John is infinite.He can become any book, any combination of words — every thought, act and expression that has ever been, or ever will be, written. Now 800 years old, John wants to tell his story.Looking back over his life, from its beginnings with a medieval anchoress to his current lodgings beside the deathbed of a cold war spy, John pieces together his tale: the love that held him together and, in particular, the reasons for a murder that took place in Moscow fifty years earlier, and that set in train a shattering series of events.Samuel Fisher’s debut, The Chameleon is a love story about books like no other, weaving texts and lives in a family tale that leads the reader into an extraordinary historical journey, a journey of words as much as of places, and a gripping romance.
The Chameleon Review
- January 1, 1970Bookdragon Sean-A review copy was sent to me from Disclaimer Magazine in association with Salt Publishing. The original review was posted here.The Review: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 boo -A review copy was sent to me from Disclaimer Magazine in association with Salt Publishing. The original review was posted here.The Review: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, and if you want to hear the case please purchase it here.more
- January 1, 1970Paul FulcherMy name is John, and I am this book.Samuel Fisher is a bookseller: co-owner of Burley Fisher Books; was a judge in 2017 of the UK's finest literary prize: The Republic of Consciousness Prize; has co-founded a small independent press: Peninsula Press, who first books will include one on translation from the MBI-winning Deborah Smith; and this, his debut novel, comes with a recommendation from the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize winning Eley Williams. Oh, and it is narrated by a self-aware bo My name is John, and I am this book.Samuel Fisher is a bookseller: co-owner of Burley Fisher Books; was a judge in 2017 of the UK's finest literary prize: The Republic of Consciousness Prize; has co-founded a small independent press: Peninsula Press, who first books will include one on translation from the MBI-winning Deborah Smith; and this, his debut novel, comes with a recommendation from the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize winning Eley Williams. Oh, and it is narrated by a self-aware book, the book indeed we are reading.So I was predisposed to like it, and I am pleased to report it didn't disappoint.Our narrator John is, indeed, a book, 800 years old (starting life, or at least consciousness, as a medieval manuscript) but able to transmute ('I might not be able to move but I can change') into whatever book he wants, for example, one of his standard fallbacks:It’s one of those books that doesn’t seem to exist until it’s needed, until those moments of original fear when faith - unborn and subliminal - rises to the surface. The accumulated legacy of faith - that’s the comfort it brings. It’s a book that has presided over weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations. It connects the dots between Ruth and her antecedents and the moments they themselves groped for the eternal. It’s freighted with their joy and their terror. I should know. I’ve spent more time as a family Bible than anyone.Although able to see, hear, taste and smell, he is unable to move or to talk, but he has is way of drawing in readers, and is also particularly fascinated by human companionship having only once, and briefly, encounter another such book. As he watches two people fall in love to the strains of a Lizst concerto: The frantic chromatics were apt because courtship has always been hard for me to follow. It has its own language, written onto and out of the body, of blood rising to the skin, to spell out that thing which words leave to evaporate in cliche’s runnels: the body’s ancient intention, expressed as if for the first time. The language of intimacy has no words, yet desire still makes itself understood. Or so i must infer, from the results. My skin does not allow me to join the conversation. ...My skin cannot blush. I have no throat from which to sigh. But I have one weapon more powerful than either: my scent. The sweet perfume of vanilla and almond that greets you when you lift an old book from the shelf, a smell that triggers a powerful sense of nostalgia that you cannot place. ...There are other smells that I can produce, in my deliberate attempts to lure curious fingers towards my covers. I can produce the solvent tang of ink and glue that recalls cracking the spine of a new paperback. I can emanate the toasted aroma of warm photocopies. I keep up with the changing times. But the floral musk of vanilla and almonds remains the most reliable: the bouquet of rot and decay occasioned by the slow degradation of my pages. Fisher has some fun with his concept, imagining life as a book, for example:I hate toast, I really do. the crumbs get caught between your pages and then slip down to your gatherings. Like a stone in your shoe., although John he is a fan of annotators.In a brief novel, Fisher covers a lot of ground. In his non-linear narrative John explains how we came to self-awareness, and how his world operates (changing form in order to tempt humans to pick him or to discard him as suits his purpose) and also reflecting on some of his past owners, including Nathan Rothschild and Graham Alexander Bell.This is, unsurprisingly, a book soaked in literature and echoes, and both direct and free quotation of other novels. One of John's explicit inspirations is Virginia Woolf's equally long-lived and chameleon Orlando:She is a character I can sympathise with. As time gallops forward, Orlando canters behind; while those around her are born, live, grow old and die, she passes them by. And always, under her doublet or shirt or bodice or corset or blouse - whatever the fashion of the day, or her gender that day, calls for - she carries a manuscript.Another is Borges's The Library of Babel, which to John feels like an autobiography written by a future version of myself.The Borges comparison does invite a slightly unfair comparison from the reader. Borges and Kafka were able to take a brilliant concept - a library that contained all books, an author who rewrites Don Quixote in his own but identical version, a man who wakes up as an insect, a machine that carves the violated law into the condemned prisoner's skin - and turn them into brilliant and canonical short stories.It is rather unfair to expect anyone else to be in their league, and Fisher, having developed the wonderful concept of a self-aware book, doesn't entirely see it through.But instead he takes the novel in a different, and equally compelling direction, as John; lying by his current, elderly, owner Roger's death-bed, in Roger's mother's old house and accompanied by Roger's daughter and grand-daughter, narrates Roger's life story, a story framed by two deaths, one in Soviet Russia (in a scene borrowed explicitly from Frances Spufford's brilliant Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties' Soviet Dream) and the other of Roger himself.Roger was a cold-war British spy, his sourcebook for encrypting messages, appropriately enough, Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson, known as the first novel to be described, in a review, as “stream of consciousness” [although Richardson herself disliked the term, opining that “amongst the company of useful labels devised to meet the exigencies of literary criticism it stands alone, isolated by its perfect imbecility.”] John the book accompanies Roger on his missions to Moscow by changing into Pointed Roofs.While at times the link to John's story seems a little tangential (sometimes it is as if Fisher has to remember that it's a book talking and justify John's knowledge of events - e.g. by having John change into Pointed Roofs so he can accompany Roger to Moscow) it is a beautifully drawn, eloquently written and touching story of both cold-war spycraft, but, more importantly, of love across 4 generations of a family.Recommended.more
- January 1, 1970Gumble's YardA book written by the bookseller of an innovative independent bookshop (Burley Fisher Books) who was the judge in the first year of Britain's finest book prize- the Republic of Consciousness Prize (which rewards small publishers for taking risks in literature); it has a front cover recommendation from Eley Williams– winner of the second year of that prize for her wonderful short story collection Attrib. and other storiesNot surprisingly therefore this is an experimental book which simultaneously A book written by the bookseller of an innovative independent bookshop (Burley Fisher Books) who was the judge in the first year of Britain's finest book prize- the Republic of Consciousness Prize (which rewards small publishers for taking risks in literature); it has a front cover recommendation from Eley Williams– winner of the second year of that prize for her wonderful short story collection Attrib. and other storiesNot surprisingly therefore this is an experimental book which simultaneously celebrates literature.It is published by the brilliant Norfolk based publisher Salt and like all their books came with a handwritten postcard (in this case a vintage postcard of their seaside home town of Cromer, including its famous pier) and with a small packet of salt. I bought this (and another book) as part of their #JustOneBook campaign - a campaign which both showcased the precariousness of the small literary presses in the UK and the sense of community among them - with other presses, book bloggers and reviewers all tweeting and re-tweeting the campaign with spectacular results.http://www.edp24.co.uk/business/salt-...One of the common conceits of the modern novel as an artform is the omniscient, third party narrator – the central conceit of this novel is to simultaneously embrace and reinterpret this convention. The narrator in this novel is the novel itself – John, an 800 year old self-aware book capable of reinventing itself as any book, a skill he uses like a chameleon to work his way through human society, and a book which boasts as past owners Alexander Bell and Rothschild but which for the last 50 years has been owned by Roger – a Russian based British Spy now dying, causing John to for almost the first time to write itself as a new (rather than already published) book – the novel we hold in our hands.There are a number of lovely musings on the physical nature of books from a book’s viewpoint - the impact of heat, cold, licked fingers and toast crumbs; and on their wider role in spycraft (as a source for ciphers, as something to pretend to read when waiting for a rendezvous). There are also many clever literary references in the books or stories whose form John adopts or considers:Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (clearly a precursor to and inspiration for this book), Dorothy Richards “Pointed Roofs” (when acting as a cipher – and which is the first book to use the “stream of consciousness technique) Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella (when John has a poignantly described romance with another self-ware book, able to communicate only by book title)Borges short story the Library of Babel which first awakes in John the possibility of invention and implants in him the need to find someone whose story he can tellhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orlando...https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astroph...https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointed...https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lib...But on a simple reading this book could be criticised for straying from its central concept and conceit – and being to a large extent made up of two conventional tropes: a Cold War spy story and a multi-generational family story. Both however are I think crucial to the book and are metaphors for something deeper:- The real spy story in the book is not Roger’s activities in Moscow but instead The Book’s (literally – in every sense of the word) undercover activities in the human world – trying to understand but also interpret what it means to be human: a role that encapsulates what all great literature seeks to help us achieve- The real multi-generational family story is that between readers, books and their authorsHighly recommended to all lovers of innovative literature from any generation.more
- January 1, 1970AlanThere is a lot of curious trivia here but the end result is so all-over-the-place it is hard to see what sort of reader will be completely satisfied.A novel with a narrator who is an 800-year-old transmutable book seems like a set up for a voyage through an almost millennium-length view of history. Instead the story mostly centres on the late 20th century life and Cold-War career of a British spy named Roger and occasionally his wife Margery as viewed by "John" the book.It is especially tempting There is a lot of curious trivia here but the end result is so all-over-the-place it is hard to see what sort of reader will be completely satisfied.A novel with a narrator who is an 800-year-old transmutable book seems like a set up for a voyage through an almost millennium-length view of history. Instead the story mostly centres on the late 20th century life and Cold-War career of a British spy named Roger and occasionally his wife Margery as viewed by "John" the book.It is especially tempting to interpret the use of a detail from the painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" from the school of Pieter Bruegel the Elder as a metaphor for the novel. In the painting, a ploughman (shown in the book cover detail) is the main character in the foreground and the actual drowning of Icarus from falling into the sea is a small detail in the background (not even shown on the book cover). Roger's mostly mundane life is thus in the foreground of the novel and the imagined epic life of "John" the book is mostly left in the background.There are some intriguing snapshots of "John's" history such as when it has an encounter with another example of its species. That seems to set up the possibility of a non-bibliographic interpretation with the idea of an alien species at the forefront. That idea is never explored though.There is an odd digression with an almost blow by blow description of an historic chess match as played by Thomas Bowdler (yes, the one who published the censored Shakespeare) vs. Henry Seymour Conway as replayed by Roger with one of his Russian contacts. The historic game itself can be viewed here.All of it is a curiosity that likely won't completely satisfy fans of epic historical fiction, spy fiction, science fiction, or of chess games but will at least intrigue each of them to some degree.more
- January 1, 1970Terry PearceThis book has one hell of a conceit, and anything that weird, I'm (a) interested, and (b) skeptical. He pulls it off. Through careul, thoughtful writing, surprising developments of the idea, and a thread of meaning running through it, the whole thing comes off as incredibly ungimmicky, and in fact humane and full of depth. Great stuff.more
- January 1, 1970JamesA challenging premise, but one that soon blossoms into a moving tale of family, loss, and love, with some cold war espionage and chess thrown in for good measure. A refreshingly original novel.
- January 1, 1970IanMaybe wears its influences a little heavily on its sleeve but is otherwise very fine indeed.
- January 1, 1970JenniferJohn is an 800-year-old consciousness of many books. He changes book form as is necessitated by his travels through time, aka 'the chameleon.' John speaks of his awakening and time spent with human companions through history, gathering what experiences he can on what it means to be human.In conjunction with the story of John the book consciousness, John delivers the extended story of his latest human companion, Roger, beginning with the present day from Roger's deathbed in his family home, surro John is an 800-year-old consciousness of many books. He changes book form as is necessitated by his travels through time, aka 'the chameleon.' John speaks of his awakening and time spent with human companions through history, gathering what experiences he can on what it means to be human.In conjunction with the story of John the book consciousness, John delivers the extended story of his latest human companion, Roger, beginning with the present day from Roger's deathbed in his family home, surrounded by his daughter, Ruth, and granddaughter, Jessica, and reflecting back on Roger's life from his pre-second war childhood to his university Russian studies, his marriage to Margery, his Secret Intelligence Service work in Moscow and Irkutsk in the 1950s, the birth of his and Margery's daughter, and the ups and downs of his family and career as a Cold War spy living apart from his family.A moving and unique perspective story about a family and time.more
- January 1, 1970ValThe plot of this novel is mainly a suitably convoluted cold war spy story. What makes it worth reading is the narration by a sentient, mutating book, the interesting and often humorous snippets from its earlier incarnations and the quality of the writing.more
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