review the evidence, just a date on which the website plans to post what it knows. The only way to stave off public ruin is to provide credible evidence of wrongdoing by someone else you know. The caller gives you a phone number and a private account number, and hangs up.
What do you do?
If you are Ritchie Shepherd, the central figure in James Meek’s novel The Heart Broke In, you stew and stew. A washed-up British rock star enjoying a second career as producer of a reality TV show called Teen Makeover, Ritchie guards an incendiary secret: he carried on a months-long affair with an underage contestant on his show. If word gets out, Ritchie stands to lose his career and his marriage, and could face charges of statutory rape. But he’s keenly aware that, if he can bring himself to betray a family member, the Moral Foundation might be interested to learn how his sister Bec, famous for discovering a possible cure for malaria, became pregnant — despite the fact that her live-in boyfriend Alex is infertile.
Ritchie’s clash with the Moral Foundation is only one of many threads that wind through this sprawling social novel, but it is the one that best dramatizes the issue at the heart of the book: how modern societies regulate sexual morality when scientific progress in the realm of human reproduction has created a culture of promiscuity without consequence. Meek, a former foreign correspondent for Britain’s Guardian newspaper and author of three previous novels, skillfully interweaves Ritchie’s celebrity milieu with the world of cutting-edge science occupied by his sister Bec and Alex, a fellow researcher who may have stumbled upon the scientific answer to the Fountain of Youth. Also in the mix are Alex’s brother, Dougie, a ne’er-do-well Scottish postman; Bec’s spurned fiancé, Val Oatman, a former newspaper editor turned online moral scold; and Gregory Shepherd, Ritchie and Bec’s father, a British soldier made famous during the Irish Troubles, when he was executed for refusing to give up the name of an IRA informant.
Meek eventually ties together these disparate strands, but it takes him a good long time to get there, and some readers may give up on the novel before he does. This would be a shame. The Heart Broke In may be a “loose baggy monster” in the Jamesian sense of a novel that takes on more than its dramatic structure can carry, but along the way Meek offers keen insights into the shifting mores of a society in which so many of the limitations on longevity and fertility have been eradicated by scientific discovery.
The Heart Broke In is a novel about sex — not so much the act itself, but its significance in a world where its original purpose, the propagation of the species, is being rendered obsolete by science. At one end of this exploration is Alex, whose cancer research has uncovered a mechanism within human cells that he calls “the chronase complex,” which spots signs of premature aging in other cells. This has obvious implications for research into cancers whose cells grow at different rates from normal cells, but Alex is goaded by a radio interviewer into saying that it might someday offer the secret to a wholesale expansion of the human lifespan. Both skeptical of his own claims and spooked by their implications, Alex prefers to reach immortality the old-fashioned way: by having a child. “Getting together with another eukaryote and replacing yourselves, that’s the only way to live forever,” he rather unromantically proposes to Bec. “You can’t forget, so you make a replacement, and the old one dies, and on you fly for another billion years.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Ritchie, who has already put in his bid for immortality by having two children, and can’t see why he shouldn’t spread his seed wherever he pleases, including into the willing receptacle of Nicole, a talent-free 15-year-old whom he met when she appeared on his TV show. Meek is at his best when he sends up Ritchie’s self-serving morality: “His conscience bothered him only when somebody pointed out that he had one, and that it was bound to trouble him. As long as this didn’t happen, he was a man doing his best to be good to two women who had nothing in common and never needed to meet.”
Hovering over this fallen world like some cracked Old Testament prophet is Val Oatman, who leaves his post as editor of a leading London newspaper to create the Moral Foundation, where he devotes himself to dictating moral probity by frightening celebrity miscreants into informing on each other. Meek has some fun with Val’s megalomania, and the character, with his impeccable manners and volcanic temper, is a compelling, if faintly cartoonish, presence in the novel. However, given Meek’s thematic concerns, one wishes that the characters standing for ethical behavior weren’t themselves so transparently unethical. Val not only resorts to neo-McCarthyite methods to enforce morality, but also pursues the skeletons in Ritchie’s closet as part of a vendetta against Bec, who rejects Val’s marriage proposal early in the novel. The novel’s other voices of morality, Alex’s hyper-religious cousin Matthew and his family, are exposed as hypocrites when they participate in the Moral Foundation’s online witch hunt on a personal vendetta of their own. Even Bec and Ritchie’s father, the fallen hero who is the nearest thing to a truly honorable character in the book, dies in vain, protecting a scoundrel.
It is unfortunate that Meek puts his thumb on the scales in this way, because the moral questions he raises are worthy of serious consideration. After all, most modern scandals, and most contemporary politics that don’t have to do with budgets or wars, boil down to sex in one way or another. As a society, we are obsessed with sex, whether it involves military leaders having extramarital affairs with their comely biographers or the endless wars over whether a woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices. Many still cleave to the belief that marriage vows should be honored, and that sex should be a sacred act between two people who love each other, but in a world where porn is ubiquitous and every step of the reproductive process is susceptible to medical intervention, we have cast off many of the societal taboos that made such values easier to uphold.
This is the postmodern dilemma Meek appears to have in his sights: how do we enforce traditional morality when the biological imperative that once made it necessary is falling away? Midway through the novel, Alex visits his cousin Matthew, who asks him to take part in the family’s nightly Bible study. Matthew and his wife Lettie over-interpret their chosen text, turning a bit of Biblical history into a parable on the moral decay of modern society. “You have to guide them,” Lettie says, explaining why she is twisting the Bible’s message for her children.
“You have to teach them the difference between right and wrong. You need some equipment. I know you think all this,” she lifted the Bible, “is very silly, but how do you explain life without it?”
“There are no explanations,” said Alex. “There are no answers, and there is no meaning. There’s just life.”
This, Meek seems to be suggesting, is precisely what’s so scary.