Archives » Mobius Dick

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Andrew Crumey

Again the books for Judith’s Bookshelf Travelling meme now overseen by Katrina are on my shelf of Scottish books.

Eight idiosyncratic novels by Andrew Crumey.

Books by Andrew Crumey

I have read all of these since I started my blog and hence reviewed them all over the years. You’ll find them listed below in order of reading, with links to the reviews.

Though not all of his fiction deals with the subject, his background in theoretical physics colours some of the books. One of his accomplishments is that he has managed to illustrate quantum mechanical concepts in fictional form – and without sacrificing comprehensibility. His interest in historical figures and mathematics also permeates his work and he is aware, too, of the hinterland of Scottish literature. There’s not a dud here.

Mobius Dick
Sputnik Caledonia
Music, In a Foreign Language
D’Alembert’s Principle
Mr Mee
The Secret Knowledge
The Great Chain of Unbeing

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.

free hit counter script