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Andrew Crumey


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

I started this book with a good deal of optimism, having read a number of enthusiastic reviews, but I was rather disappointed. It is certainly highly ambitious and intelligent and in places amusing, but it didn't always maintain my attention. In part, I think, this is because it is too self-consciously subtle and allusive and has too many switches of narrative and viewpoint. The result was that I didn't care much about any of the characters and consequently couldn't always be bothered to try to work out what was happening to them.

The beginning of the book is deceptively simple. A university physics lecturer, John Ringer (a punning name, no doubt), receives a text message purporting to be sent by a former lover called Helen. More such messages arrive later and Ringer attempts to find out who is sending them. His quest takes him to the Scottish Highlands, where he discovers that a former student of his is working at a secret establishment and helping to construct a machine that will alter the nature of reality. (Crumey, we are told, has a Ph.D in theoretical physics so no doubt we can take all this as at least plausible scientifically).

Before long, in fact, it becomes evident that we are caught up in a complicated, and probably incomprehensible, maze of parallel universes where nothing is what it seems. Ringer's story is interspersed with chapters narrating fictional episodes in the lives of the composer Robert Schumann and the physicist Erwin Schrödinger. These are said to have been written by one Heinrich Behring and translated by Celia Carter (a reference to Angela Carter?) under the British Democratic Republic in the 1940s and 1950s. Ringer, meanwhile, meets a woman who may or may not be Helen and morphs (or possibly doesn't) into Harry, who is a patient in a strange kind of hospital.

The underlying presupposition of the book seems to be that the reality-altering machine has actually been built and is operating.

What would such a world be like? It would be hell—an irrational place where everything becomes true and hence meaningless; a place where no possibility, however monstruous, is denied.
Ringer and Helen, or the pseudo-Helen, set out to destroy the machine, but predictably it is not clear whether or not they succeed. And the final chapter is a postscript by Heinrich Behring, implying that the whole thing is a fiction (but this is itself written in a parallel universe).

This is undoubtedly a very clever novel—perhaps too clever? I was reminded of Russell Hoban's The Medusa Frequency and the "fictions" of Jorge Luis Borges. Both of these writers, however, seem to me to be more successful than Crumey, though in different ways. In Hoban's case he has an imaginative involvement with his characters that I find to be lacking in Crumey. Borges, in contrast, hardly has any characters or narrative at all in the ordinary sense, but this does not matter because he always kept his length short and never attempted a full-length novel, so the lack of human interest does not have time to become important. Something more than intellectual ingenuity is needed to keep the reader imaginatively engaged over 300 pages. To enjoy Mobius Dick fully you probably need the mentality of a crossword puzzle solver. I am not convinced that fiction can really work well at this level of intellectual complexity.

6 October 2004

%T Mobius Dick
%A Crumey, Andrew
%I Picador
%C London
%D 2004
%G ISBN 0-330-41991-9
%P 312 pp
%K fiction

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