Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

"Mobius Dick" by Andrew Crumey (Picador, 2004)

Some major names have come out in favour of this. I'm comfortable with SF and metafiction, and the author has a Ph.D in theoretical physics! So I was hopeful. Three threads soon open up

  • John Ringer, a science lecturer, speculates on coincidence and remembers courting Helen
  • Frau von Arnim visits Schumann in a clinic, the text "From The Angel Returns, by Heinrich Behring, English translation by Celia Carter, Cromwell Press, British Democratic Republic, 1949)
  • Mr Dick wakes in a hospital bed, allegedly suffering from AMD (Anomalous Memory Disorder) having crossed a road holding a book.

I soon realised that the book dealt with alternative histories, unreliable narrators, and/or multiple worlds. The complexity of the plot and inter-relatedness of the threads perhaps requires that the style of each thread (and characters therein) become simplified. Christopher Nolan's "Inception" and "Memento" both have enfolded structures but remain stylish. "The Da Vinci Code" may not have panache or empathetic characters, but it rattles along, making connections. I wasn't so convinced by this novel. Here are 3 reasons why -

  • He wasn't going to put up with this. 'If all the tests are negative, then how can you conclude I'm positive?'
    'Didn't you do maths at school? Two negatives make a positive - everyone knows that
    (p.59). Would a doctor - even a misremembered or fantasy one - say that latter sentence?
  • The minister spoke with the air of one who knows all, and worries only about whom he shares it with.
    'Have you seen the kirk?' he said, changing the subject.
    (p.129). That "air" is very telly, and is "changing the subject" needed?
  • 'have you been feeling depressed recently?'
    'I can't remember.'
    'Hmmm,' said Dr Blake, 'I suppose not. But would you like to take a guess? Had you begun writing poetry, perhaps?'
    (p.60). A cheap joke. Fair enough, but I couldn't understand who was being cheap, or why.

I found the style off-putting - there are long, apparently non-ironic SF infodumps, and the novel shoots itself in the foot when it points out that a universe where anything can happen risks becoming meaningless. I found the "From Professor Faust" chapter (p.187-255) particularly hard to get through. Twice I nearly gave up.

There's humour - "To be lost in a village as small as Ardnanish would require the navigational ineptitude of a shopping trolley" (p.130) - and I liked the passage beginning on p.157 about pains outside the body (the best page of the book). I liked the analogy on p.182 - "What we call white is really a mixture of every possible colour. A prism bends each wavelength by a different amount, splitting them up ... Like light, matter is associated with waves. Their mixture is not one of colours, but of possibilities ... Thinks of the quantum wave function as being like white light containing every possibility ... The mirrors of the vacuum array ... might make us all ... technicolour". I liked some of the sections where a narrator's fix on reality dissolves. But surely, surely it's not prize-winning material.

Other reviews

  • Nicholas Lezard (The Guardian) (Crumey is the kind of novelist who does a nice line in metafictions ... The only flaw in the book is the title, but even that is necessary.)
  • summary of reviews
    • "I loved it! Just exhilarating!" - Fay Weldon
    • "It would be nice to think that this magnificent piece of work stood a chance of winning the Booker. It is certainly my novel of the year." - John O'Connell in Time Out
    • "a fascinating and vertiginously entertaining novel." - Sean O'Brien
    • "Andrew Crumey's work has been highly praised and not widely enough read for too long. In all the possible futures that exist for this intelligent, witty and accomplished writer, a wider readership should be more than just a matter of chance." - James Wood in The London Magazine
    • "It's an absolute sin that this book didn't win last year's Man Booker Prize" - Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski in The Independent on Sunday
  • Natasha Tripney (Ready, Steady, Book) (an intriguing mix of mystery, philosophical thriller and quantum theory ... Only occasionally do you feel he is flagging a particular plot device rather too prominently in order to make certain his cleverness has not been overlooked.)
  • Mondy boy
  • Clemency Burton-Hill (Observer) (Crumey is a talented writer and a major brain, but he will need to turn his hand to something non-scientific soon in order to prove he can transcend science faction)

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