The Great Chain of Unbeing
Adam Roberts. Literary Review. March 2018
Andrew Crumey's new book is a quasi- novel built out of connected short stories. It's something for which we English have no specific term, but for which German critics have probably coined an impressively resonant piece of nomenclature (Kurzgeschichtenverkettung, maybe?). It's as good an example of the form as I know.
Crumey, who has a PhD in theoretical physics, understands that the foundations of reality are not solid building blocks logically assembled but weird juxtapositions, spooky entanglements and counterintuitive unsuccessive causes and effects. His literary imagination blends science-fictional, magic-realist and mundane-realist elements in equal measure, not from caprice but because on the most fundamental level that's how he thinks the universe is most accurately represented.
It's an approach that has resulted in an extraordinarily inventive, intellectual and engaging series of novels. These, though, have proved too uncategorisable to win Crumey the esteem he very patently merits. Mobius Dick (2004), perhaps his best novel, is set in that dependable science fiction standby, a Britain in which the Nazis have invaded the country, but if it was too science fictional to win any major literary awards, it was also too evasive of easy apprehension to win over the science fiction community.
Many readers want the story atoms of their fiction to thwack together as solidly and predictably as billiard balls. Crumey builds his story worlds out of uncertainties and probabilities. It's not a mere fog of unknowing: Crumey creates believable characters you care about and knows how to sequence a plot to keep you reading. Moreover, he's often laugh-aloud funny. But he teases his readers with the sense that what is is far stranger than our common sense suspects, and that this strangeness seeps into our sensible world by a kind of capillary action.
In this regard The Great Chain of Unbeing is classic Crumey: a composite novel constructed from odd but resonant juxtapositions. The opening story, 'The Unbeginning', concerns John, an academic cosmologist, blind since birth, chatting with a new helper about his life. During this talk John mentions an old university friend called Roy Jones, who 'went on to do a PhD in tribology'. Whatever, the narrator wonders, happened to Jones? The second story tells us: Jones is now an internationally respected tribology expert attending an academic conference on the science and technology of industrial friction and lubrication. A mix-up at Moscow airport means he has been taken to completely the wrong academic conference, something he realises only as he stands before his audience to deliver his keynote speech. It's a comic episode worthy of Michael Frayn: Jones's audience think he's Nick Jones, the celebrated experimental writer ('as Richard Sand has put it, Jones contests the territory between being and non-being'). The third chapter moves on to Sand himself - a James Wood-style critic, author of Imitations: Essays on Style and Substance.
Just when you think the sequence will embody this tag-a-minor-characterpick-up-their-story-in-the-next-one pattern, Crumey complicates things. The connections become oblique. Later sections jump from Marco Polo discovering how the Chinese make silk to a ten-year-old called Carl Czerny getting piano lessons from Beethoven ('stocky, strong looking, with the snub nose of a fighter' and 'wads of cotton, steeped in yellowish fluid' sticking out of his ears). 'The Assumption', the longest story by some margin, relates the peripatetic experiences of Anna Fisher visiting her ornery, alcoholic dad at his holiday home on a Greek island. In the second half of the collection, the mode becomes more surreal. A postman goes to extreme lengths to 'perfect' the delivery of his letters. Professor Cimex, 'a large insect of the sub-order Heteroptera', lectures students on segmentation. A massive array of tunnels is excavated under Scotland. A bizarre 'wordcamera' is invented. A space trawler fishes for 'exoplankton'. The adventures of Harry Blue, 'freelance philosopher', are related, wittily, in the manner of Raymond Chandler.
In an obvious way, all this is 'about' fiction. Stories construe things that aren't ('unbeing') rather than things that really are, and Crumey offers an impressively diverse and inventive set of variations on the different ways stories imagine un-people and non-events. Out of this raw material he makes an Escher-esque fractured whole.
Intricacy is not the same thing as complexity, in life or in art. Very simple art can be profound and exhaustless, and very fiddly, busy art can be banal. But Crumey manages to make his intricacy marvellous. As carefully constructed as a Book of Kells marginal design, this novel avoids the chill that might have attached to such a virtuosic technical exercise, in part because it is often very funny and because it has real heart. The Great Chain of Unbeing is unboring, unusual and quite brilliant.
Alison Bell. Scottish Review of Books. June 17, 2019
Andrew Crumey's latest publication raises eyebrows from the outset. What is it? Definitely not a novel. A collection of short stories? Hang on. There's a direct link between the first two stories, then further in we pick up a few more throw-away names which recur and are somewhat but not entirely elucidated later on, so maybe it's a story-cycle? Crumey has us on heckle pins and we've hardly got going. We're intrigued, internet-checking constantly. Questions, questions. Brand of gun or composer - well, both. Fictional or historical character - maybe we don't need to know.
The Great Chain of Unbeing is a book of ten chapters, some comprising several shorter, distinct stories. As the title implies, there are connections between the stories, some of them overt while many of them are more subtly linked. Crumey has the perfect pedigree for what turns out to be something of a genre-romp through historical fiction, sci-fi, dark comedy and Brooklyn-twang McCarthy era spy thriller. He's a scientist by training, as well as the author of seven novels, one of which reached the Man Booker longlist. He has a degree in theoretical physics and is a convincing creator of worlds, a digger-up of arcane subjects. He understands nuclear fission, the Big Bang theory, radio waves, the life cycle of the bed bug, and they're all here.
A key to his focus in The Great Chain of Unbeing is to be found in The Burrows, an account with real authenticity of a subterranean Scotland discovered and enlarged for domestic and commercial use . 'What mattered,' he says, 'was its emptiness, its ability to be entered and imagined.' Crumey's characters debate reality and mirage, consider where they merge or clash. He creates spaces and invites the reader to step inside and explore, to make of it what we will. His humour, too, is allusive, diversionary. In the darkly hilarious The Contract we're apparently introduced to a contract killer, but he turns out to be a paranoid concert pianist. The plates spin deftly, the character remains both monster and musician. Can we choose which to believe? Will it matter?
Time and again a word, a name, will flicker in our peripheral vision so we turn and head down the wrong route altogether, obsessively trying to work out, say, whether the Dorothy of 'Tribology' is the same Dorothy as in 'Radio Daze.' This one may indeed be a blind alley. After all, some elements of this book have appeared previously in different publications and it is surely permissible to use the same name twice. And yet Dorothy is such a particular name, and Crumey does enjoy provocative signposting. One has to ask the question.
The story which commands the least interest is Assumption, a novella-length tale of a flawed character whose life is in crisis and who through a series of well-developed episodes comes to a mildly schmalzy conclusion about where next. (This is the only story with a woman as principal protagonist - by contrast, he does the embittered man exceedingly well).
But this is against a high bar. He's taught us to expect the unfeasible, the unreasonable. He's set us up with the exquisite suppleness of Silk, still and quiet as a miniaturist portrait, the mesmeric absorption of The Post Artist with its killer aphorism to finish, the crass, farting-ejaculating boisterousness of sci-fi fantasy Impossible Tales:2.
It's clever stuff, ingenious, occasionally baffling and deeply satisfying. This book is a game, and by the end I got the rules.
I think I got the rules.
Jack Deighton. Interzone 275. May-Jun 2018.
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.
Stuart Kelly. The Scotsman. 28 February 2019
Full disclosure: I know Andrew Crumey. Given he was my predecessor as literary editor of this paper, it would be rather surprising if I did not. But there are two things to bear in mind. I had read Crumey's work before I met him, and I still maintain he is an underappreciated Scottish writer. When I first read his work " it was, as I recall Pfitz " it struck me as astonishing that someone more aligned with the work of Borges, Calvino and Diderot was being overlooked in favour of the poverty porn of some writers I could name.
This is Crumey's first short story collection, after seven novels. It is a delightful introduction to his singularly riddling work - and in Crumeyesque style it is an intermezzo that doubles as an overture. For those, like me, who have read all his work it is a joy to see familiar themes and beats and characters in an askance way. For a reader who has not experienced his work, it is a self-contained introduction to the oeuvre and his mythos.
It is in some ways a novel masquerading as a short story collection. The first story, about a man whose blindness may have been caused by his father's exposure to radiation during nuclear testing, is both witty and informative - Crumey having been a physicist before becoming a novelist. But at the end of the story, the narrator, who has mentioned an esoteric disciple called Tribology, and who describes, though sightless, a photograph of his university chum Roy Jones, ponders, "I wonder whatever happened to Roy Jones?"
The next story, entitled "Tribology" begins with Roy Jones arriving in Moscow Airport, to give a paper on "mixed-phase lubricants" and inadvertently (or not) being taken to a different conference about philosophy, having been mistaken for another Mr or Dr Jones.
The links begin to proliferate. In some ways Crumey was one of the earliest writers to realise that the internet idea of "links" might be replicated in prose. Across the collection darts the sinister figure of Richard Sand, who appears in multiple stories in different guises; other memes include Beethoven and a planet in the orbit of the "anomalous binary Korr-Helgason 45C", the idea of duplicates, the Marxist thinker and musical snob (I mean that in an approving way) Theodor Adorno and the inevitable reference to the mysterious Rosier - whose Encyclopaedia once disproved the existence of the universe.
This subtle stitching is reminiscent of previous works by Crumey. D'Alembert's Principle was a triptych of stories where things interlinked. Both Mobius Dick and Sputnik Caledonia were again tripartite novellas that by winking between the stories became novels. It is a typically deft touch here that the third story is called "Introduction" and that it opens with "The Unbeginning" and closes with "The Unending".
For a reader who is new to his work, the thing which stands out - more than the quantum physics and philosophical paradoxes - is how funny a writer Crumey is. Two pieces are particularly good. In "Between The Tones" we meet Conroy, a concert pianist who narrates his life in the style of a Raymond Chandler hard-man, and who seems more than apt at making mistakes about conspiracies he fears around him. Also, it seems he is playing music that does not exist. It has, if there is such a thing, a tiny manifesto when Conroy says, "Punk doesn't seem to get the irony. That's the thing about irony: you can always count on idiots not getting it."
The other notable piece for comedy is "Fragments Of Sand", a sextet of stories featuring an insect professor that nods at Kafka, a man who perfects the art of being a postman, an underworld Scotland and a globally warmed Scotland (now a kind of gap-year paradise), a little Roald Dahl tale of the unexpected and a piece about "word cameras" that, as they become more accurate, put novelists out of business and lead to a "Campaign for Real Literature".
In another of the puzzle-box combinations, Crumey sardonically takes on sci-fi. In "Impossible Tales", some sections feature future slang. I still don't really know the meaning of korfl, Osbobulb, ronked, janking (I think I do know what that one means), rimp or vert. It is not an easy proposition to make up new words that the reader can infer a meaning into, without it seeming somehow rococo, but he gets away with it. And it makes you snigger.
Although there is both wit and insight in this collection, there is an undertow of melancholy. It circles around human failings even in alien circumstances. The longest piece, "The Assumption" has the queasy ennui of Thomas Mann's Death In Venice. There is a sense of desperate repetition: the same tribulations, the same deceits, the same prevarications. If, as in Crumey's horrific thought experiments, everything happens again and again and again, then it is at least a consolation that I shall read this again and again and again.