Sam Leith. The Observer. 11 June 2000
Andrew Crumey's new novel is very strange, but not without precedent. It rolls up a suggestively tangled mishmash of literary theory, quantum physics and bogus Enlightenment philosophy into an engagingly whimsical narrative, not short of showing-off.
The Mr Mee of the title is a delightfully unworldly Scottish octogenarian who bides his days worming happily through dusty volumes of Hume, Stevenson and Rousseau while his cleaner, Mrs B, alternately scolds him and makes him broth. Mr Mee is intrigued by a reference to the ancient 'Xanthic sect' - which believed fire to be a species of living organism - glossed with a citation of Rosier's Encyclopedia. This mysterious, lost text - a sort of mad shadow of Diderot's - proposes an alternative theory of the universe.
The resources of his local library exhausted, Mee turns to the internet. Like all internet searchers, he has mixed results: turning up a photograph of a naked girl reading a book which may bear tangentially on his search. Such is Mr Mee's innocence, he reports: 'I was also confident that the somewhat hirsute condition of the amply exposed pubes of this unknown woman is a common feature, if not a universal one; a fact whose discovery had at last clarified for me an anecdote which long puzzled me, concerning Ruskin's wedding night in Perth.' Already, we're in the realm of something like Possession or, more aptly, Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller: the particular, academic thrill of chasing down an elusive, possibly apocryphal, text.
Two connected narratives run parallel. One, set in 1761, follows Ferrand and Minard, a couple of down-at-heel Parisian copyists mentioned in passing in Rousseau's Confessions. These are Crumey's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: a bumbling pair of Men of Sentiment who find themselves on the run with Rosier's original text. The other concerns a university professor, Dr Petrie, who, as he introduces himself, is undergoing a colonoscopy. He is, literally, sick with love for one of his students. (The twentieth-century characters suffer very eighteenth-century afflictions.) For Petrie, the glancing reference to Ferrand and Minard has become a scholarly obsession. If Mr Mee's intricate deferrals are like Calvino, the jaunty tone is more like Sterne or Flann O'Brien. Deconstructive silliness abounds. Here texts are literally in flight, from their authors and from the authorities. Ferrand and Minard, charged with transcribing Rosier, flee Paris fearing they are suspects in a murder committed by someone after Rosier's text. Crumey's prose is workmanlike but unexceptional. The pleasure here is in the constant play of ideas, particularly around the notion of 'authority', in its literary more than its political sense. Petrie tells us: 'Proust's novel concerns a person called "I", who, Proust wrote in an explanatory newspaper article, is "not always myself".'
As well as suggesting a pun in the name of our hero (shifted, perhaps, from subject to object), this question of who writes texts, let alone why, runs right through the novel. Rousseau is introduced as 'a copyist'. Gertrude Stein is quoted approvingly: 'I write for myself and strangers.'
Meanwhile, the internet's metaphorical potential - prefigured in Rosier's dotty calculating machines and mechanical devices for generating words - is used to the full. That's not to say its literal potential isn't also well explored. With the aid of a guide to HTML, written by one 'Dr Cool', our bemused hero ends up gobbling ecstasy and, still in quest of antiquarian books, misguidedly attending a 'swinging' party.
All this may make this novel sound heavy going. It's not. Mr Mee - a messy, entertaining intellectual tease - is a literary riff on the po-faced themes of theorists and far too good-natured and incoherent to be a thesis novel. It's fluff with a degree from the Sorbonne and none the worse for it.
Ruth Thomas. Scotland on Sunday. May 21, 2000
Reading Mr Mee is like reading a foreign, philosophical novel, translated into English by someone who doesn't get out much. The prose style is curiously old-fashioned and pedantic, as if a 19th-century dictionary has been involved somewhere along the line: Mr Mee "ventures" opinions, refers to "chosen aims" and talks about books that will "yield information".
This may be something to do with the fact that Mr Mee, Crumey's chief protagonist, is an 86-year-old man who seems to have spent his entire life surrounded by encyclopaedias, in academic pursuit of the philosophy of an alternative universe. He is extraordinarily naive about pretty much everything else in life, including how to make tea, use a vacuum cleaner or go shopping, and if it wasn't for the help of his long-suffering home-help, Mrs B, you wonder what on earth would have happened to him.
While searching the internet for a copy of Rosier's Encyclopaedia, Mr Mee stumbles across a photograph of a naked girl, and rather than recognising this as a porn site, he is immediately fascinated by the fact that the girl is reading Ferrand and Minard: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Search for Lost Time. From here, the novel balloons out into three parallel and interconnecting narratives, involving Mr Mee's gradual introduction to women, sex and the "real world", Ferrand and Minard themselves, two copyists on the run in 18th-century France, and a dying French literature lecturer infatuated with one of his students. Each of these narratives retains Crumey's self -conscious, tongue-in-cheek prose style, sometimes to great comic effect. He mocks his own characters mercilessly, even though two of the narratives are written in the first person. While Mr Mee's ramblings show him to be an impossibly innocent old pedant, the lecturer is revealed as a solipsistic, embittered man who regrets all the missed opportunities for love in his short life. Ferrand and Minard, meanwhile, roaming around a French forest on the run from the authorities, bring to mind all kinds of absurdly comic figures, from the Marx Brothers to Vladimir and Estragon.
Crumey's ability to keep the reader guessing is impressive. He exploits the structure imposed by the three narratives, cutting each off at cliff-hangerish moments to return to a different story. A real sense of urgency and intrigue is the result, although this technique can also lead to frustration and a feeling of distance from the book's real heart. The sections dealing with Ferrand and Minard, in particular, tend to slacken the novel's pace.
Another annoyance are the female characters who are, without exception, rather predictable ciphers for the men, appearing either as prostitutes, murder victims, housewives or cleaning ladies. As Crumey's style is so knowing and arch, you could almost take this with a big pinch of salt, but not quite.
My own sympathies lay with the dying lecturer, whose story is the least contrived of the three, and whose character the least like a caricature. His infatuation with his student, although rather sickening and Humbert Humbert -like, also reveals a real sadness and emptiness at the core of his life, and this is poignantly and delicately written. Similarly, Mr Mee's incompatibility with the 20th century, let alone the 21st, is at times a very moving portrayal of the way old people's needs are overlooked by society. In common with the others, Mr Mee has a strong voice, full of enthusiasm and passion for life - or at least, his interpretation of it. And this is ultimately how the whole novel comes across - an odd story, occasionally a little hard to stomach, but told with such energy and conviction that you can't help admiring it.
Anthea Lawson. The Times (London). May 27, 2000, Saturday
Andrew Crumey's fourth novel begins in deceptively simple fashion: it introduces narrator Mr Mee, a dry, well-meaning octogenarian in possession of academic leanings and stunning naivety (he has never seen a woman naked).
So when, an Internet virgin, Mee begins browsing the Web in search of a rare book and finds instead a picture of a naked girl reading a volume called Ferrand and Minard: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Search for Lost Time, his attention is life-changingly engaged.
At this point, Crumey takes up the tale of the said Ferrand and Minard, 18th-century Parisian copyists who come across a strange manuscript proposing an interesting new philosophy, which gets them into no end of hot water. Fleeing ransackings and a murder, they end up north of Paris, exactly where Minard's hero Rousseau is holed up.
Though subtle, the pair's influence leaves marks on Rousseau's work, which is intensely studied by academics two centuries later. One of these is Dr Petrie, whose focus on the French philosophers and the charms of one of his students forms the third novel's strand.
Confused? Don't be. Crumey blends the book's three parts seamlessly, each brilliantly mirroring the other and picking up common references and themes, which are frequently the large ones of chance, destiny and time.
This book is fabulous stuff: erudite but not patronising, elegantly and simply written, jumping ambitiously across centuries but with a good dash of down-to-earth lust for entertainment. More than once, Crumey makes his reader pause, rest the book in his lap, and acknowledge that life really is quite extraordinary. He deserves to be better known.
Catherine Lockerbie. The Scotsman. June 3, 2000, Saturday
Scottish fiction could hardly be more supple. Rigid boundaries have rusted away like old railings; templates tossed out. Try to capture or characterise current Scottish writing, and it runs off, cackling.
This diversity of voice, slipping away from stern definition, is a state of vigorous health. The reach of our contemporary fiction is long and wide: it includes the profound lyricism of John Burnside as well as the autobiographical jauntiness of Maggie Graham (see reviews elsewhere on these pages), the human warmth of Sian Preece and the silkily cerebral conundrums of Andrew Crumey.
Sian Preece is Welsh: this in itself is good, because writing in Scotland needs the widest possible range of voices: Welsh, Pakistani, Sudanese, Yorkshire, American and more.
Better still, Preece is a born writer, every single story in her debut collection showing the wry, observational eye that infuses the otherwise mundane with tender, tugging meaning. Better and better: she is very funny. Whether the wildly eloquent pantomime of an elderly French lady in a launderette or the hideous suburban ritual of a barbecue, scenes unfurl with cool, delighted wit.
From The Life and other stories comes with glowing commendations from Alan Spence and Ali Smith, and that makes excellent sense. Like those writers, Preece is profoundly humane. The wit never elides into eviscerating malice; despite the fine, sinister edge to some of the tales, there is a redemptive warmth deeply embedded here, a kind of love. A lonely, curmudgeonly grandfather accidentally meets his grown grandson in the pub; a growing boy looks after his little sister and her giggling mates on a school trip to Paris. Grandfathers, mothers, families underpin these stories, without sentiment. Again and again Preece recalls with startling vividness the taste and feel of what it is to be a child, or on the awkward verge of adulthood. These are stories which remind us of ourselves, shed fresh, good light on our memories and muddled lives.
Andrew Crumey too touches on small, muddled lives, but as part of a complex literary puzzle, rather than as an end in themselves. The dread word "post -modern" attaches itself to Crumey's work; he has been compared with Calvino for his cool, European, philosophical constructs. Dirty urban realism has no place in Crumey's intellectual universe.
Humour, however, emphatically does: Mr Mee is an archly amusing cerebral delight. The spectacularly unworldly eponymous gentleman, looked after by his trusty Scottish housekeeper in time-honoured fashion, is searching for a copy of Rosier's Encyclopedia, a lost work in which he hopes to discover more about the Xanthics, a mysterious fire-worshipping sect. His search leads him into the hitherto unknown world of the internet and its pornographic as well as intellectual excitements. Mr Mee discovers sex and Jimmy Shand; the hunt for Rosier's Encyclopedia slips through time. Crumey moves his chess pieces with consummate skill: a playful master at work.
Roy Foster. Financial Times "Books of the Year". November 25, 2000
A year's heavy-duty Booker judging means that fiction comes first to mind: we ended with a shortlist to be proud of, and a magnificent winner in Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (Bloomsbury Pounds 16.99 / Bantam Doubleday Dollars 16), but I still think regretfully of a few that got away (some only just). Anne Enright is the laureate of eccentricity: think of Anne Tyler on mescalin, crossed with an Irish-Gothic humour out of James Stephens and Flann O'Brien. What Are You Like? (Cape Pounds 10 / Atlantic Monthly Dollars 24) is a tale of twins, and constructs their synchronised but separate lives in concentrated bursts of bravura writing, sometimes eerily moving, sometimes horribly funny, and like nothing else. The Australian poet Kate Jennings's Snake (Fourth Estate Pounds 10 / Back Bay Dollars 12) is equally distilled, charting a disintegrating marriage on a 1950s outback farm. It is delivered in brief epiphanic scenes where not a word is misplaced, the colours leap out from the page, and characters are sketched with a deft and terrible economy. Though there are shafts of snarling humour, it might be called "An Australian Tragedy". By contrast, Andrew Crumey's Mr Mee (Picador Pounds 9.99) is wildly expansive and generally light-hearted: it weaves together the story of an octogenarian Scottish scholar discovering sex through the internet, with an 18th-century French whodunnit about a lost philosophe encyclopaedia and a dying academic's obsession with one of his students. The French element is a triumph in itself, but each story is reported in a perfectly manipulated voice, the deadpan humour never wavers, the cross-references thicken intriguingly, and in the end all the tangled threads resolve into a beautifully executed pattern which is oddly moving. Far from feeling sated with fiction, I hungrily await the next works by these three master-stylists.
Miranda Symour. New Statesman "Books of the Year". November 27, 2000.
Miranda SeymourOne of the funniest books of the year was Brian Thompson's A Monkey Among Crocodiles (HarperCollins), the life of a little-known lady who became famous as the most vigorous litigant, self-taught, of the 1880s. Her apotheosis was to be crowned, at 50, as the face of Pears soap. I was moved and impressed by Carlo Gebler's Father and I. Andrew Crumey is one of the most original novelists around. I wish that Mr Mee (Picador), in which he mixes together murder, fairy tales, Rousseau, pornographers and the internet to dazzling effect, had made it on to the Booker list. It deserved a place there.
Kirkus Reviews. March 1, 2001
The playful preoccupation with alternative realities that dominated Scots author Crumey's previous fiction (including Pfitz, 1997, and D'Alembert's Principle, 1998) also informs this richly amusing novel about the search for an 18th-century encyclopedia that supposedly disproves the existence of the universe. Crumey's wonderfully obsessive characters include the crotchety title figure (an elderly book collector), the lissome "life-scientist" who acquaints him with the world outside books, a perceptive college teacher of French literature, and a pair of bachelor copyists (and autodidacts-who are dead ringers for Flaubert's ineffably pompous Bouvard and Picuchet).
Rattling back and forth between two centuries, this agreeably serpentine tale speaks volumes about the folly of scholarly preoccupation and the unreliability of received wisdom, while never neglecting to entertain the bedazzled reader. Borges and Calvino would have approved.
Hilary Mantel. The New York Times. April 1, 2001
When writers go out into the world these days, they have to justify their existence. It's not that people have decided, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that they hate books because they're debasing and corrupting. It's rather that they question whether they're worth the paper they're written on. "What do we need books for?" people say rudely. "It's all out there on the World Wide Web."
Their mistake is to confuse information with knowledge; and it is the mistake made by Mr. Mee, an elderly English scholar whose housekeeper nags him into parting company with the "horrible dirty dusty rubbish" that is his library and buying a computer. Mr. Mee is soon thumbing the pages of "HTML for Idiots" and "Dr. Cool's Web Magic."
Stray teasing references in academic texts have led him to suspect the existence of a manuscript called Rosier's Encyclopedia, by a French thinker of the late 18th century, a contemporary of Diderot and d'Alembert. Is Rosier a charlatan or an overlooked genius? Does his work really describe an alternative universe governed by the laws of chance? Has the mysterious philosophe anticipated quantum theory?
When Mr. Mee tries to find Rosier, he succeeds only in fixing on his computer screen the picture of a naked woman reading a book. His housekeeper sees it and immediately quits, outraged. To keep body and soul together, Mr. Mee is forced to visit the grocery store, where there is no indexing system and the only "search facility" is an inarticulate shelf-stacker. The truth is, the quizzical old gentleman is not at all excited by the naked woman on his screen, but only by the title of the book she is reading: "Ferrand and Minard," which was written by a member of the faculty at the local university, one Dr. A. B. Petrie.
Dr. Petrie holds the second strand of Andrew Crumey's clever, puckish and artfully complicated novel. We first meet him in a posture of the utmost indignity, as a surgeon prepares to insert an endoscopy tube into his rectum. "I expect you'll want to put this little episode into one of your books someday," the surgeon suggests breezily. The scholar knows the roots of his own malaise; he is in love with a student, Louisa, who seems to turn toward him a face of calculated blankness, leaving him to work his own romance out of a chance word and an odd glimpse of her bra strap.
In a novel so cerebral as "Mr. Mee," it would not be surprising if the characters were paper-thin and the jokes a species of facetious quibbling. But Crumey is a sensitive writer, and he creates an unexpected amount of sympathy for both the wistful Dr. Petrie and the awesomely naive Mr. Mee. He has a sharp wit and taps the sort of deep, rich vein of comedy accessible only to authors who respect their own characters.
The third strand of his plot takes us back in time to meet Ferrand and Minard themselves. These are real-life figures who appear briefly in Book 10 of Rousseau's "Confessions" and exit from the text in Book 11 -- though one calls them "real-life" with some trepidation, as Crumey suggests that they may have been aspects of Jean-Jacques's paranoia. Crumey has fitted them out with past lives, which history doesn't grant them: Two poor scholars who scrape out a living as copyists, they share a Paris garret and pass their chilled and supperless evenings in games of chess. Then a stranger in a cafe gives Ferrand a large sheaf of documents to copy. This stroke of apparent good fortune is the beginning of all their troubles. Soon they are fleeing Paris in fear of the police and other, more shadowy persecutors. The documents are missing, a neighboring seamstress has been strangled, and their search for clues takes them to the forest of Montmorency, where Rousseau, accompanied by his housekeeper and mistress, Therese, is scribbling in rural exile, antagonizing the authorities and quarreling with his friends.
Though "Mr. Mee" stands alone as a novel, Crumey has ingeniously connected its themes to two earlier works, "Pfitz" and "D'Alembert's Principle," and within its overlapping narratives there are many sly cross-connections and interwoven references. Who is the controller of the narrative? Mr. Mee's sections are in the form of letters, and the fact that their intended recipient is dead troubles him not at all; he is confident of being read. Dr. Petrie himself is at work on a novel -- possibly the one we are reading. "If literature has any purpose," Dr. Petrie reflects, "it is in teaching us how to be ourselves." Yet the representations of self that writers have left us are dubiously linked to their actual experience. Is Rousseau's "Confessions" any less of a novel than Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past"? Dr. Petrie lectures on Proust, who argued strongly against the importance of the writer's "real life," and by living in seclusion arranged almost to have none.
Crumey raises seductive questions about the nature of experience, reminding us that so much of it is simply re-enaction. We taste our food just once, says the great gourmet Brillat-Savarin, and thereafter simply remember what we have perceived: "Truth exists only in the first bite." What is there, then, that can prevent our lives from being merely cliche and pastiche, "entirely derived and inauthentic"? It can only be art that makes us natural, art with its power to work in the interstices of personal identity and to bring into being "a person called 'I' who is not necessarily oneself."
Everything in Crumey's narrative is contingent, ambivalent and shaped by its narrators -- by their mere presence, by their status as observers. Schrodinger's celebrated cat finds an equivalent in the classically 18th-century figure of a forgotten prisoner unobserved in his dungeon -- neither alive nor dead but "in a state which is a superposition of both."
Fans of Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn will relish this novel's puzzles and paradoxes, its unfolding and ingenious designs. Yet it is never hard going, always good-humored, jaunty and sometimes enjoyably silly. Crumey is a confident narrator, and his book has a heart as well as a brain. It is not only an intellectual treat but a moving meditation on aspiration and desire. "I wanted something impossible," Dr. Petrie says, "and we can appreciate the impossibility of our dreams only when they meet, beyond ourselves, with the coldness of the world, in which they harden like drops of wax on water, taking forms quite unlike those we had imagined for them."
David Vincent. The Observer. May 20, 2001
The eponymous hero of Andrew Crumey's fourth novel is an impossibly naive octogenarian man of letters - literally, his chapters being missives to a dead friend. In pursuit of an obscure encyclopaedia by a contemporary of Diderot and d'Alembert, he discovers internet porn and a young housekeeper, who introduces him to pleasures of the flesh. The internet as sexual learning tool was explored in Russell Hoban's Angelica's Grotto , yet Crumey's bumbling Mee owes more to that eighteenth-century oddity, Laurence Sterne, in his digressive exuberance. Two complementary narratives - of two knockabout, gossipy copyists briefly mentioned in chapter 10 of Rousseau's Confessions and a present-day love-stricken academic - are intercut with frisky literary allusion and sometimes sly, sometimes silly, humour. While the writing may occasionally lag behind the ambition, the fictional conundrum of Mr Mee never takes itself too solemnly, even when dealing with the serious matters of literary theory and quantum mechanics, search engines and supermarket shelving.
Victoria Walker. The Times (London). May 26, 2001
Pornography and Proust may seem like odd bedfellows, but somehow Crumey manages to make the most implausible seem possible in this mystery novel. In an attempt to get to the bottom of a literary puzzle, he flits between the corridors of Glasgow University, 18th-century France and the study of an octogenarian academic. Part history, part farce, Crumey's novel surprises the reader with increasingly odd revelations.
Graham Ball. The Express "Book of the Month". May 26, 2001
Andrew Crumey's impressive new novel, Mr Mee, is a genuinely dazzling book that makes you feel good. It's an enriching experience - a bit like indulging in a long and enjoyable conversation with an intelligent acquaintance. Mr Mee concerns three separate narratives: an old man's encounter with the Internet, a university lecturer's infatuation with one of his pupils and an 18th-century French murder mystery. This is the author's fourth book and he's already been compared to Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn. I have 50 copies to give away so write to me, Graham Ball, at the Daily Express, 245 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 9UX. The first names out of the hat will receive a book!
Harry Blue. Scotland on Sunday. June 3, 2001
The cover has an intriguing, seamy shot of a semi-naked blonde, and a quote from Jonathan Coe saying that it left him helpless with laughter. Mr Mee is a comically naive bookworm whose net surfing reveals a tale of obsessive love and 18th-century philosophy. It certainly kept me laughing too.
Isobel Montgomery. Guardian. June 13, 2001
More literary games, but here intellectual conceits are mixed with bawdy farce. When Mr Mee, an elderly Scottish bibliophile, abandons pen and ink for word-processing, the world changes alarmingly. Mee has caught a whiff of an 18th-century encyclopedia that outlines quantum theory. Rousseau's neighbours and a Rousseau scholar are also parts of the three-pronged solution, and Mr Mee grows in mystery. Inventing wild intellectual puzzles is easy enough, resolving them credibly is harder. Crumey has his fun, but plots his farce elegantly.
Alex Clark. Sunday Times (London). June 24, 2001
Crumey's delightfully offbeat meditation on the collision of esoterica and the modern world achieves most of its comedy through its eponymous hero. Just about kept going by the ministrations of his cleaner, Mr Mee spends his days burrowing further and further into his rare books, but when the pursuit of an ancient sect called the Xanthics introduces him to the information superhighway, his world changes forever. Meanwhile, we hear tales of a legendary but seemingly untraceable encyclopedia, an embattled university lecturer and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is a book that wears its learning lightly, and succeeds mostly through its charm and generous humour.
Arminta Wallace. The Irish Times. September 1, 2001
Given that the Internet is such an all-pervasive presence, it seems odd that nobody has attempted to write an intelligent dotcom novel: until now. Andrew Crumey's fourth novel is outrageously clever, brilliantly innovative and riotously funny.
When the crusty eponymous hero ventures into Dixon's to buy a PC, he is asked by an assistant whether he wishes to do word processing. "I gather," he writes to his (deceased - don't ask) friend, "this is a term used to denote what was known in our day as 'writing'. I told him I would use the machine primarily for reading, an archaic habit the correct name of which I didn't know . . ." Mr Mee sets out to search the Internet for an 18th-century encyclopaedia of philosophy - and discovers, of course, a world of cyber-hoaxers and online pornography. But that's just one of a trio of narratives. Add in an academic infatuated with - surprise, surprise - one of his students, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (in person), and the result is a series of ingenious, maddening, smile-inducing Chinese puzzles.
Francisca Goldsmith. Library Journal. Vol. 126, Iss. 1, (Jan 2001): 152.
In what has become his trademark narrative style, British novelist Crumey (Pfitz, D'Alembert's Principle) offers readers three ongoing stories loosely intertwined on a philosophical spool. The title character is an elderly and incredibly sheltered scholar who, in the course of the volume, learns about both computers and the female anatomy. The other two tales involve a pair of ne'er-do-well 18th-century French copyists who come a cropper of JeanJacques Rousseau as well as a contemporary philosophy professor with a penchant for a young female student. While each of these stories is moderately clever, none of the male characters is sympathetic, and the female characters have frustratingly brief walk-ons that promise more intellectual stimulation than they are allowed to deliver. The three tales are drawn together in a messy denouement that is neither engaging nor insightful. While there are a few standout passages along the way-including the scene in which Mr. Mee describes his initial introduction to the Internet-there is little to recommend this to any audience.--
Sybil Steinberg. Publishers Weekly. Vol. 248, Iss. 5, (Jan 29, 2001): 62.
Musing on Rousseau, the French encyclopedists and the vagaries of chance and identity, Crumey (Pfitz; D'Alembert's Principle) has written another novel of ideas in the grand tradition of Calvino, Borges and Kundera. This delightful romp around the knottiest concerns raised by Enlightenment philosophers and postmodernists alike centers on the long-vanished Rosier's Er:cyclopaedia, a 2oo-year-old French text that may challenge the existence of the universe. Setting out to track down Rosier's work, dotty old Mr. Mee, a reclusive British book collector, embarks on a quest that introduces him to the Internet in all its seamy variety (he finds an unclad woman reading a Rosier-related text on one site) and brings on the attentions of a "life scientist" named Catriona, who introduces him to the pleasures of the flesh. Mee's narrative alternates with that of a Dr. Petrie, a professor of French literature desperately in love with one of his students, and Ferrand and Minard, the bumbling 18thcentury French copyists charged with reproducing Rosier's original manuscript. Mee may be the most endearing narrator, and Ferrand and Minard the most haplessly slapstick, but Petrie proves the most perceptive, lacing his lovelorn lamentations with reflections on Proust and Flaubert. Crumey also provides tantalizing glimpses of the Encyclopaedia itself, its treatises all absurdly outdated and yet provocatively applicable to modem-day computer science and physics. The novel isn't perfect-its philosophical asides can be hard going, and it's easy to lose patience with the exaggerated ineptitude of all its narrators-but Crumey's light treatment of hefty material should win the minds, if not the hearts, of his readers.
Forecast: Crumey has yet to achieve the name recognition of Umberto Eco or even Arturo Perez-Reverte, but this strong effort and the many glowing reviews it's bound to receive should attract a few more readers to him.
Ray Olson. The Booklist. Vol. 97, Iss. 14, (Mar 15, 2001): 1353.
The erudite Scot who gave us those hilarious demolitions of metaphysical certainty, Pfitz (1997) and D'Alembert's Principle (1998), returns to their milieu-Enlightenment France-in only one of the three story lines of this jape, but the other two, though physically contemporary, are dependent upon their eighteenth-century confrere. First we meet Mr. Mee, an 86-year-old bibliophile and novice Net navigator whose search for an obscure rival of Diderot and d'Alembert's great Encyclopedie sidetracks him into losing his virginity (!) while stymied in a quest for a book about Ferrand and Minard, very minor characters in Rousseau's Con/essions. The second story line is about the shadowy pair, who are something of an eighteenth-century Abbott and Costello, and the third consists of the hospital-bed confessions of the professor who wrote the book Ferrand and Minard. In all three stories, the protagonists lose the mastery of their fates to that old devil Lust (well, Ferrand doesn't but should), and an epilogue in Proust's bedroom puts the bow, so to speak, on this brainy, comical package.