The Ascent of Isaac Steward is accompanied by some fine endorsements, and this one by author R.N.Morris (A Razor Wrapped in Silk) has been much referred to in various reviews: "Reminiscent of the surrealist literary experiments of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake but blessedly readable. The Ascent of Isaac Steward is insanely ambitious, startlingly odd, boldly conceived, and executed with tremendous confidence. One of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read."
I have no trouble agreeing with anything R.N.Morris has written here - he hasn't put a word wrong as far as I'm concerned - although I have to admit that my knowledge of Finnegan's Wake is based on a brief glance rather than a sound reading. However, it does allow me to reassure prospective readers that, unlike Finnegan's Wake, the prose in Ascent is comprehensible and indeed "blessedly readable". That aside, because Mike French has created a novel which is wonderfully unique and experimental, it's probably normal (and useful) to have such a reference point against which to compare and contrast it, in order to clarify one's thoughts.
If I were to liken it to any book I've read before, it would be to Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (yes, let's keep this with the Irish, even though Mike French is English, and not Irish... or French). To my mind, The Ascent of Isaac Steward, like The Third Policeman, and William Golding's Pincher Martin even, explores the nether world between the ending of a life and the recognition of death. It's fertile, surreal ground because we have no idea what dying and death is like, so almost anything goes.
There were times when I found it hard to keep track of the characters and their alter-egos, and to map out the hierarchy of worlds that Isaac and his cohort journey through, as I did with elements of The Third Policeman, but I found it a very satisfying book when I stopped worrying about this and allowed the crucial elements to reveal themselves.
Indeed, because it's such a startlingly original book, and subverts the reader's expectations at a number of points, I found myself approaching the narrative in a different way to usual. Instead of attempting to carefully understand each twist and turn, I grabbed hold of the characters' coat tails and let them take me where they would. In this manner, I went along for the helter-skelter ride, enjoying the spectacle of each scene, and adding one impression to another rather than needing to make absolute sense of every event as they happened.
Ultimately, it occurred to me that reading The Ascent of Isaac Steward is somewhat like engaging with a semi-abstract painting: it comprises a number of intriguing and bizarre images that are familiar, but slightly distorted, in the way that a dream might distort them, and, in the process, it creates a mythological world of its own. There are images from the bible, from Punch and Judy, from shoot-'em-up computer games, from underwater prisons... all of which, when you stand back and look at the whole picture, present an intriguing and entertaining story about a man battling with his memories and journeying through an underworld that is, to a large extent, his own nightmarish creation.
What I particularly like about this novel (and appreciate about Cauliay's investment in it) is that it takes risks. It is abstract, experimental and entertaining. So don't get hung up on understanding every single detail, but kick back and enjoy the helter-skelter ride yourself.