In MOBIUS DICK, physicist John Ringer, receives a mysterious text message that triggers an investigation into the development of new mobile phone technology in a research facility outside a remote Scottish village. Already the world is becoming a very different place: amnesia, telepathy, false memory and inexplicable coincidences all seem to be occurring more frequently with humorous, brain teasing results. Could quantum experiments have caused the collapse of our universe’s space-time continuum? Could the multi layered text we are reading come from another world altogether?
Why am I only now finding out about Andrew Crumey? For months I’ve been hearing praise about his new novel, The Secret Knowledge, and like J Robert Lennon, another author whose only just popped up in my literary crosshairs, I feel like I’ve missed out on something special.
In rectifying that I went and purchased Crumey’s 2004 novel Mobius Dick. There’s a quote on the front cover from Time Out (John O’Connell) that says:
It would be nice to think that this magnificent piece of work stood a chance of winning the Booker. It’s certainly my novel of the year.
It didn’t get nominated for the Booker. But nine years a later, in a massive twist of no particular importance, a book about quantum mechanics, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for The Time Being, did get a Booker nod. I’ve read both. If I had to collapse a wave function I’d say that the Ozeki is the slightly better book. They’re both very similar dealing with two separate, quantumly diverse narratives that entangle at the end – but in terms of character work – also known as the ability to cruelly manipulate tears from Ian Mond’s eyes – the Ozeki wins. I’ll discuss the Ozeki some other time, maybe even on a certain podcast.
Mobius Dick is the sort of book that will annoy some genre fans who will see it as someone from the outside (AKA literature) trying to get their hands dirty with a bit of genre. It’s the sort of criticism that notes the thinness of the plot, the amount of gratuitous sex, and then ends by saying that for those people serious about science fiction, there’s nothing new to be found here.
Crumey. of course, is fully aware of the genre antecedents. There’s a Man In The High Castle vibe to the book evidenced by Harry Dick, an amnesiac suffering Anomalous Memory Disorder (that is he remembers a past that never existed) and excerpts from Heinrich Behring’s Professor Faust. Proving to be the best parts of the novel, Behring’s novel at first seems like factual account of Schrodinger’s discovery of wave mechanics during his stay at Arosa in 1926. But we later find out [spoiler] that Behring’s book is a fiction, an alternative of what might have happened. As he says in his ‘afterword’:
The world I describe in Professor Faust – with its altered past and imaginary future – is quite deliberately one that could not possibly exist. Who could believe such a thing as a female Prime Minister of Britain, or a movie actor elected President of the United States? It would be difficult to be more evidently ironic without lapsing into farce.
So yes it’s all been done before. There’s nothing new to see here. And yet Crumey’s take on parallel worlds and quantum mechanics overflows with the passion of someone who has a PHD in theoretical physics. This isn’t someone borrowing genre tropes for his literary novel about quantum mechanics, rather this is someone who’s having a great deal of fun with the what if’s posed by the many worlds view of physics.
And if you don’t entirely catch on to all the literary references – ranging from Melville (of course) to Jung to Schumann – or the fact that Professor Faust and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain are very alike – then that’s OK The James Bondian storyline involving physicist John Ringer and his frightening discovery of what’s going at a hush, hush secret facility in remote Scotland keeps the pages turning.
But those sections, as exciting as they are, are the least interesting parts of the novel. It’s clear that for Crumey that the heart and soul of the book is his passion for smart people and brilliant ideas, intermingled with the subversive idea that there’s a thin quantum line between what is and what could have been.
I’ll certainly be reading more books by Andrew Crumey, and next on my list will be The Secret Knowledge.