Tuesday, 27 May 2008

It's all done with mirrors

Mobius Dick
by Andrew Crumey

Near the beginning of this dizzying novel Crumey's hero (one of them) has a conversation with a lecturer about coincidences linking various scientists, artists and philosophers. He then knowingly remarks 'No doubt some imaginative novelist could conceive a logical scheme linking everything: Hoffmann, Schumann, Schrödinger, Mann.' Crumey of course then proceeds to do just that, his scheme not so much logical as puckishly magical, combining different worlds, universes and questioning the nature of reality itself. After reading it I found myself, like the Möbius strip itself, starting at the beginning again but with a twist, better placed this time to navigate my way around Crumey's ambitious structure.

We can use as a template a book which appears within this novel several times: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by E T A Hoffman. The composer Johannes Kreisler writes his autobiography but the pages are mistakenly mixed up with the musings of his cat, the pages indeterminately mixed up so that the reader will struggle to know which is which and what is real. Similarly this novel is made up of three strands; the stories of John Ringer, Harry Dick and the writings of Heinrich Behring (who, to add another level to the construct, is writing in Crumey's imagined British Democratic Republic - the result of an alternative ending to the Second World War involving Nazi occupation and a Socialist Republic - which made an appearance in Crumey's recent Sputnik Caledonia) Given that the story deals with the possibility of multiple universes, 'universal mind' and has at least one character who makes an appearance in all three strands this is a beguiling, tour de force of plotting, coincidence and mirrored structure. That Crumey handles all this with such confidence is what makes it such a rewarding read.

The physicist John Ringer receives a text message, 'Call me: H', which he supposes is from his old lover, Helen. Along with the conversation I mentioned above it sets him to thinking of different ways their relationship could have played out, alternate realities if you like, a theme which will return again and again. In Scotland he is due to deliver a talk about the development of the 'vacuum array' a new source of power or super computer capable of wonders but also carrying the danger that it could destroy the universe itself. I'm making it sound a bit trite but in Crumey's hands (he, a theoretical physicist) it is absolutely convincing. Whilst there he meets a woman whom he is sure is Helen but who insists her name is Laura.

Elsewhere a man wakes up in a hospital bed after being knocked down by a car. He is disoriented and Dr Blake informs him he could be suffering from AMD. This 'collection of symptoms' is like a medical catch-22, you may think that when all illnesses have been ruled out you'd be well, but you're not; you have AMD. There are rumours about what may be causing it, the latest mobile phones, perhaps something within the hospital itself. There's even a suggestion from fellow patient Clara that Dr Blake may be conducting an experiment of her own. Crumey brilliant creates the confusion of the amnesiac. Time doesn't seem to flow as it should; a stack of paper left by a writing therapist is suddenly filled with his writing, though he doesn't remember doing it. And the main character in his story: John Ringer.

Add to this the writings of Heinrich Behring; one detailing the visit of Bettina Von Armin to an asylum to visit the composer Robert Schumann, losing his mind, producing page after page of atonal music and haunted by the visits of a spirit woman. In the next we are with Schrödinger as he visits a tuberculosis clinic in the Alps where Dr Hinze is developing his own theories of 'transcendental idealism'. History repeats itself, meaning that past and future can interact, both influencing the other. There is a dark side to the therapies he administers to one patient, Clara, also known as The Invisible Girl and slowly we, the reader, begin to see that she under either of these names or Laura or Helen is the thread which joins these disparate elements.

It is impossible to do justice to the intricacies of the plot, the wide sweep of cultural influences and historical characters, the thrill of having everything you take for granted questioned by a world in which all eventualities are possible (and maybe even at the same time) ; Schrödinger's cat can be both alive and dead even when we open the box. Towards the end of the novel as Crumey goes into technological thriller mode it is like your brain being subjected to ten rounds with Tyson except that rather than biting your ear he's whispering quantum theory into it. That it all holds together at all is a miracle and Crumey saves his best trick for last with an ending which should send you, as it did me, straight back to the beginning again. Stimulating, accessible and above all original I only wish I had ignored a snippy review I read when it was first published and enjoyed the ride earlier.


John Self 28 May 2008 at 08:26  

I think it's Crumey's best book, which may mean subsequent disappointment with his earlier works. However Mr Mee (2000) is similar if not quite to the same standard.

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