Review: The Chameleon by Samuel Fisher - 8/10*
This is a book about books that is narrated by a book. Now isn’t that a sentence to chew over? Let me explain.
“My name is John, and I am this book.”
Drawing upon themes Virginia Woolf so eloquently presented in her experimental novel Orlando, Samuel Fisher tells the life story of a book that has existed for centuries. Like the character Orlando, John the book does not grow old and die but instead continues to exist as the ages pass.
Nevertheless, he does change a bit like the title suggests. Chameleons adapt to their environment; they shift colours to best fit their surroundings. His letters are rearranged and his sentences are reconstructed as another story is told through his pages; yet, he remains the same only more suited to his present situation: he changes his appearance to meet the needs of his audience.
John can become any infinite variety of words and letters; he can become any book that has ever been written or will be written, and he can even formulate his own original books. His true power resides with his timing though. He can transform into the right book at exactly the right time. Indeed, the literature he becomes is exactly what the people he belongs to need to read at any given moment. It could be a novel about shifting genders and immortality (like Orlando) or it could be an epic poem about filial grief or simply a guide to help navigate a new country or city. The point is, John the book has you covered without you ever even realising it.
“My flesh itself can change. I can be bound (quarter, case, saddle stitch, side stitch) or unbound; I can be paper and card, I can be vellum (calf, sheep, goat, human), I can be staples, glue, tread or plastic. And with all these changes my flesh speaks to you. These changes I make are to draw you to me, that you might pick me up and take me somewhere new.”
In such a thing I saw a celebration of reading and literature. Not enough people are reading today. They spend too much time on their smartphones and in front of their television sets: they are disconnected from the power of books and the power of words. The problem is increasing as technology continues to advance. Books have the power to change lives, as Samuel Fisher shows us here; reading the right book at the right moment can be very, very, powerful and can move us in a new direction. John the book is not entirely altruistic, though the potentness of books is established regardless of his motives.
Moreover, those that do read do not always do so respectfully. Well, at least, according to John. I suppose he would know best. Readers fold pages instead of using bookmarks (The horror! The horror!) and they eat whist they read leaving crumbs forever wedged between pages (blasphemy.) Books do not like this. They hate it. They like to remain undamaged and to be stored indoors where they cannot become scuffed and torn by constant travel or tarnished by food, stains and the ever shifting weather. Hearing these principles, principles any avid reader ought to hold, from the perspective of a book was rather amusing. It is such a witty device and bespeaks the intelligence and thought that has gone into the writing.
Reading is fantastic and keeping books clean is absolutely the right things to do, though not all books are good. Some are bad. Some lie. And some tell us things we never want to learn. However, books are written to be read; it is up to us to do in a way that shows appreciation for the art of writing. John, and all books in general, provides humanity with an infinite variety of stories and universes. We should experience them whilst we can.
“There is a book for every possible combination of letter- every possible sequence of words. Every thought, act and expression has already been described. It means that the universe was spent before it began. It makes the passage of time redundant.”
In turn, humanity provides John with stories that inspire him to create new worlds. He can become anything, though he can never fully emulate real life. He can present a story, though he can only watch the real thing. You might call such a thing a curse, the curse of being a chameleon.
Samuel Fisher’s debut novel will not disappoint the literati, and its chatty informal tone will make it feel accessible to all readers. The Chameleon is playful and witty; it is a book that presents an argument as to why books are so vitally important.