by Andrew Crumey
When I was a kid I wanted to go into space, there was only one type of Lego I wanted (the mostly grey kind), and above all else I wanted an X-wing fighter from Star Wars. So I can totally relate to Robbie Coyle, a 12 year old boy growing up in 1970's Scotland, who has a similar yearning for the cosmos in Andrew Crumey's latest novel. The cupboard under the sink is his space capsule and the radiogram in his room is his
'mission control centre, its every city a planet, and simply by pressing one of the waveband buttons he could transport himself across the galaxy at the speed of light.'
This vivid imagination causes Robbie to go on wild flights of fancy whilst the real world carries on around him. It is a charming portrait of boyhood coupling his childish fantasies with the genuine learning from library books on relativity and the constant lessons from his didactic father. Mr Coyle's instruction is steeped in his Socialism, even Aristotle gets it in the neck for believing everything in the world has its place, 'that's rubbish...We're all equal, Robbie; you and me, we're as good as anybody'. Needless to say he longs for the revolution.
And in a way he gets it. The second part of the book is set in an alternative British Democratic Republic. Allied with Russia after the war Britain developed its nuclear deterrent at The Installation, a military compound and community which has a dystopian feel you might expect from J G Ballard. Here, Robbie Coyle has become Robert Coyle, a 19 year old soldier who has volunteered for a mission. Dr Kaupff, father of the Bomb, who has an unorthodox approach combining science with literature, is heading a mission to a 'frozen star' or black hole which is heading towards Earth. This middle section is filled with politics, paranoia, sex and power. Coyle is a guinea pig in a game he doesn't understand as he is told by Kaupff's sexualised assistant,
'You're dead already. As soon as you passed the perimeter fence, as soon as you entered the Installation, that's when your life ended. Because this place is hell, and you're never getting out of it.'
It is Kaupff who expresses the books central theme.
'Everything in the universe both determines and is determined by everything else. Everything is connected. To understand the part we must perceive the whole.'
For there is a third part to this novel. We are back in the more recognisable Kenzie of the first section but 25 years later. Mr Coyle's main obsession now is the price he has to pay for the parsley he makes into a drink each day (you'll have to read it for that to make any more sense). But he is also a man deeply affected by the death of his son Robbie aged 19. I won't go into any more detail but suffice to say that Crumey brilliantly links the three sections; character names are repeated, themes are continued and echoes of speech can be picked up through the static. If you're looking for resolution you may be disappointed and despite the heavy sounding themes of relativity, quantum gravity, multiple universes and psychic space travel this isn't quite the brain burning workout I expected. In fact the books strengths actually lie in the far more down to earth realms of childhood exuberance and the touching decline of a man who misses his son.