Hazel McHaffie

The Universe versus Alex Woods

I’m happy to report that the new computer is flying along and overall I’m loving it. Still a few things to get the hang of, but happily writing my blog is not one of them. So here goes.

As you may (or may not) recall, I went to hear Gavin Extence speaking at the Book Festival in August. He wasn’t actually talking about his book, The Universe Versus Alex Woods, (he was presenting the case for assisted dying in a debate) but nevertheless, I bought a copy – of course I did; it’s his version of my Right to Die! And I’ve now finished reading it.Two novels about assisted dyingThe Universe Versus Alex Woods (perfect title, by the way) is very readable, touching and amusing, and I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Extence says himself he didn’t set out to deal with assisted dying; he wanted to write about this teenager who’s had a difficult life who goes on to perform an act of unconventional selfless heroism.

Which probably accounts for the structure. We know from the outset that Alex Woods is connected to Mr Peterson when he’s stopped at Dover customs with an urn of ashes and 113 grams of marijuana, but it takes Gavin Extence 100 pages to get around to the two meeting. And another 100 pages to present the kernel of the story. First we must get to know Alex Woods: details of his extraordinary accident (hit on the head by a 2.3 kilogram meteorite travelling at 200 miles an hour) and the consequences of his resultant epileptic fits, his puny person, his zany mother, bullying, difficult relationships, his own bizarre responses, his regular sparring with big moral questions and social niceties.

We know far less about Mr Peterson, a rather bad tempered but grieving widower, very attached to his dog and his books. He and Alex are thrown together when Alex has to do penance for a crime he didn’t commit, but they discover mutual interests and develop a strange but warmly wholesome relationship. Through Alex’s eyes Mr Peterson becomes a sparky character given to wise words and robust common sense.

So, although Alex is a teenager, below the age of accepted moral competence, he is the only person Mr Peterson confides in when he develops the intractable neurodegenerative disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. It’s a heavy burden for Alex to carry.

PSP might well ring vague bells for you. Remember the real-life case a few years ago, plastered all over the papers, headline news on TV, of the doctor, Anne Turner, who left 100 letters saying, ‘By the time you read this I’ll be dead‘? She’d already nursed her husband through something similar, and she was determined not to linger with it herself. Her three grown up children accompanied her to Switzerland where she drank a lethal dose of medicine. Her decision and the reactions of her family and the authorities were all replayed on TV.

Anyway, Mr Peterson knows he’s destined to lose his ability to take action before too long and he’s mapped out a pathway for himself. Only things don’t go according to plan, and Alex becomes embroiled in his exit. The police characterise Alex as vulnerable – ‘intelligent but extremely naive, and possibly disturbed,’ brain damaged, fatherless, friendless, with a mother of ‘dubious credentials and capabilities‘. He’s easily manipulated, his ‘ethical abilities‘ have been ‘compromised‘. The media spin him into a violent sociopath with an inability to feel emotion, the product of a sinister religious cult, with a troubled record as a young teenager.

Mr Peterson’s unsound judgement is beyond doubt in the eyes of the press: he’s psychologically damaged by the conflict in Vietnam; he’s recently bereaved; he’s been sectioned and incarcerated in a psychiatric ward after attempting suicide; he’s been fraternising with a minor …  they weave all sorts of innuendos through this inexplicable relationship.

We, of course, know the reality. Both Alex and Mr Peterson are into moral decision-making in a big way, analysing things in private and together to tease out the right course of action. As the old man says: ‘Don’t ever surrender your right to make your own moral decisions, kid.

Mr Peterson sums up his predicament succinctly while he’s still in the psychiatric ward after attempting suicide: ‘I don’t want to die, kid. No one wants to die.  But you know where I’m heading a little down the line. My future’s already written. If I don’t want to face that, there’s only one way out.’ And later: ‘I have a life worth living at the moment and I might still have a life worth living six months from now. Even a year from now. I don’t know. But what I do know is that sooner or later the balance is going to tip. Sooner or later I’m gonna have a life I can no longer bear. And by that time, chances are there won’t be a damn thing I can do about it. I’ll be in some kind of hospice. I won’t be able to stand or speak, let alone take the necessary steps to end it all. That’s what’s unbearable.’

 And Alex understands that: ‘Knowing that there was a way out, and that his suffering was not going to become unendurable, was the one thing that allowed Mr Peterson to go on living, much longer than he would otherwise have wanted. It was the weeks leading up to our pact that were shrouded in darkness and despair; after its inception, life became a meaningful prospect once more.’

This is an ambitious debut novel. Extence has delved deep and wide  – into human relationships, epilepsy, meteorology, astronomy, tarot card reading, mathematics, theoretical physics, literature, classical music, neurological disease … Some aspects I found rather less than convincing – the accident, the escape, the ending; but for the most part he has woven an intricate and compelling story. And he’s gone right to the kernel of the ethical debate, so this book sits comfortable in my list of novels dealing with assisted dying.

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