The AlterationThe Alteration by Kingsley Amis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

you gotta love the what-if: what if Martin Luther, instead of championing the Protestant Reformation, had got himself elected Pope?

and what diff would it have made to a 10-year-old boy singer, in the year 1976?

and so we meet young Hubert, and all those who want to see him “altered,” and those who do not.

it’s kind of a creepy but brilliant brush stroke all by itself, never using the word “castrated.” euphemism abounds in this book, but none quite so telling as that. the church in this august year has perfected the procedure/mutilation, but never calls it by its true name.

for me, Hubert’s story was the most compelling–one is 100% rooting for him to keep all his parts, and it’s not clear until the end how it will play out. some want him to keep his parts, because of what it will mean in losses (no sex, no physical love, no wife, no kids) for Hubert himself. some see it as a step up: a secure life as a prized chorister. some of course don’t give a rat’s ass about Hubert at all, and just want to play him as a pawn in their own power games.

some pay a horrific price just for being part of the scene.

the best parts of the novel for me were Hubert’s attempts to figure out exactly what he’d be missing, if he were to be altered. he’s only 10 years old in a society whose “porn” is novels of alternate history, he doesn’t live on a farm, and nobody but nobody is talking about what sex is. how does he learn to grasp what may become forever outside his range? what he gets are generally prize bits of very funny “explanation.”

the other best parts are being reminded from time to time that we are not in 1676, but 1976, witness to the effect that a few hundred rules of anti-science church rule has had. scary!

there are, i’m sure, a ton of real howlers on religion in this book, if one knows the turf… but alas, i do not. if one could analogize religious experience to making tea, i’d be the tea bag that just sort of got waved over the cup. those of you more intensely wetted are certainly in a better position to get the jokes.

the book’s only flaw is that it sort of goes off the deep end at the end–leaving behind Hubert’s story and delving into Papal dirty dealings and hideous plots. pity that Amis didn’t just lop this off. it’s rather shooting fish in a barrel at the end, whereas before it really was a very nicely gauged satire not only on religion but on all human frailty.

still, well worth a read, and a fascinating experiment in alt-history.