A Short History of Predicting the Future review – a quest that gives a unique sense of passage

Oxford University Press, £19.99

We’ve seen this story before. Every so often, a novel will finish its run in style, and be followed up by another, brief and eccentric tale of novelists journeying through one another’s oeuvres. A predecessor to this novel in real life, The Great Gatsby, was followed by a novel about his behaviour by his rival, F Scott Fitzgerald. Ernest Hemingway wrote a book about another fellow American, Al Alvarez, and a novel following his novel to the end of his life. The startling thing about A Short History of Predicting the Future, by Richard Cockerill and Adele Stan, is that there’s a narrative stream that starts as the novel starts, and quickly moves past the usual peaks and troughs of genre fiction, and passes straight to the fictions that follow it.

The narrative track starts in New York in 2012: where French novelist Lucien Castaing-Taylor is invited to pitch a short story to a publisher. He plods along, writing, but turns out to be too young to hack it. However, his career as a blogger about novels has given him a reputation as a sleuth, and a publisher’s assistant lets slip that she knows where he works. The writer Gregory Polaski is nearing retirement, but he knows the secret of it – he’s one of those behind-the-scenes obsessives who are able to extract a great deal of material from vaults and attics, as long as they can dig into the attic. That’s his job. Eventually, he meets Castaing-Taylor, who has been commissioned to write a book called The Memory Library: a profile of the novel as archive.

A brief and eccentric tale of novelists journeying through one another’s oeuvres … A Short History of Predicting the Future by Richard Cockerill and Adele Stan. Photograph: Penguin Random House

There are moments when the pace quickens: Clare Prusak is training for a marathon that she says will change her life; Lorna Ann runs a Cumbrian 10-mile race, realising that this might be her last chance; and Arthur Tractan is running for an anti-smoking book, believing it will save his life. There’s a world apart of plots where the novel tells the story. Prusak’s secret, long hidden from her life and from the world, is finally revealed. Tristram Hunt (an actor, a novelist and a journalist) is asked to run the marathon by the director of an organisation trying to protect children from obesity. Hunt drinks that force-fed doughnut that first placed him in rehab to the delight of the magazine he writes for, and asks Santa for a gun for Christmas. His tormenting wife is pregnant with their second child, and the film company behind the documentary on which he’s making his comeback doesn’t make the edits they promised.

Still, this is not the kind of lighthearted story in which one of the writers reveals the secrets of another, or the secrets of his or her own past emerge as this journey continues. Quite the opposite: the quest to escape past failures, which are ever-present in Cockerill and Stan’s fiction, runs pretty deep here. And being able to tell the stories of some other characters (and of different figures) gives Prusak, Hunt and others the unique pleasure of watching another identity. While its recognisable characters keep us in their world, other adventures may go unnoticed, or may end without our knowledge.

A Short History of Predicting the Future, which should offer an insight into literary fiction at a time when it is in decline, is also an unprecedented document. The first part about what it is to be a novelist is quite extraordinary, and has surprises and insights aplenty. It’s a rare and interesting way to relive a particular chapter in the history of novel writing. You don’t have to like a lot of what’s in this book, or even a large part of it, and you won’t have to care much about the characters beyond what happens to them. You will have to know what you think and feel about stories such as this to enjoy it. There’s an intriguing legacy that makes up for its slack plot.

• Mary Holland’s Blood and Angel is published by Jonathan Cape.

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