We are everything, yet we are nothing. Paul Murray reviews Michael Fryan's The Human Touch

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The Human Touch: Our part in the creation of the universe
Written by: Michael Fryan
Publishers: Faber and Faber; 2006
Pages: 704


This is Fryan’s twelfth book, over and above one opera, fourteen plays and his writings for film and television. He is well known for his plays Donkeys’ Years and Noises Off.
The Human Touch: Our part in the creation of the universe continues to ask questions about our relationship with the universe we live in. Whilst Fryan holds that the world is what we make of it, he sets out to find out what part we play in it and its reciprocal influence on each of us as individuals. It is impossible for us to realise the vastness and scale of it. On top of it all, it’s muddled. Nothing is quite straight in it, and nothing is quite circular either: "It’s like an old cottage, built without a plumb line or a spirit level."  
The stars and galaxies are splashed about in the universe’s sky. In some cases things get hotter, in other cases they cool down. Some things explode whilst others crash into each other. Everything is mixed up with everything else, "as if the cottage were lived in by some crazy old eccentric".
The planet that we live on, is irregular – a sphere that is not actually spherical – with a rough surface, splashed with seas and lakes. There are thousands of millions of people on the planet who consider themselves special, like you and me.
Your lifespan and my lifespan, supposedly about 80 years each on average, pale into submission when one considers the fourteen billion years' lifetime of the universe so far, with approximately the same number still to come.
We are giants in the universe if we consider we are more than a billion times as tall as an atom. In each of our brains there are one hundred billion neurons connected in one million billion ways. There are five billion of us humans on planet earth, with an equal number of people having lived before us.
The words, numbers and languages that we use to communicate with one another have been invented by the people who lived on the planet before us, although there is an influence on all of this happening as I write and you read.
Our situation in the universe is strange, to say the least. Could we have predicted how things would have turned out for us? Could you have predicted how you would turn out one day? Could I? And one day when we die, how will this affect the universe? Not one bit. The universe will go on without us as if nothing has happened at all. But when we leave this universe one day, so will everything. Yet we have been hardly anything. Therein is the paradox. This is the world’s mystery. We are everything, yet we are nothing.
The book is in five parts, with several chapters making up each part. In Part I Fryan looks at the structure of space and time; in Part II, intention and purpose, asking philosophical questions such as "Why the Marmalade?" and "How the Marmalade?"; in Part III we "think of thoughts and, speak(ing) of things"; whilst in Part IV the question is asked: "Which comes first, the soup or the recipe?" We are Homewards bound in Part IV when we go off-line, "thinking of nothing: idle thoughts, dreams", until we reach our home address to find out "… who lives there".
People like you and me perceive the world through our own eyes. The world therefore "has no form or substance without you and me to provide them, and you and I have no form or substance without the world to provide them in its turn". The paradox is further explained: "we carry the world on our shoulders at the same time as we stand on the very globe that we are supporting."
Reading Fryan is as intellectually stimulating as it is humorous. This is the clever combination found in his writings.
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