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Why Did One of Britain's Most Esteemed Authors
Wrap Up His Career with a Bizarre UFO Novel?

A Look Back at John Fowles's A Maggot (1985)

Essay by Ted Gioia
I’m tempted to describe A Maggot, John Fowles’s peculiar 1985 novel, as
a “first contact” story. Fans of science fiction are familiar with these tales of
aliens arriving on Planet Earth, bringing peace or war or merely
an ominous
black monolith. The plot has been reworked countless times, with everyone
from H.G. Wells to Carl Sagan speculating on the impact of an extraterrestrial
intrusion into world history.

But John Fowles has written the most multi-layered 'first contact' story of them
all—indeed, the narrative is so rich in possible interpretations that many
readers might even hesitate to classify the book as science fiction. As Fowles
grasps, the notion of ‘first contact’ is much older than sci-fi. The four canonical
Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could very well be described as ‘first
contact’ literature. The same is true of the Old Testament. When I was a child, I
was taught the religious hymn
"Ezekiel Saw the Wheel (Way Up in the Middle of
the Air)." For the prophet Ezekiel, this uncanny appearance in the sky marked a
visitation by angels, but nowadays people who see flying saucers get written up
The National Enquirer, not holy scripture.

A person who experiences such a disjunctive contact
with a higher power might be a shaman in one historical
era, and conspiracy theorist in another. Such an
encounter might initiate a career as a prophet, as it
did for Muhammad in the seventh century and Joan of
Arc in the fifteenth century, or inspire avant-garde
science fiction books, as it did for
Philip K. Dick in the
twentieth century. The arrival of a mighty force from on
high might signal a wrathful final judgment or a serene
rebirth of humanity on a higher level. For some, this
moment of connection has already taken place in the
past; for others it is anticipated (or feared) in the future.

In Fowles’s novel, this moment of contact and communication takes place on
May Day in the year 1736.  A man known as Mr. Bartholomew is leading a
small group of travellers into a sparsely-populated area of southwest England.
But every member of this group is harboring some secret. Mr. Bartholomew is
actually the son of a Duke, and seems to be fearful that his influential father
might interfere with his secret schemes. He is accompanied by an actor named
Francis Lacy, who is pretending to be Bartholomew’s uncle. A former soldier
known as Sergeant Farthing protects them on this trip, but he too is an actor
enlisted to play a part. A maid of obscure French origins known as Louise is also
a member of the traveling party, but she is actually a prostitute hired out from a
London brothel. The last member of the group is Bartholomew’s servant Dick,
and he is the most enigmatic of them all—he is deaf and mute, but possesses
both an acute sensitivity to his surroundings and is fiercely loyal to his master.

John Fowles: Ten Years After His Death (Essay by Ted Gioia)
The French Lieutenant's Woman (Essay by Ted Gioia)
Daniel Martin (Essay by Ted Gioia)
The Magus (Essay by Ted Gioia)

This group pretends that they are traveling to a distant country house, where
they plan to facilitate an elopement. But this is mere subterfuge. We might do
better to say that this group of travellers is engaged on a pilgrimage. But only
Mr. Bartholomew seems to grasp the significance and destination of their
journey. He brings with him scientific books and tools, and consults them for
guidance. The three outsiders hired for this strange trip ask him questions
about the real nature of their travels, but he responds to their inquiries with
short, cryptic responses.

By the time of the moment of 'first contact', Sergeant Farthing has left the
traveling party, and Francis Lacy has been dismissed. But the Duke’s son is
determined to continue traveling to his mysterious destination. Accompanied
by his servant and the hired courtesan, he proceeds to a cave where the much
anticipated encounter takes place.

And what happens at this moment of first contact? During the course of
, the reader tries to unlock this mystery. The novel is mostly told in the
form of transcripts of interrogations conducted by the lawyer Henry Ayscough,
hired by the eminent Duke to track down his son. Ayscough gradually pieces
together the details of a strange manifestation in the Devonshire cave. Here a
woman appeared dressed in strange garb, and offered a kind of hallucinatory
vision to her interlocutors. She herself was also a traveler, having arrived in a
large maggot-shaped container, which seems to be a kind of machine or
conveyance. But is she a visitor from another planet? Is she a time traveler from
the future? Is she an angel or tutelary spirit?

How do we even begin to answer these questions?  Bartholomew disappears
after the visitation, and may very well be dead. The servant Dick commits
suicide in the aftermath of the encounter, but even had he lived what kind of
testimony could be extracted from a man who neither hears nor talks? The
prostitute survives, but she is now living under the name Rebecca Lee as a
member of a Quaker splinter sect. She interprets her experience in the cave as
a moment of religious conversion, but during the course of the novel she offers
contradictory descriptions of the particulars of the encounter.

The history of this novel casts some light on Fowles’s intentions. In October
1974, he started work on a science fiction story that he soon abandoned. But
its main concerns found their way into
A Maggot, published more than
decade later. The earlier tale involved a nuclear Armageddon that destroys the
Earth in the year 2075. But before the final apocalypse, the narrator is rescued
by benevolent female space travelers from a distant world. By the time of
, the scope and setting of the story have changed considerably, but the
feminist angle and the concept of a ‘first contact’ remain.

The view that men and women represent different social ideals and ways of
life is pervasive throughout Fowles's oeuvre. He is rarely described as a
feminist author, but anyone who has read his various novels cannot escape a
sense that, for Fowles, women possess the capability of rising to a higher, more
evolved way of being, and that men must struggle to approach the capacity for
self-reinvention and transcendence demonstrated, again and again, by his
leading ladies.  This divide between the sexes informs his first published novel
The Collector, but is taken to a much higher level in this two subsequent
The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman—both of which
feature intellectual male protagonists who smugly believe that they possess
deep insight into the human condition, but eventually learn to their own dismay
how poorly they grasp the inner life of the women that haunt their dreams and
spur their fantasies.

In his final works, this sensibility has deepened in Fowles’s work. One might
even describe his attitude as a worship of the feminine. In
Mantissa, Fowles
goes so far as to revive the notion of the feminine muse who inspires an
author's creative impulses. And in
A Maggot, his last published novel, he
goes even further, postulating a kind of feminized path to salvation, with both
sociopolitical and religious overtones.

Fowles tries to answer here the questions he posed to himself at the very
beginning of his career as a writer. I believe it is no coincidence that the title of
this book bears such close resemblance to
The Magus, that powerful existential
story that he started writing in 1956—it was his first novel, although published
The Collector.  In The Magus, Fowles appeared to embrace magical
realism in the work’s early pages, only to reveal during the course of his novel
that a rational, realistic interpretation can explain all the story’s strange events.
A Maggot, we find the mirror image of this schema: the reader is initially led
to believe that the narrative is strictly rational and realistic, but eventually is
forced to consider various unconventional, magical or religious interpretations
of the circumstances described. I suspect that Fowles saw this contrast as
reflecting a maturation on his own part, an evolution from the ‘masculine’
analytical assessment of life to an intuitive and metaphysical, perhaps more
‘feminine’ approach to vital matters.   

The book is masterfully constructed—at least until its final pages. There Fowles
suddenly changes the approach from fiction to nonfiction, and offers up an
interpretation of his own book that might have been better relegated to an
afterword or published as a standalone essay. In previous books, Fowles often
wrestled with his desire to preach a sermon rather than tell a story—you can
see it at the conclusion of
The French Lieutenant’s Woman and throughout
Daniel Martin. But it comes across as full-fledged philosophizing at the end of A
. Fowles, alas, is not as skilled a philosopher as he is a novelist. But
even as I find this denouement jarring and out of character with the rest of the
novel, I was grateful for the context it provided for the work as a whole.

A Maggot received almost unanimous praise upon its publication in 1985—a
striking contrast to the controversies of the author’s earlier books, and the rude
dismissals of his preceding novel
Mantissa. Yet A Maggot has unfortunately
fallen from view in recent years. It is currently out-of-print, except as a digital
download. The book deserves better, but I suspect that its prospects are hurt by
its very strangeness. It could easily be described as a sci-fi masterpiece, but
fans of genre fiction don’t even know it exists—and publishers of highbrow
authors such as John Fowles hate to market to those nerdy folks, even if it
might generate sales. I could just as easily classify
A Maggot as a great
religious novel, but what fan of spiritual fiction wants to hear from an atheist
such as Mr. Fowles? The book has many of the trappings of a historical novel,
but deviates too far from strict realism to please readers of those kinds of
books. And I might even praise this novel for its postmodern techniques, but
Fowles handles these with such a light touch, that he will almost certainly fail to
please those devotees of deconstruction who prize arch experimentalism over
the more traditional virtues of storytelling.

So let me simply say that this is a smart, provocative book, and it deserves
your attention. You can try to squeeze it into a pigeonhole, but it will no doubt
force its way out again. In a similar manner, it will eventually challenge whatever
ideological or conceptual framework you might apply to it. But that may be this
book’s greatest virtue—indeed, Fowles’s own calling card and the main reason
why his novels still interest us so many decades after they were written. Accept
his books on their own terms, and without preconditions and expectations. Or,
in other words, embrace them with precisely the kind of open mind demanded
by a first contact with the unknown.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His most recent book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: October 29, 2015
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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