Andrew Crumey

D'Alembert's Principle

Boyd Tonkin. New Statesman. April 26 1996.

Channel 4's star-spangled film of Gulliver's Travels irked purists with the Bedlam scenes that framed each voyage. This "was-it all-a-dream?" device betrayed our unease with fables and allegories. Now they tend to find a niche among low-status readers(children)or infra-dig genres(science fiction). Yet satirical parables and fantasies-from Swift himself to Frankenstein, the Alice books and Animal Farmoften strike deeper and last longer than realistic fiction.

The Swift who relished every storyteller's ruse and mocked the pomp of scholarship would have enjoyed the Scottish writer Andrew Crumey. His 1994 novel Music in a Foreign Language used the brilliant conceit of a Britain just emerging from 40 years of polite Stalinism as a platform for some glittering intellectual fireworks. Last year, Pfitz played elegant variations on the postmodern (or maybe just post Perfume) vogue for l8th-century philosophical fiction. In D'Alembert's Principle (Dedalus, 7.99), Crumey returns to the Enlightenment with a triptych of tales that turn on the quarrels between science and art, reason ad imagination.

The title story uses the spurned love of the philosophe Jean D'Alembert (like Crumey, a mathematician) to explore the pitfalls of reductionism. Heartbroken and self-deluded, D'Alembertstill approaches Nature as"some huge problem of calculus"; he seeks to sum up human affairs in "a few lines of algebra". The second narrative invents a Jacobitethinkerwho dreams of a tour around the planets, each of which hosts a conundrum in philosophy. The final, funniest section revisits the city of Rreinstadt,from Pfi. In jail, a beggar and goldsmith swap stories that swallow one another's tails, like a fictional Moebius strip. Growing lighter as it builds, the whole book adds up to a scorching critique of pure Reason. A shame, then, that Crumey gets lost sometimes in the dry abstractions of Enlightened prose. Next time, I'd like to see him try some pure Imagination.

If he did, the outcome might resemble something like Animal Planet (Picador, 14.99). Scott Bradfield's third novel updates the beast fable into a slangy satirical romp. Imagine a hybrid of Kurt Vonnegut, Steve Bell's If... strip and (of course)AnimalFarm, and you have the measure of this parable of revolution betrayed. Charlie the charismatic crow foments the animals' rebellion ("Eatthe rich before they eat you") but ends up as a talk-show celebrity and merchandising opportunity. Busterthe penguin misses his old Antarctic home; Wanda (the gorilla who loves too much) lapses into pro-human false consciousness as a hired help on Park Avenue. Meanwhile, Scaramangusthe wildebeest goes the way of Orwell's Napoleon, from rousing leader to tyrant and slob. Jean-Jacques Rousseau-who upsets Crumey's desiccated D'Alembert-crops up here as patron saint of hippy-dippy liberation ("Kiss the earth, fuck an Indian, marry a tree", snorts one of the animals' pursuers).

Nature versus culture, the transformation of underdogs into top dogs, the voracious appetites of the media and consumerism-Bradfield covers all his bases with a light touch and a ready wit When he targets the usual suspectsPR princesses, corporate fixers, press parasites-the satire sounds a little too facile. Animal Planet truly starts to fly when its fantasy roams over the harassed life of beasts "liberated" into humanworries androutines(Bobo the orang-utan becomes a nightclub hatcheck girl, groped by leering punters). What really bugs the beasts, of course, is the mess and misery contrived by humankind itself. As Charlie inquires: "How could a bunch of hairless bipeds be so smart and act so stupid?"Thatquestion drove Swiftto the brink of derangement. Until we get an answer, fiction's latterday Gullivers will have every reason to go on asking it...

Lucy Atkins. The Guardian (London). May 3, 1996

Crumey doesn't win points on the day job front (he used to be a physics professor) but does produce excellent post-modernist novels, each as concentric and cunning as the others. This is a triptych starting with D'Alembert (a real 18th-century mathematician and encyclopaedist) penning his imagined memoirs. The literary equivalent of an Escher, the story has no identifiable end or beginning. Clever, entertaining, engaging, if strangely familiar.

Alice Thompson. The Scotsman. May 11, 1996

Scientific knowledge allied with the ability to make things up can literature be a winning literary combination, from Moby Dick to The Name of the Rose. And, in Andrew Crumey's latest novel, his post-doctoral research on non-linear dynamics has certainly not gone to waste. His first novel, Music, in a Foreign Language, won the Saltire Best First Book Prize and in D'Alembert's Principle Crumey recreates the disarming combination of science and imagination.

This conjunction of reason and fantasy in Crumey's writing is also its subject. D'Alembert's Principle is subtitled "Memory, Reason and Imagination" and the novel is about the dangers of pursuing scientific inquiry at the expense of the soul.

Sometimes analytical thought just can't see the wood for the trees. Crumey prefers the metaphor of a gigantic astronomical clock: "Viewed from close quarters a the devices which adorn the face are so numerous and intricate that they can no longer be seen to have any meaning at all. It is only from ground level, when one may appreciate the apparatus in its entirety, that a coherent pattern can be discerned. "Of those who have scaled the walls to look closer, only one has found himself able to construct any kind of theory which is not wholly ludicrous, and this merely concerns the workings of a single insignificant component, a rather minor disc which shows the time of day in Jerusalem."

Jean le Rond D'Alembert (1717-1783) constructed the "Systematic Chart of Human Knowledge and Understanding," which attempted to explain the ideas governing an Encyclopaedia he had edited with Denis Diderot. The chart was broken into three categories: Memory, Reason and Imagination. So is Crumey's novel which forms a triptych of the fictional memoirs of D'Alembert (Memory), a philosophical treatise by Magnus Ferguson (Reason) and a Russian doll of a narrative called "Tales from Reinnstadt" (Imagination). This makes for a disjointed but challenging read, for Crumey is experimenting with various forms of fiction: the fiction of history and science, of philosophy and of the imagination.

D'Alembert's fictional memoirs are an expertly structured, moving account. Parts are seen through the eyes of the scientist's servant, Justine, while other sections use his own narrative and a series of letters. It describes his failure to put his theory of perfect equilibrium into personal practice. His life is a tragic story of unrequited love.

"The Cosmography of Magnus Ferguson", in contrast, is a kind of Swiftean satire of various branches of philosophical thought. Ferguson, an exiled Jacobite, dreams of visiting various planets on which extreme theories are lived out - Gulliver's Travels meeting Le Petit Prince. On Mercury, time is not a single stream but an "eternally present ramification of possibilities." On Venus, there is perpetual motion. On Mars, there are two languages, one consisting only of nouns, the other based on linguistic relationships. On Jupiter, numbers are based not on counting but "perception of ratio and proportion." On Saturn, he imagines, "our art and science was a stylisation of instincts, nothing more". In the third triptych we return to earth, and the smell of bread, with a bang.

In his final section, Crumey uses the sensuality of the empirical world. His language becomes more richly descriptive. But Crumey can't resist returning to form. Two prisoners end up telling love stories to each other - not love stories but archetypes of love stories, fiction playing tricks on fact.

D'Alembert's Principle plays gently with the mind, teasing with notions of fact and fiction, seducing with plots that lead nowhere and with ideas that are too big for their boots. It is a prolonged attack on reductive thought, on any one way of seeing the world. Like quantum physics, the novel wants to offer the reader possibilities. It is very post-modern. The book also sets the taste by which it should be judged. Like Crumey's giant astronomical clock, marking time of the universe, his ambitious novel works. It doesn't stop ticking.

Tom Deveson. The Sunday Times (London). June 16, 1996

Where You Find It (Cape Pounds 9.99), Janice Galloway's second collection, shows once more her skill at exposing the pretensions of macho language. These are mainly love stories of many kinds: love that turns to anger, fear, lust, jealousy, exasperation and games of power. Her women know all about their men, their vices, vanities and weaknesses, and are still drawn to them. She doesn't try to reconcile the contradictory feelings so much as present the conflict with its pain and pleasure both intact. Her clear-eyed and tough-minded vision is sensitive to small movements of the mind, the subtle contours of lives. The pungently Scottish background of stairwells, housing projects and chipshops is alive with warmth, sex, smells and eating; and their opposites, cold, celibacy, stinks and retching. Yet the language doesn't cultivate a Scots mien. Rather it leads from minor strangenesses of syntax, little unattached riddling phrases, into an assured prose of menace and a world made uncanny.

Andrew Crumey, another impressive Scottish writer, creates very different worlds in his triptych of long stories, D'Alembert's Principle (Dedalus Pounds 7.99). One is that of the encyclopedists and their schematic attempt to subsume life under the headings of Memory, Reason and Imagination. Others derive from his spirited fictional games, where a protagonist from one narrative can dream illusions about the real sufferings of characters from others. His d'Alembert wants to derive all his experiences from fundamental axioms, to map the vectors of human relations, but has to recognise the pain of his unrequited love. From the contradictory viewpoints of his friends' letters, from the indifference of his adored Julie, we are given a loud empirical ''no'' to his proposed voluntary servitude to logic and mathematics. This is a highly polished fable, which sustains its learning with wit and zestful confidence.

Erica Wagner. The Times. June 22, 1996

BORN in 1717, the illegitimate son of a French nobleman, Jean le Rond d'Alembert was named after the church where he was abandoned as an infant. A chaotic beginning to an Enlightenment life whose legacy would be one of order: d'Alembert's Principle applies to Newton's third law of motion, and establishes, by imagining a fictitious force, a kinetic equilibrium between moving bodies.

Andrew Crumey's tripartite fiction, which begins with an imaginative account of d'Alembert's life, offers a different kind of proof: that any sort of equilibrium is impossible when it is human lives that are under consideration. ''The mathematician,'' d'Alembert writes, ''must begin with a world which is perfect, reduced to its purest elements.''

But d'Alembert's world is far less than perfect. Unrequitedly in love with the brilliant Mlle de L'Espinasse, he discovers after her death that she was conducting affairs with two other men. His brittle image of perfection is shattered: he dies at his desk with his papers around him.

Near the end, he is confronted by one Magnus Ferguson, who refutes his theories and leaves behind a manuscript which tells of alternate universes and parallel lives: this is followed by the fabulous tale of Herr Goldmann, a respectable jeweller, who leaves his house one morning to buy bread, only to find himself incarcerated with a beggar, Pfitz, whose entertaining tales may or may not be true, or may belong to another man entirely.

The three sections are loosely linked; they seem to orbit each other like bodies in space, their paths never crossing but never separate, either. Crumey's writing has a fastidiousness and dry humour apposite to his 18 th-century setting, and a dreamlike structure reminiscent of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. This clever, deceptive novel sets out to prove that rationalism is an emperor without any clothes and succeeds by doing what all fine writing should: reawakening in the reader a sense of the deep mysteriousness of life.

Tobias Jones. The Observer. August 18, 1996

Deliberate confusion and incoherence are the ingredients of Crumey's third novel. D'Alembert believes he has found a 'mathematical formula by which all the contradictory affairs of men' are 'reduced to a single principle'. It is a historical triptych, travelling between different characters, narratives, and even planets; but as it moves from Memory to Reason and then Imagination, the theory breaks down into chaos.

Sybil Steinberg. Publishers Weekly. August 24, 1998.

The senseless passion of 18th-century French mathematician Jean le Rond D'AIembert for his friend Julie de L'Espinasse (hinted at in Diderot's satire D'Alembert's Dream) is the subject of the strongest of the three interrelated novellas that make up this volume from Scottish author Crumey. Diderot implied that they were lovers; tragically, for D'Alembert, L'Espinasse never returned his passion. Instead, she fell for a number of other, physically imposing men. D'Alembert learns this from her letters after her death, and the claims of reason come tumbling down as he probes the logic of his passions. Crumey deftly outlines D'Alembert's life and times, albeit in broad, rather prim strokes. In his less compelling, oddly humorless second novella, a series of variations on the paradoxes of solipsism, Crumey follows the windings of an 18th-century author who appears and disappears in the text of his semifabulous book. The third, formnal:ely, goes for less heavily theoretical territory, returning to the characters of his acclaimed previous novel, Pfitz. A jeweler named Goldman in the city of Rrheinstadt gets thrown into prison with a beggar named Pfitz, and the beggar tells him a series of improbably scabrous tales. The loopy dialogue between Pfitz and Goldman is reminiscent of the Tortoise and Achilles sections in Douglas Hofstadter's GodeL F.scher, Bach. Crumey is described as a postmodernist, but he isn't anything so terrifying: he's simply reviving that old Enlightenment pastime, the philosophical jeu d'esprit.

Ann Irvine. Library Journal. September 1, 1998.

D'Alembert's Principle is actually three stories, including the title story, "The Cosmography of Magnus Ferguson," and "Tales from Rreinstadt." Each represents an aspect of D'Alembert's definition of knowledge: memory, reason, and imagination. The stories are set in the 18th century, when D'Alembert worked with Diderot on his famous dictionary. The first story uses D'Alembert's memories to illustrate his great success with mathematical theories but his failure in love. The second story, representing reason, is an exploration of empiricism. "Tales from Rreinstadt" is narrated by Pfitz, the beggar who also appeared in Crumey's earlier novel, Pfitz (LJ 9/1/97), while Pfitz is temporarily imprisoned by a wealthy jeweler. Crumey, a Scotsman, has cleverly interwoven aspects of human thought with entertaining stories. The details and tone of the stories aptly convey the tenor of 18th-century rationalism. For academic and public libraries where intellectual fiction is enjoyed.

Kirkus Reviews. September 1, 1998

A master of the postmodern fable, Crumey follows his exceptional novel Pfitz (1997) with a related, albeit more obscure, trio of interlocking stories derived in part from the troubled life of mathematician and philosopher Jean D'Alembert.

Organized around to the same three categoriesMemory, Reason, and Imaginationused by Diderot in his 18th-century encyclopedia, to which D'Alembert contributed extensively, this collection begins with the scientist reviewing his past on the day of his death, focusing particularly on the one nonscientific love of his life: Julie de L'Espinasse, about whom he believed no scandalous rumor (and was mistaken).

His reflections alternate with observations of his maid, Justine, who is summoned from her reading of her master's papers by a madman at the door. Said madman leaves her with a manuscript supposedly refuting D'Alembert's lifework. This, ''The Cosmography of Magnus Ferguson,'' forms the second story, in which one Magnus Ferguson struggles to understand how he came from a different dimension to Scotland, taking the place of his twin in this dimension. Finally, the character Pfitz, whose existence was denied in the novel named for him, appears as a beggar in the streets of Rreinnstadt to regale a passerby with tales, the first of which lands them in prison. His subsequent tales concern matters as diverse as a Dictionary of Identity, never completed, and a marvelous clock never fully understood.

Once the reader's head stops spinning from trying to follow the intricate mechanics of the tale here, there is much to be enjoyed and admired. Still, Crumeys effort doesn't measure up to its less fragmentary predecessors. Somethings gone awry with the charm of his storytelling.

Ray Olson. The Booklist. October 15, 1998

Crumey is reviving the eighteenth-century philosophical romance, the genre of Voltaire's Candide and Samuel Johnson's Rasselas. Here he plunges into the form's original milieu, placing lean d'Alembert (1717-83), the mathematician coauthor, with Diderot, of the influential Encyclopedie, at the center of a jeu d'esprit contesting the Enlightenment belief that there is but one reality. The book is in three slightly connected parts, corresponding to the encylopedists' division of knowledge into memory, reason, and imagination. The first is d'Alembert's memoirs, primarily concerned with his unrequited love for the salon hostess Julie de L'Espinasse. The second is "The Cosmography of Magnus Ferguson," which illustrates Ferguson's theory of multiple realities in a series of voyages to other planets by a different incarnation of Ferguson. The third is more of the "Tales from Rreinnstadt," from which Crumey's Pfitz I BKL O I 971 was drawn; storytelling Pfitz is a protagonist in it. Proceeding from poignancy to awe to hilarity, the three parts constitute an intellectual treat that admirers of Borges and philosophical sf master Stanislaw Lem, in particular, should appreciate.

Susan Salter Reynolds. Los Angeles Times. 22 November, 1998

What makes math so cool? What makes the history of math so romantic? Could it be that we still harbor the hope for salvation through equations? France, the late 1700s, is the setting; was it still too soon for the grim certainty that technology would one day control us? “I saw,” thinks D’Alembert, the orphan turned genius and the hero of Andrew Crumey’s novel, “a series of mathematical formulae by which all of the contradictory affairs of men . . . could be reduced to a single principle.” Crumey’s heroes are fictional, but the novel is also visited by Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire, who traipse in and out of the Parisian salon run by the love of D’Alembert’s life, Julie de L’Epinasse. The legacies of D’Alembert, Ferguson and Goldmann, a principle, a vision and a story, combine to create a portrait of the 18th century European mind stretched thin between the heart and the stars.

Merle Rubin. Wall Street Journal. 20 January, 1999

The seeming conflict between rationalism and romanticism is the central theme of "D'Alembert's Principle: A Novel in Three Panels," by Andrew Crumey (Picador USA, 208 pages, $21). Following the critical success of his first two novels, "Music, In a Foreign Language" and "Pfitz," Mr. Crumey, who trained as a theoretical physicist, continues his exploration of the realms where logic confounds itself and only the imagination can provide real satisfaction.

The "three panels" of the subtitle are a trio of disparate stories that turn out to be ingeniously interlinked. The first is based on the life of Jean d'Alembert (1717-83), the brilliant French mathematician who collaborated with Denis Diderot on that classic project of the Enlightenment era, the "Encyclopedie." Although D'Alembert has succeeded in discovering the underlying principles of physics, he is thwarted in his attempt to discover the hidden principle that would explain the mysteries of human behavior, especially the mystery of his unrequited love for the salon hostess Julie de L'Espinasse. D'Alembert's account of his life is supplemented by letters written by other members of their circle who discussed the affair. The by-play resembles a miniature, less malign version of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

Genuinely admiring yet gently mocking of his rationalist hero, Mr. Crumey explicitly patterns his novel on the "Encyclopedie's" division into three parts: Memory, Reason and Imagination. D'Alembert's poignant life story corresponds to Memory. The novel's midsection, purportedly illustrating Reason, is a kind of space-travel fantasy in which an 18th-century Scotsman called Ferguson offers descriptions of life on other planets. What logic and reason teach Ferguson, alas, is the infinite variety of possible worlds and the infinite difficulty of ascertaining whether anyone actually exists outside our own subjective consciousness.

The third section transports us to the fictional town of Rreinnstadt, the setting of Mr. Crumey's previous novel, "Pfitz." The servant cum storyteller Pfitz returns here to share a prison cell with a wealthy jeweler. The tales he tells provide a welcome diversion from their situation. But the jeweler cannot find out if the stories are truth or fiction, and once he is released from prison he is unable to track down Pfitz or find any sign that such a man ever existed. Writing in the inventive, playful tradition of Calvino and Borges, Mr. Crumey blends history, fantasy, fable and metaphysical speculation in a confection that is at once elegant, provocative and thoroughly entertaining.

Carolyn See. The Washington Post. 22 January 1999

This is a postmodern novel. More specifically, it's made up of a novella, a doodad in the form of an account of interplanetary travel, and a third narrative that, if it weren't already labeled as postmodern, could best be described as a shaggy dog story. Allegiance to a particular school of literary criticism is apt to provoke strange zealotries and acrimonious feelings. Another mark of much literary criticism is that it loves to state the obvious in a fancy new way. (Concerning the jalapeno pepper: The seeds are the hottest part! For those who don't already have this information, this will come as amazing news. Those who do know might be forgiven for grumbling: Tell us something we don't know.)

"What you feel when you finish `D'Alembert's Principle' is that you are continuing the book by shutting it," begins the introduction to this novella and two stories, this "novel in three panels." "The book which is lying shut upon the lap is now part of the story of a person whose entire body encompasses the lap, but which is not explained or encompassed by the lap, any more than a clock is explained by 3pm." This may be a philosophical breakthrough for the man who's writing the introduction, a resounding article of faith for enthusiastic postmodernists, but it's only common sense to anyone who reads fiction or daydreams or ever fell in love with Ingrid Bergman (or Brad Pitt) at the movies.

Stories are not contained within the covers of a book, Andrew Crumey suggests. Real characters aren't necessarily "real." Imagined ones may be more real than even the people we know. There isn't any "real" reality to speak of. We're probably just making it up. Making what up? All of it, all the universe, and all the universes within universes and the stories within stories. Not only that, there's a good chance we're not particularly real ourselves: The "self," as postmodernists like to suggest, is perhaps the supreme fiction -- we're probably no more than a compendium of bits and snippets from other selves, other times, other stories.

I'm not arguing about it! I'd be too scared to argue with a postmodernist. I guess I am saying: What's to argue about? Didn't we all know that anyway?

This book is a fair amount of fun to read. The first section concerns Jean le Rond D'Alembert, an 18th-century French philosopher who actually (ah, but what does "actually" really mean?) existed in history and whose "principle," extracted from Newton's First Law of Motion, purported to explain everything in the universe. (D'Alembert also worked with Diderot on the "Encyclopedie.") This narrative is a postmodernist attack on the 200-year-old concepts of logic and linear reason (best thought of as a real, hypothetical or imagined dead horse), and D'Alembert, for all his "wisdom" or perhaps because of it, is entirely ignorant of, and innocent about, the real world around him. D'Alembert embodies "reason" as we either know it or have studied it in history and philosophy classes. He believes that all human behavior can be reduced to a system, but in becoming obsessed with his system (and his own all-too-fleeting fame), he loses all contact with his own "real" life.

The second section, "The Cosmography of Magnus Ferguson," deals with a manuscript that might be spurious, from the memory of a friend who might be syphilitic or senile or might not have existed at all, with an introduction by someone who is surely a fake. It concerns some characters who may or may not be dreams, but when they begin to bicker about who is a character in whose story, the reader who's familiar with Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author" may be permitted a sigh. This discovery, that "fictional" characters take on a reality that's often more real than their creator's, has been around a long time, but it's a mark of the idea's strength that each person who discovers it discovers it again for the very first time. (You don't have to turn a fried egg over to cook it on the top! Just pour in a tablespoon of water and put a lid on the skillet!)

In "Tales From Rreinnstadt," the author returns to one of his own previous fictional creations, Pfitz, a rogue and sometime beggar who hangs out in a fictional German city in fictional medieval times. But isn't "medievalism" a fiction by now in any case? Doesn't the past, the instant it ceases to be the present, become a fiction, nothing more than our idea about the past, and aren't we always bound to be deluded, even about the nature of the present?

Crumey writes seriously as if no one knew this before he discovered it, but maybe he's right. Maybe the reader he's so set on enlightening truly believes that his Aunt Helen and Uncle Bob are more "real," for instance, than Mickey Mouse. Maybe his reader really believes that Snow White is alive only when he watches her movie with his kids and that after that she's entirely gone. Pfitz, an "imaginary" character, tells many a tale, using many types of narrative device. People meet and lose each other, grow old and die, fall in love and are mistaken.

Again and again in the last two sections of this "novel," the author stresses that "behind" all of us are infinite versions of the past that we might have led, and "in front" of us an equal infinity of possibilities of lives we might live but don't. (The seeds of the jalapeno pepper are the hottest part. If you get that heat under your fingernails, soak your hands in cold water. Some people might call that obvious, but when your fingers first start to sting it's new to you. When you discover it, it's natural to want to pass that important information on.)