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The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 2019, 335 p. Reviewed for Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

 The Great Chain of Unbeing cover

In his previous eight novels Crumey has constructed a strange niche for himself from his considerations of music, parallel worlds, imagined universes, the rendering of scientific concepts thought to be abstruse into accessible fictional form, all peopled with credible characters experiencing real human dilemmas. He is not beyond literary playfulness. Here we start with “The Unbeginning”, finish with “The Unending” and “The Introduction” comes as part three.

His latest novel is unconventional even in Crumey’s terms. It’s presented as a series of tales, which at first sight appear to have only the most tenuous of links between them (if any at all) yet on closer examination yield foreshadowings and echoes, subtle resonances – both with themselves and the rest of his oeuvre. We have a scene from the life of a man genetically blind due to his father’s exposure to H-bomb tests, a tale of mistaken identity on the international conference scene, an imagined interview, the thoughts of a lecturer undergoing a CT scan, how silk worms came to Europe, a man suspecting his wife of an affair, a fragment from a life of Beethoven, a young woman visiting her father on a Greek island after an abortion, the consciousness of a concert pianist who comes on like a hit man, the spying activities around the military secret that was early FM radio, a postman’s reminiscences, a lecture given by an insect, the story of The Burrows (a vast tunnelling project the length and breadth of Scotland) and the underground habitat which results, the invention of the word-camera which captures a scene and renders it in text, a woman bumping into someone she thought was dead (so reversing the previous collapse of her wave function,) a philosophical discussion of a Moslowski-Carlson machine to replicate Earth light years away, extracts from a truly awful SF novel inhabiting just that universe, a metaphor about the dangers of seeking fire.

They’re all beautifully written, pitch perfect to the milieux portrayed but also interspersed with a sly humour. “‘Bradley’s a real philosopher, incidentally, by which I mean a dead one,’” and in The Burrows section, “Some international medical authorities insisted that being starved of sunlight would cause long-term health problems but the Scots had been managing like that for centuries and it hadn’t done them any harm,” with ice-cream having a surprisingly prominent presence.

The text comments on itself, “A conventional novel or story collection is a sequence of parts in some predetermined order. We could of course read them any way we like,” and provides “layers of fiction”. Characters note variously a tendency to inconsistency, that imitation is the most fundamental human impulse, “‘We describe everything in terms of its similarity or difference compared to something else.’” That things aren’t what they seem or are described as being different to what they are. There are thoughts on a “past that wasn’t there,” “spurious influences”, “the night she didn’t have, with him instead of Matt. There is only now, she thought. Nothing else has any existence.” The five-second thrill of a life that never happened. The territory between being and non-being. One character says, “‘what neither of us can imagine is a universe without space and time,’” yet elsewhere we have, “‘Time is an appearance not a reality.’”

Despite “the interconnections by which the world is made a coherent whole,” even the most straightforward mainstream passages are saturated with subtle indeterminacies which it would be easy to overlook. Statements like, “‘You concentrate on that object…. visualise it as clearly as you can. Until it becomes no longer itself,’” or, “‘Alfredo Galli wanted to create a matrix of compositional elements through which numerous paths could be conceived, each a possible book with its own multiplicity of readings,’” and “History is an infinite superposition,” but “‘The universe is a circle…. A great chain of living and dying, giving and taking. Every moment is a link.’” “‘There is only one not many. No Difference, only Alike.’” Yet, “all literary style is really a kind of selection, a form of negation,” and “any path through the matrix of narrative possibilities should be a story not only scandalously disjointed but also inherently inconsistent: an appearance betraying its own unreality.”

What we have here is perhaps a literary expression of sonata form – “in the development the tunes get mixed up,” but with something to be discovered between the tones yet nevertheless totally accomplished.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- jack-in-the-boxes (just sounds odd to me. But what is a more sensible plural? Jacks-in-the-box? Jacks-in-boxes? Jacks-in-the-boxes?) “The audience were applauding” (the audience was,) “All the burden of his father’s ambitions were lifted” (the burden was lifted,) liquified (liquefied; liquefy was used earlier,) “Ten Downing Street” (usually 10 Downing Street,) “the way his generation speak” (speaks,) Guttenberg (Gutenberg,) “umbilical chord” (that’s a cord,) “Marks and Spencers” (Marks and Spencer’s,) midgie (there is no such thing; it’s a midge,) CO2 (CO2,) a missing quotation mark at the end of a piece of direct speech.

The Smoke by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2018, 300 p

 The Smoke cover

We start on a space vehicle on which the brother of protagonist Stuart Lanyon is about to take off from Woomera – powered by successive explosions of atom bombs underneath it blasting it into space. This is something of a distraction however, though a signifier of an altered history where Yellowstone erupted in 1874, immolating North America, and a Great War was ended in 1916 after the atomic bombing of Berlin.

The main meat of the story is the ramifications of the discovery of the Gurwitsch ray – biophotonic weak ultraviolet pulses passing from cell to cell in living things, each creature with its own characteristic emissions, orchestrating development, leading to the ability of humanity to sculpt organic forms at will. Hence we are in the age of speciation of mankind. The dead of the Great War battlefields were subjected to Gurwitsch’s ray, producing strange organisms known as chickies which are able to exert sexual allure among other abilities, a technocratic intellectually superior elite called the Bund has arisen in Eastern Europe and dominates world affairs.

The weird aspects of all this are underlined by Ings’s story-telling, part of the novel being narrated in the second person, though the down to Earth sections are more traditional first person and some interludes are in third. Though the background details seem to sit oddly with one another – a thoroughly industrial Yorkshire can feel more like the 1930s, a television series more signifies the early 1960s, parts of London are dominated by ultra-modern architecture – Ings manages to hold them together. The setting is occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia with the merest hint of Ballard thrown in for extra alienation.

At the novel’s heart is the love story between Stuart and Bund citizen Fel, aka Felicine Chernoy, daughter of Georgy, inventor of the Chernoy Process which utilises Gurwitsch’s ray to enable rebirth. Stuart’s mother, dying of cancer, undergoes this treatment and is reconstituted as an infant. A curious phenomenon to behold, this, a child with an adult’s memories, behaving in unchild-like ways – and subject to unthinking prejudice. Stuart and Fel’s different backgrounds lend their affair the attributes of all star-crossed lover stories.

The characters are well drawn but despite their supposedly greater intellects the two members of the Bund shown here – Fel and her father – do not seem significantly different from humans as we know them. Stuart does though in his narration refer to his father as Bob and mother as Betty, which is a touch unusual.

Ings’s vision here is a particular one, at once curiously fantastic and yet also recognisable, a flight of fancy (several flights if you like) but utterly grounded.in human emotions. The Smoke goes to show that Science Fiction continues to produce work of which those detractors who dismiss it without ever sampling it assume it to be incapable.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Bund” is treated as plural throughout, but ought to be singular, “And since no one wants to meet each other’s eye, it makes logical sense that the entire audience repair en masse to the bar” (others’ I think, plus make that no-one, and, the entire audience repairs,) Lutyens’ (Lutyens’s,) potshard (potsherd, please,) Picasso is referred to as a Parisian artist (he was Spanish, but this is an altered history,) “the family were meant to cheer Jim off to Woomera” (the family was meant to,) “it would be the most natural thing in the world for me to stove this thing’s head in” (the verb is to stave in, stove is the past tense form.) “The odds against there being no set now increases” (the odds …. increase.) “‘According your friend’” (According to your friend,) “till it run out of” (runs out,) a parenthetical sentence not started with a capital letter as it ought to have been, “for goodness’ sake” (this ought to be written “goodness’s” even if it’s pronounced “goodness”.)

Reading Scotland 2018

The ones in bold are in the 100 Best Scottish Books list.

I’ve read 33 Scottish (in the broadest sense) books in 2018, 7 SF or Fantasy (italicised,) 13 by women, 20 by men. E M Brown (aka Eric Brown) qualifies by having a small part of Buying Time set in Scotland and by living near Dunbar for the past few years.

I’ve not a good balance this year between men and women, mainly due to exhausting the women on the 100 Best list.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid
Living Nowhere by John Burnside
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig
Autumn by Ali Smith
The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey
The Lie of the Land by Michael Russell
As Though We Were Flying by Andrew Geig
Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine
Jericho Sleep Alone by Chaim I Bermant
Hame by Annalena McAfee
The Thirteenth Disciple by J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
The New Road by Neil Munro
Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
Supercute Futures by Martin Milllar
The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre
Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey
Adam Blair by J G Lockhart
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
The Shipbuilders by George Blake
Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel
Serious Sweet by A L Kennedy
Interrupted Journey by James Wilson
The Bone Yard by Paul Johnston
Buying Time by E M Brown

Interzone 275

The latest issue (no 275) of Interzone has arrived (cover image centre below.)

 Fifty-One cover
 The Great Chain of Unbeing cover

Interzone 275 cover

This one contains my reviews of The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey and of Fifty-One by Chris Barnham.

Latest Review

You may have noticed in my side-bar that I am now reading Fifty-One by Chris Barnham.

 Fifty-One cover

I bumped into the author at Follycon and vaguely remembered his book was on a list for review from Interzone a few months back.

Not knowing whether it had been sent to anyone else I blagged a review copy anyway with the promise of trying to get it into Interzone or else posting about it here.

IZ hadn’t sent it out so I’ve got the gig. The review might even be in the next issue (275) along with Andrew Crumey’s The Great Chain of Unbeing.

It’s a time travel story.

The cover (okay it has a doodlebug, but….) totally misrepresents the contents by the way.

Latest Review

The Great Chain of Unbeing cover

Interzone has sent me Andrew Crumey’s latest novel, The Great Chain of Unbeing, for review. Review to appear in Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

Not the most prepossessing of covers, but I shan’t judge it on that.

Crumey has been one of my favourite authors since I first read Mobius Dick in 2010. Not one of his books has so far proved a disappointment. Let’s hope The Great Chain of Unbeing lives up to the standard he has set for himself.

2016 in Books

The best of what I read this year, in order of reading. 13 by men, 8 by women, 1 non-fiction, 5 SF or fantasy, 12 Scottish:-

Ancient Light by John Banville
The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey
Clara by Janice Galloway
A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst
The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
This Census Taker by China Miéville
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky
Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
Among Others by Jo Walton

The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 2013, 234 p.

The Secret Knowledge cover

In The Secret Knowledge Andrew Crumey has done something out of the ordinary. He has illustrated a corollary of the Schrödinger’s cat scenario – the possibility of multiple worlds – in a piece of fiction written in realistic terms. His characters discuss the possibilities but in the text it is never really spelled out that different scenes take place in different worlds. We must infer it from the narrative. Utilising the concepts of quantum physics in a literary form has always been one of Crumey’s concerns, though, and here he also returns to another of his familiar themes, music.

The chapters alternate between the historical and the present day starting in Paris in 1913 where composer Pierre Klauer has just completed a piano piece (entitled Le Savoir Secret, hence – in part – our novel’s title,) has also just proposed to his girlfriend Yvette but kills himself (off-stage) moments later. In our time, Paige, a student of piano, has just been assigned the tutelage of part-time concert performer David Conroy after giving up a course in English because she loves music more. Conroy gives to her to play a manuscript that has just come into his possession. A manuscript written by an unknown French composer and entitled The Secret Knowledge.

We then go back to 1919 just prior to the “Battle of George Square” in Glasgow where a newly arrived young French man befriends socialist John Quinn outside an Engineering Works. The Frenchman stirs up a meeting and is of course named Pierre Klauer. So. Did Klauer actually die in 1913, or not? (According to one Schrödinger outcome it can be both – or neither.) There follows a narrative which skips between the doings of Conroy and Paige, Yvette (who marries Klauer’s friend Louis Carreau) – to 1924 where Theodor Adorno meets a man who introduces himself as Klauer, Spain in 1940 where Carreau – who had stolen Klauer’s manuscript for Yvette has an encounter with the philosopher Walter Benjamin who then kills himself in the belief he will be returned to France and the Nazis, 1941 where Adorno meets Hannah Arendt. During these the same scene may be returned to but is shown to be subtly different.

But as Conroy says, “Art is always inconsistent,” and, “Truth is not something we discover consciously; it discovers us.” He also muses on his disappeared wife, “It’s only when they surprise you that you find out your ignorance. We expect continuity, not paradox.” About a part of Le Savoir Secret he feels, “this section is the dream of how things might otherwise have been, a path denied.”

In a passage which could be all about the writer’s art we have, “‘A performer knows all about the tricks of persuasion. Yes, the game was rigged, you were always meant to lose, but go on, take a card, see what you get.’” One of the characters conceives a future project, “a book of fragments, epigrammatic, or even surreal in character, apparent irrelevancies serving to create new, unintended meaning,” a book which, presumably, Crumey intended us to be reading in The Secret Knowledge.

Other notable pieces of dialogue include, “Lenin has” (succeeded) “in Russia. Make everyone think it’s a popular revolution when really it’s a coup: that’s genius.” Mention is made too of Louis Auguste Blanqui and the Mechanical Turk – which has seemed to crop up a lot recently in the books I have read.

Not the simplest of narratives then but immensely readable just the same. The actual secret of Klauer’s manuscript is not quite the tremendous revelation we might have hoped for though. Crumey here hasn’t quite achieved the heights he did in previous novels but The Secret Knowledge is still a remarkable rendering of quantum physics in the form of an accessible piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- “he no longer tours, or records” (nor records,) Louis’ (Louis’s,) “the roll of a dice” (one of them is a die.) “The family she saw are gliding over the top” (the family is gliding.) Crumey is a serial offender here – “the family were” (the family was,) “around its upper balcony stand a crowd” (stands a crowd,) “a young couple huddle in one corner” (a couple huddles.)

Read Scotland 2014 Overview

Twelve months gone and 29 books “Scottish” books read. (Or 30 if The Member and The Radical count as two; then again perhaps only 27 if A Scots Quair is treated as a single book.) That’s 2½ per month, give or take. And, if you discount the exceptions already mentioned, not a repeat author in the list.

2 were non-fiction; 4 outright SF/Fantasy; 18 were written by men (20 if the trilogy is separated) and 9 by women. (That gender disparity is lessened by 50% if you consider only authors still alive in 2014, though.)

I’m pleased to have caught up with John Galt and have already bought two more of his novels, delighted to have read A Scots Quair at last, made acquaintance with William Graham, Neil M Gunn, Carole Johnstone, Jackie Kay, Agnes Owens, Muriel Spark and Alan Spence and refound Naomi Mitchison. My main discovery, though, was Andrew Greig whose That Summer is the best book by a writer new to me (Scottish or not) since I first encountered Andrew Crumey.

My review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is still to appear. See later this week, or even tomorrow.

There is apparently a Read Scotland Challenge 2015. I don’t think I’ll make 29 this year. I’ve got a lot of other reading to catch up on.

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

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