A Review of
Puma: A Novel
Hardback: Manchester UP, 2018.
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Reviewed by Mark A. Jenkins
In 1958, Anthony Burgess collapsed while teaching in Brunei and was (mis)diagnosed with a brain tumor. Having published three novels previously, he found himself unemployed and facing death. And so he doubled down on his writing. “The fact is that my wife and I needed to eat and so on, and the only job I could do (who would employ me?) was writing. I wrote much because I was paid little. I had no great desire to leave a literary name behind me.” (Paris Review 48, Spring 1973) Burgess had no pension to speak of and was concerned that he not leave his wife destitute.
By the end of 1963, he had published an additional nine books, including A Clockwork Orange, the book that would make him famous. Ironically, he outlived his (first) wife by more than 25 years. When he died in 1993, he had authored more than 50 works of fiction and non-fiction: novels, short stories, literary criticism and biographies. Additionally, he left behind more than 250 musical compositions and countless newspaper and magazine articles. He was, in the words of Erica Jong, “one of the most versatile artists of the English language.” (“Anthony Burgess and the Music of Love” The Washington Post, November 16, 1986.)
In 2017, the Manchester University Press (publishing arm of his alma mater), began issuing “The Irwell Edition of the Works of Anthony Burgess,” a series of scholarly editions of his works. “Each volume is edited by an expert scholar, presenting an authoritative annotated text alongside an introduction detailing the genesis and composition of the work, and the history of its reception.” Appendices bring together previously unpublished and rare, out-of-print materials relating to Burgess’s writing. A secondary goal of the series is to make available, for the first time, Burgess’s “lost” novels. Of the unpublished works, Puma is the first in print.
The genesis of Puma was in a never produced remake of the now somewhat cheesy 1951 apocalyptic film, When Worlds Collide, itself having been based on the 1932 novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. In 1975, film producers Zanuck and Brown approached Burgess about writing a screenplay for the planned remake. Following their megahit film Jaws, they were looking to repeat their success with yet another blockbuster. It was Burgess’s habit to begin working on screenplays by writing a novel (or, in one instance, an epic poem) on which to base it. This method served him well with the 1970’s television miniseries, Moses the Lawgiver, starring Burt Lancaster. And also Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, subsequently published as his novel Man of Nazareth.
All screenplays, Puma included, were primarily money making projects for Burgess. Still, as with his other works, he could not refrain from exploring fundamental (theological) questions of human existence. (A Clockwork Orange is, for example, an extended consideration of free will. Its protagonist becomes a “clockwork” man at the hands of the state.) Burgess was a notoriously lapsed Roman Catholic. More than one literary critic has called him a Manichean dualist. Although virtually everything he wrote is imbued with (pre-Vatican II) Catholicism, he called himself an apostate and unbeliever from the age of 16. In 1967, he wrote: “The God my religious upbringing forced upon me was a God wholly dedicated to doing me harm […] A big vindictive invisibility.” (The God I want, James Mitchell, ed.) Puma is no exception to the rule. There is a theological undercurrent that, while never overtly expressed, runs throughout the book.
For an old Burgess fan, Puma is nothing short of a delightful reminder of why I fell in love with his writing in the first place. Burgess was madly in love with language — drunk on words. No fewer than 69 neologisms, not found in the Oxford English Dictionary, are cited in the footnotes. These are witty, creative combinations of words drawn from a multiplicity of languages: Greek, Latin, English, Russian, to name a few more obvious examples. Of course, neologisms are commonplace in Science Fiction. (See the word “robot,” coined by Karel Capek in his 1920 SF play, R.U.R.) But, for Burgess, there is a playfulness and erudition at work here seldom found in the SF being published in the mid-1970s.
There are what Burgess called “inherited elements” from When Worlds Collide. He even goes so far as to have his characters view the 1951 film, calling it “mildly entertaining, but remote and incredible.” (218) Even so, he makes the material his own. He is not interested in the science. He is interested in people: “the ways in which ordinary human beings respond to exceptional circumstances imposed unexpectedly upon them.” (14) It is this focus upon people — interesting people — that is a hallmark of everything he ever wrote.
Burgess was no fan of science fiction. “Why is most science fiction so damned dull?” he wrote. “You practice the genre if you have fancy but no imagination. […] SF plots are easily devised.” (240) His criticism is not far off the mark when one considers the Science Fiction of the 1950’s. It was often little more than rocket ships and robots with very little intellectual content. In that regard, Puma is more than a little dated, rooted in the genre as it was rather than what it has become. Since then, we have encountered and embraced the literary genius of authors like Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Cormac McCarthy, and Octavia Butler.
While Puma never saw the full light of day, a slightly modified version of it was included in Burgess’s 1983 The End of the World News. There it is interwoven with two other novelized works: a life of Sigmund Freud and a Broadway musical about the visit of Leon Trotsky to New York in 1917. Some of the scholarly corrections to the original Puma manuscript are informed by this publication.
Literary critic Harold Bloom rereads two Burgess books every year: Nothing Like the Sun and Inside Mr. Enderby. “Inside Mr. Enderby,” he writes, “is one of my candidates for the most undervalued English novel of our era.” (Novelists and Novels, 442) I agree. Puma and the characters that populate it are a pale reflection of what Burgess accomplished in that tale of his Falstaffian hero, Enderby. Still, if you are a lover of Anthony Burgess’s work, by all means read it. After all these years, you will no doubt enjoy encountering his voice once again. If you are not already a Burgess aficionado, consider one of those that Bloom rereads so often. Your investment of time will be well rewarded.