Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey
Andrew Crumey’s fifth novel is an intriguing mix of mystery, philosophical thriller and quantum theory. John Ringer, a professor of physics, receives a mysterious text message, Call Me: H triggering a series of events that leads to his discovery of a covert research facility in the Scottish Highlands. This is just one strand of a clever and complex plot that encompasses the madness of Richard Schumann, a disgruntled missive from Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a visit to an Alpine sanatorium by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger. As all this is unfolding a parallel narrative depicts a man waking up in a hospital bed with memories that may not be his own ...
Crumey enjoys playing games with his readers, establishing one story, setting up a certain reality, only to switch to another scene that raises questions about all we have just read. He piles coincidence upon coincidence and toys with ideas of predestination; 19th century views of the universe collide with those of the 21st century. The slippery, elliptical narrative curves and loops, folding in on itself.
Though his prose style is somewhat flat, the novel is rich with historical references and, as Ringer stumbles further into a possibly dangerous situation, Crumey expertly blends science fact with science fiction. He makes liberal use of terms such as "vacuum array", "virtual particles" and "non-collapsible wave functions" without ever alienating those less knowledgeable than himself. Only occasionally do you feel he is flagging a particular plot device rather too prominently in order to make certain his cleverness has not been overlooked. His attempts at comedy are also rather jarringly heavy-handed and a spot of satire at the expense of those with a less scientifically orientated mind (a hippy-drippy writer-in-residence, a university lit-crit lecturer) are poorly executed in comparison.
Inevitably character development takes a backseat to all these narrative flourishes. As it becomes clear he is only one element in a larger cosmic puzzle, it is hard to empathise with Ringer, whether he is pursuing an old flame or unwittingly becoming embroiled in a dubious government experiment. With the exception of a strongly written chapter, narrated by Goethe’s onetime lover, Bettina von Arnim, the women in Mobius Dick do little better; by rendering his female protagonist (literally) everywoman she becomes less than a person, a conceit not a character.
The intertwined narratives and the artful manner in which they are linked sometimes brings to mind the work of David Mitchell, though Crumey’s writing lacks his startling prose, in fact the stylistic shifts are more reminiscent of Paul Broks’ meditation on the mind and the soul, Into the Silent Land. The way neuropsychologist Broks merges theory and observation, fiction and philosophy in such an engaging manner is similar to the way Crumey has crammed his story with information and ideas without it ever feeling overburdened.