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Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2000, 344 p.

Mr Mee cover

Mr Mee bears several Crumey hallmarks; explanations of concepts from Physics (and, in this case, probability) in literary form, characters from the 18th century, ruminations on literature and philosophy. The narrative is triple stranded: that of Mr Mee himself, in the form of the eighty six year old’s letters to an old friend; the adventures of two Frenchmen, “the Gossips,” Ferrand and Minard, who meet Jean-Jacques Rousseau and precipitate his flight from France; and the meanderings of academic Dr Petrie whose main research interest is those same two Frenchmen. The epilogue introduces a fourth narrator who once installed a Théâtrophone in the bedridden Marcel Proust’s apartment. It casts further light on the preceding stories and has the potential to alter the reader’s perceptions of them, though is perhaps a little too eager to drop in literary allusions.

The unworldly Mr Mee, stuck in his ways and almost drowning in a sea of books, is prompted by his housekeeper, Mrs B, to discover that the worlds of literature and philosophy are available through the less space consuming medium of the PC and the internet. What he finds there intrigues him – and shocks Mrs B into leaving abruptly. His old fashioned attitudes to modern life and his misunderstandings are a source of light humour (“those nice folk at Dixons,” the joys of live video links – a bus stop in Aberdeen and a naked girl reading a book which is of course Dr Petrie’s on Ferrand and Minard, the “sensational and sentimental” fare that passes for Scottish literature in a modern bookshop) unusual in Crumey’s work. His encounter with practical and capable life scientist student Catriona leads the unmarried (and sexual ingénu) Mr Mee to new experiences.

Ferrand and Minard are copyists, whose latest project regarding a new understanding of how the world works is stolen from their flat and whose downstairs neighbour has been murdered. Fearing the blame for the killing they flee to Montmorency, come under the protection of a Bishop Bertier and end up living next door to Rousseau who is said to think the world would be a much better place without books.

Dr Petrie has been captivated by the sexual possibilities involved in his tutoring of a mature (twenty four year old) student called Louisa and imagines his disease symptoms are a reflection of his attraction to her. He believes Ferrand and Minard to have been invented by Rousseau whose Confessions he says are as much a fiction as was the novel Émile.

The text contains a lot of literary reference; not just to Rousseau and Proust but to mechanical poetry and the pitfalls of attributing what happens in a novel to autobiography, (“a person called ‘I’ who is not necessarily oneself.”) Other aperçus include, “the moment in which we live, like the self we inhabit, is the one we are least equipped to understand,” “when faced with an unfamiliar situation, we play the part as best we can; and our scripts come to us from many places,” the contention that “all men write for sex,” and the observation that “out of character” simply means unexpectedly. (Compare Allan Massie.)

Mr Mee is a kind of companion piece to D’Alembert’s Principle; some of that books preoccupations reappear – we hear again of D’Alembert and Diderot and their Encyclopédie – and there is a sly reference to the contents of Crumey’s earlier book Pƒitz. Dr Petrie tells Louisa that “Rousseau’s novel, like Proust’s, is intimately concerned with the nature of writing.” So, too, is Crumey’s, an engagement with what a novel is, or can be, the uses to which fiction can be put and an examination of the ways in which texts can be interpreted. While the book can be read solely for the stories contained within it these other aspects for me add value, elevate it beyond the level of just a novel but, curiously in such a well-crafted literary piece of work, we twice had “chord” for “cord,” even if I was also grateful to be introduced to the useful word “anacoluthon” (lack of syntactical agreement of the latter part of a sentence with the former.)

I had some misgivings about the way Mr Mee’s relationship with Catriona develops. She is depicted as being in control throughout (indeed she is by far the more knowing of the two, about modern life as well as in a sexual sense) but still. However, yet again Crumey has written an intriguing novel, well worth anyone’s attention.

Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

Goodbye 2012

I don’t usually do end of year round-ups – mostly because most folk write theirs before Christmas and that offends my sensibilities. The year ends on 31st Dec, not before.
Whatever, I looked through all the fiction books I read this year and found twelve that stood out. In order of reading they were:-

PfITZ by Andrew Crumey
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown
the Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
D’Alembert’s Principle by Andrew Crumey

That’s four by women and eight by men, which is a pretty high strike rate for the distaff side compared to my fiction reading as a whole, 12:45 – is that shockingly low or a reflection of publishing? Four were SF, eight not; though that ratio alters if you count the fantastical – the Lord, the Obreht, the Bulgakov, and the Crumeys which feature stories from a city made up within one of the two. Only the Robertson and the Pamuk lie wholly within the realm of the naturalistic.

I don’t propose to rank the twelve in any way.

D'€™Alembert's Principle by Andrew Crumey

Memory, Reason and Imagination. Dedalus, 1996, 203p.

How to describe this extraordinary book? At one extreme it’€™s a triptych, at the other it’€™s three totally different narratives shoe-horned between one set of covers. The first, D’€™Alembert’s Principle, mixes the confessional with traditional third person and the epistolary to tell the story of Jean le Rond D’€™Alembert, a mathematician who studied the laws of motion and, along with Diderot, edited the Encyclopédie. The second is a Vernesque fantasy, The Cosmography of Magnus Ferguson, a work with echoes in its feel of David Lindsay’€™s A Voyage to Arcturus. The third is called Tales from Rreinnstadt and features the character Pfitz from Crumey’€™s previous novel of that title.

Three different tales, the first a beautiful evocation of D’Alembert’s life and love and whose three types of narration shouldn’€™t work in combination yet somehow do regardless, the second the conjunction of an imaginary travelogue through the then known (18th century) planets of the Solar System and the story of a man who seems to inhabit a sequel to a tale he has been reading about someone with his own name, the third a series of stories within stories within stories told by a character invented by the narrator of another book entirely (a book moreover which exists entirely outwith the covers of the one being read,) all reflecting on each other and on the nature of existence. Not for nothing is the sub-title of the overall D’€™Alembert’€™s Principle, Memory, Reason and Imagination. Yet reading it is never a chore, nor difficult. The prose flows as smoothly as anyone could wish.

Crumey manages in his fiction to use scientific concepts as metaphors without these seeming forced and to illustrate quantum mechanical ideas about the nature of reality in novelistic form, expressing them entirely naturally. (Or is it just that, as a scientist myself, these seem unexceptional?)

D’Alembert’€™s Principle is 203 pages of virtuosity and skill. The Introduction by John Clute -€“ which, in case of spoilers, I took care not to read till after the novel itself – describes it as astonishing. Well, only if you have not read other novels by Crumey. This is the fifth of his novels I have read and they are, without exception, excellent.

PfITZ by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 1995, 164p

 PfITZ cover

This novel begins somewhat like a fairy tale, “Two centuries ago a Prince” is pretty close to, “Once upon a time.” However, the characters here do not “live happily ever after” and the philosophical musings the book contains are more elevated than the admonitory morals of the usual fairy tale.

The Prince concerned is keen on designing fantasy cities, so much so that whole armies of people are employed to create on paper the perfect city, Rreinstadt – not just the infrastructure but also the doings of its inhabitants and visitors. (This being in the nature of a fairy tale, where the money for this endeavour comes from is not explained.) The first two chapters, which set the novel up, contain no dialogue but manage to intrigue nonetheless.

Our hero is Schenk, a Cartographer, poring over maps of Rreinstadt, who on an errand one day is smitten by a pretty young Biographer, Estrella. He is also curious about the partly erased entries on one of his maps, that of the hotel room of a visitor to Rreinstadt, one Count Zelneck. He interprets the names concerned as Pfitz and Spontini. To impress Estrella and give him a reason for continuing to visit the Biography section he invents a story for Pfitz and Count Zelneck and writes it for her. His Pfitz – and therefore ours as we can read Pfitz’s adventures in occasional chapters – is an inveterate story teller in a magic realist kind of way. Spontini turns out to be one of the “authors” of books in Rreinstadt’s library (no detail is too small for the chroniclers of the Prince’s city) whose oeuvre is created by a team of writers. Spontini is apparently destined for madness.

So we have tales within tales and characters coming to wonder if they themselves are creations in someone else’s fiction. All very self-referential and post-modern. And, of course, begging a very Science Fictional question as to whether our world is itself a fictional creation or not.

Where the treatment began to unravel for me was that events in the “real” world – that of the Prince’s city planners – its jealousies and murder attempts, started to mirror the “invented” one (which being cause and which effect, a moot point.) This seemed to me to labour the parallels too much.

Had I not previously read Crumey’s Mobius Dick, Sputnik Caledonia and Music, in a Foreign Language I might have been more taken with PƒITZ. It is still a worthwhile novel; it just doesn’t reach the heights those books did.

Music, in a Foreign Language by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 2004, 243p

 Music, in a Foreign Language cover

Not being a straightforward narrative this is a difficult novel to describe. Tenses shift within sections, there are stories within stories, false starts, rewritten chapters, repetitions of scenarios and the narrator is at pains to point out the fictionality of it all, indeed at times it reads more as a disquisition on literary efforts than an attempt at one. Yet, for all these strictures, it was immensely readable.

The tricksiness begins early as the novel starts with Chapter 0, where the narrator is thinking post coital thoughts about two characters who meet on a train and about whom he intends to write a novel. The bulk of Music, in a Foreign Language deals with the back story of one of these, a young man called Duncan, and the events leading up to the death of his father, Robert Waters. Waters and his friend Charles King had at the time been involved in slightly subversive activity in a Soviet style post-war Britain. This was the first appearance of that altered history in which Crumey also set parts of Mobius Dick and Sputnik Caledonia. The compromises such a society demands, the paranoia it engenders – and the betrayals it necessitates – are allowed to emerge organically from the story. Despite the title, music as a motif appears sparingly.

My one minor caveat is that the female characters are not as fully rounded as they might be, but the book’€™s main focus is on the friendship between Waters and King, so perhaps that is understandable.

I was equally as impressed by this, Crumey’€™s debut novel, as I was by both others of his I have read. If you like well written, thoughtful – even playful – novels you could do worse than give Crumey a try.

Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2008. 553 p.

In the first part of the novel a shy boy called Robbie Coyle is growing up in a village called Kenzie in 1960s Scotland with the ambition of going into space. Since his father is an ardent socialist and anti-American Robbie therefore wants to be a cosmonaut. A frequent attender at his local library, he devours knowledge about the Soviet Union and discovers that “Russian is a language where some letters are written back to front and others are completely made up.” Quotes such as this display Crumey’s excellent ability to inhabit the world of a pre-adolescent. As he matures he starts to hear a voice in his head. The section ends with that voice saying, “I guess we’re not in Kenzie any more.”

The story then flips into a scenario of a Soviet-style Britain where a young adult Robert Coyle has been recruited into a space project to reach, before the wicked capitalists do so, what is possibly a black hole travelling through the solar system. The secret “Installation” where Robert is in training is suitably grim, the illustrations of the many compromises people have to make in such a society convincing, though whether dissidents could flourish there is another question. Perhaps this exists in the same British Democratic Republic which featured in the author’s Mobius Dick.

This central section could be considered an Altered History novel where the Jonbar Hinge lies in whether or not a man named Deuchar died while trying to rescue twins from drowning many years before the time the action is set. Yet its juxtaposition with the preceding and following parts, set in the “real” world, argues against this. And Crumey’s treatment of his subject matter does not have the feel of SF. The Soviet section can be read to be implicitly a figment of Robbie’s imagination. The subtlety of the point of divergence also marks this out from SF treatments of Altered Worlds. While Crumey pushes credibility a little by having characters in the central section behave and speak, or have the same names as, those in the book-end segments he does certainly avoid the trap into which Philip Roth fell in The Plot Against America of restoring the altered world to normal by the end.

The coda, a (present day?) exploration of the situation of Robbie’s ageing parents and a young boy who meets a mysterious stranger on a mission (which he is unwilling to explain) provides counterpoint and a resolution of sorts.

Sputnik Caledonia is excellently written and engaging, with convincing characters, but not quite as full of verve as Mobius Dick. I will look out for more Crumey, though.

Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2004, 312p

This book was not marketed as Science Fiction but in any straightforward reading of the term would be so, as it is fiction about Science, specifically quantum mechanics and wave functions. Science Fiction as understood, though, is not generally thought of in this light but rather as extrapolative. However, Mobius Dick fits the bill in this sense also, as its background involves a set of experiments to produce a vacuum array which can generate energies in excess of 1000 Eka-electronvolts which could lead to wave functions not collapsing on being observed and the end of the world as we know it. Fear not if you know nothing about the behaviour of subatomic particles, the necessary details are lucidly set out by Crumey in the appropriate places. (Or did I just find it lucid because I had encountered most of these ideas already? Studied them, even, when a student.)

The narrative is multi-stranded, beginning with an enigmatic text message to a physicist, John Ringer, reminding him of a lost love. Another strand is set in a hospital where patients are being treated for Anomalous Memory Disorder, AMD, a condition in which they appear to have false memories. A third contains extracts from a book by a certain “Heinrich Behring” but which is copyrighted “the British Democratic Republic 1954” and which focuses on Erwin Schrödinger. An Altered History too, then.

It is, as well, a consciously literary endeavour featuring in addition to the above; Bettina von Arnim, the composer Schuman and a letter from an unsuccessful Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne. No surprise it’s not marketed as Science Fiction. The John Ringer sections are Ballardian in tone and when he ventures into rural Scotland also have a tint of the testament of Gideon Mack, which I reviewed recently.

Crumey never pushes the connections between the sections. We are left to ourselves to infer that AMD is a manifestation of superimposed quantum states and the many worlds of uncollapsed wave functions. The characters, on opening doors etc, by and large treat any incursions into or from other worlds as if they are hallucinations, which interpretation is also entirely adequate.

The afterword, also by “Heinrich Behring,” like the sections featuring Schrödinger and Schumann, is written from the perspective of a world where Goebbels replaced Hitler, Britain was invaded but after liberation became a socialist/communist state and neither Melville nor Thomas Mann achieved critical acclaim. “Behring” depicts Schrödinger – who never amounted to much in this altered history – finding his famous (in our world) equation HΨ = EΨ in the scribblings of a madwoman.

What makes Mobius Dick ineluctably Science Fiction (whether it is labelled as such or not) is this looking in at our world, where a woman can become Britain’s PM, an actor President of the US and the many worlds theory is taken seriously, and finding it absurd.

But to label the book at all is to do it an injustice. It hums with ideas and wit, and not a few literary puns.

I haven’t been so impressed by an author new to me for a long time.

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