If you thought Cloud Atlas was a little too conventional, Ultrameta may be the book for you. Trying to interpret (let alone synopsise) Douglas Thompson’s extraordinary first novel is probably a fool’s errand, but let’s see what happens anyway. Subtitled “A Fractal Novel”, Ultrameta is constructed as a series of linked short stories and story-fragments, but exactly how they’re linked is open to debate.
Ultrameta centres on Alexander Stark, a university professor who disappeared, and then apparently began sending letters to his wife Charlotte – letters written not as by him, but as by a series of different characters, some describing events thatcross over into the surreal. Later, Stark reappeared, with no memory of what had happened, but took his own life – and more notes were found on his body. Subsequent investigations undertaken by a journalist named Martha Lucy, and DI Walter Dundas of Strathclyde Police establish that many of the people named as the “writers” of Stark’s letters actually existed. Is Stark deluded. Might it be that Stark was all of these people? Could there really be such a place as Ultrameta, the “city of the soul” to which Stark refers, that constantly refashions itself? Or is Stark just deluded?
The novel Ultrameta is presented as the collected notes of Alexander Stark, bookended by correspondence between Martha Lucy and Charlotte Stark, and introduced by Walter Dundas. But Stark’s notes link together in an unusual way: the first fragment ends with the narrator listening to a radio play whose words begin the second chapter, narrated by a ten-year-old Stark in the library of his house; that chapter ends with the boy reading a manuscript which begins with opening words of the third chapter, and so on. The twenty-five chapters are arranged in twelve pairs, running from 1a to 12a, and then from 12b back to 1b, on either side of the central chapter 13 (also called ‘Ultrameta’. In effect, the novel is a journey through a series of nesting shells, and back out again.
A complicated structure, then, but what does it do? To my mind, it sets up two contrasting views of what Ultrameta is: on the one hand, a linear narrative; on the other, a set of smaller narratives. The first view, perhaps, invites an interpretation of continuity (i.e. the narrator is genuinely the same person throughout, taking on different personas); the second, an interpretation of separateness (i.e. these are all different people, and Stark is deluded). But no single interpretation quite fits.
Identities and realities are constantly shifting in Ultrameta. Multiple characters return home with amnesia and start reading through their mysterious notes. The letter from Charlotte to Martha placed at the end of the book is a world away from the one at the beginning to which it’s replying. Even the novel’s structure cannot be relied upon to stay the same: the chapters don’t all flow neatly into the next; and the second chapter in a pair isn’t always a direct continuation of the first. There probably isn’t a definitive interpretation of what’s going on in Ultrameta, but that hardly matters when the ride is so intriguing.
And, though Thompson’s prose can be overly dense at time, there are some very fine moments to be found within the pages of Ultrameta – to name two, I was struck by the chapter that brings Icarus into the present day (rendering modern technology strange by having someone from the past describe it isn’t a new idea, of course, but Thompson does it very strikingly); and the eerie section in which the narrator makes an organism out of his house, with himself at its centre. But it’s the entirety of Ultrameta that impresses the most; there’s nothing else quite like it, I’m sure.