The Universe Versus Alex Woods starts at the end of the story: Alex, seventeen years old, finds himself stopped at Dover’s customs as he re-enters the UK, suffering some sort of seizure, with a large quantity of cash, a large quantity of marijuana, and an urn of ashes on the seat next to him. Why are the border authorities looking for him? What, exactly, are his perfectly reasonable explanations for the goods he is carrying? Where has he been and how did he wind up here?
As author Gavin Extence rewinds back to the beginning of the story, we follow Alex from the age of ten and a freak accident that seemingly sets things in motion, through his teenage years and up to present day. It’s probable that, accident or not, he would still have been bullied when he made it to secondary school, but whether he would still have been chased down the lanes of his country village on the particular day and in the particular direction that he was is more questionable. Without that particular day, would he have met Mr. Peterson? And without Mr. Peterson, he certainly wouldn’t be sitting in this particular police station right now.
There are many different things discussed in the pages of this book - things to make you philosophical, things to make you irate, things to make you think. It’s quite a philosophical book overall, actually, although it takes a while to get where it’s ultimately going - for instance, there is really no indication at all during much of the book of the big question Extence really wants to ask. In fact, with this thought in mind, perhaps Extence didn’t set out to ask his Big Question at all; perhaps that is just where the story took him. I think not, though; I think he knew where he was going, and he just took his sweet time to get there. It didn’t drag as such; I simply couldn’t see where it was going, which made me doubt the coherence of the story - but about two thirds of the way through I had that ‘aha!’ moment and everything began to fall into place. And with this in mind, I can see now that The Universe Versus Alex Woods is as brave a story as it’s protagonist is (and that’s pretty brave - Alex always sticks to his guns).
There are meteors and meteorites, neurological details and astrophysical discussions, a visit to The Natural History Museum, a visit to CERN, strange girls and strange mothers, and a rather unusual bookclub. I have to wonder what sort of school experience Extence himself had - or suffered - as Alex philosophises on the ignorance of his school’s practices, not least the way in which they teach only what is necessary to pass his exams, and how he is the one punished following a particularly nasty bullying incident - a punishment that results purely from the fact that Alex decides enough is enough and stands up for himself. The swear word he uses during this ‘showdown’ sparks a debate across several pages: which side will you be on? Alex’s or everyone else’s?
And it’s rather cleverly written because everything that occurs in these earlier chapters are a foreshadowing of what will happen later: the school is a small version of the law that Alex will have to face at the end of his story; the gossiping village is a small version of the media; the incident with Mr. Peterson’s dog is a small version of the Big Question Alex will ultimately have to face. This is a subtle and well-considered type of storytelling often seen in films: introduce the big idea in a small way so when the main story comes to the fore it’s easier for the viewer/reader to accept. Excellently done on Extence’s part.
And when the s**t hits the fan, it’s impossible not to be on Alex’s side, even though it’s nearly as hard not to question some of his responses to the things the Universe throws at him. The people around him made me feel irate and impassioned, and the media furore resulting from his actions - how they twist everything around, take all the facts and make them into something else - reminds me of the recent Hilary Mantel/Duchess of Cambridge ‘scandal’ as well as an idea I recently read of in another book, Ask the Passengers by A S King, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this, Socrates describes a group of people who lived all their lives chained facing the blank wall of a cave; the wall has shadows cast from a fire they can’t see. As they guess at what the shadows are, the shadows become their entire reality - they know only their interpretation of the shadows, and would not recognise or understand what actually causes the shadows, or even the concept of something being a shadow in the first place. Deep stuff.
So is this what Alex Woods is all about? Well, yes and no. I guess, the Big Question aside, it’s about questioning your reality and not accepting what other people lay down for you - sometimes you have to, sure, but sometimes it’s just as important to understand that, often, there’s more to reality than what meets the eye.