Jonathan Coe. The Guardian "Summer Reading". June 19, 2004
I'm going through one of those phases where I think I've spent enough time paddling in the shallows of contemporary fiction, so have gone out and bought Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover (Pimlico) instead. With luck, when I come back from my holiday, I shall have a thorough historical understanding of man's capacity for cruelty, as well as a suntan. For light relief I'll pack Andrew Crumey's Mobius Dick (Picador), simply because he is one of my three or four favourite modern writers - a wise, funny, alert and original novelist who has never disappointed.
Kevin Jackson. Sunday Times (London). June 27, 2004, Sunday
Science fiction is the literary genre of choice for nerds, geeks and smelly, socially inadequate obsessives: so say the prigs, who will go on to add that the "science" in SF is preposterous (often fair comment, usually quite irrelevant) and the "fiction" puerile (sheer ignorant bigotry, if we're talking about, say, HGWells or JG Ballard, Philip K Dick or Thomas M Disch). You can see why mainstream publishers tend to fight shy of the damning label -why, for instance, you will search in vain for the words "Science Fiction" anywhere on the dust jacket of Andrew Crumey's novel Mobius Dick. Well, hard cheese on the marketing department.
Not only is Mobius Dick plainly legible as SF all the way through, and splendidly venturesome SF at that; it is also a novel that plays deftly with the hardest elements of hard science, with the most serious conceits of serious fiction, and with all the ways in which S and F may exercise a reciprocal strange attraction.
Crumey's book is fiendishly hard to summarise, mainly because it is set in a number of different worlds, none of which is entirely watertight -which is to say, reality-tight. In one reality a theoretical physicist, name of John Ringer (Crumey himself holds a PhD in that demanding discipline), sets off on a quest to a remote part of Scotland, where an American corporation has built a secret facility devoted to harnessing "vacuum energy" and thus building a global communications system which will "make the Internet look like pigeon post". This gizmo has one wee drawback. If it malfunctions, it might split the universe into an infinite number of multiverses. Literally anything would become possible somewhere or some-when, so that the fictitious characters of one world could be real in another, and vice versa. Hold that giddy thought for a moment.
Meanwhile, in another reality, a man called Harry Dick wakes up bewildered in a hospital bed, and is told by his mildly sinister or utterly ludicrous therapists that he is suffering from AMD (Anomalous Memory Disorder), possibly caused by exposure to some new form of communications technology (aha!), the victims of which are haunted by memories of things that never happened. As part of his cure, he is encouraged to try some creative writing. He complies, and writes a story about a theoretical physicist, name of John Ringer, who...and so on.
A couple of further realities are now shuffled into the pack: extracts from novels by a 20th-century German author, Heinrich Behring: The Angel Returns (which is about the dying Robert Schumann) and Professor Faust, which bears a striking resemblance to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, save that its leading character is Schrodinger -the very scientist who gave us physics' favourite feline, Schrodinger's cat. (If you remember your Horizon documentaries, this is the pussy who is left simultaneously alive and dead after a cruel experiment, and thus gives rise to speculation about alternative realities. See above.) An autobiographical postscript from Herr Behring tells us of how he came to write these works, in the momentous years when Goebbels led Germany on a war of conquest, heroically resisted by the British Democratic Republic.
Is that all, you may be asking? Not remotely. These highly reflective narratives also include a letter from Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne (there are Moby Dick jokes throughout -the first chapter is entitled "Call Me: H", a cute text-message spin on "Call me Ishmael"), disquisitions on Jung and coincidence, Nietzsche and eternal recurrence and a parody of outlandish Literary Theory that, in the end, Mobius-strip-like, turns back in on itself. As do many other components: once finished, the book invites you to head right back to the beginning and reread the same events in a wholly different light. "Ingenious" is far too pallid a term of praise for this cunningly contrived entertainment, which may sound ponderous in outline but is actually a breeze, by turns slyly comic and oddly melancholy. For most readers, the soundness of its science will be of small consequence; as fiction it is solid plutonium, and unflaggingly enjoyable.
Tom Adair. The Scotsman. July 3, 2004
Andrew Crumey writes like a dream and dreams like a writer inspired to make mischief about the difference between writing and dreaming. You enter his novels knowing that when you exit them you may find yourself doubting whether the thing we know as the novel - or even the self you believe you may be - are definable or real. Mobius Dick is therefore a disturbing pleasure and sometimes and a puzzle, a fictive slice of cockahoop daring. A read that is always demanding attention.
Then again, we've been here before, which is one of the jokes of Mobius Dick. Readers who've dallied with Crumey's previous novels will know that, like Russian dolls (or Chinese whispers), events and time shifts are often concealed or unreliable. The voice on the page may be who or what it says it is - or not. The narrator may actually be a character invented by one of the novel's other characters, a ghost from the distant past, or a glimpse of the future. Which voice do you trust? Which events are real? The answer is: none. All are concoctions (or putative versions?) of the author - and vivid products of his imaginings. Which, like all imaginations, alters reality as we know it.
"She was asking me (as was usual at such moments) what I was thinking about. So that I quickly had to make up some suitable reply." This, the opening paragraph of Crumey's debut novel, Music in a Foreign Language, gets to the point: we are all deceivers, life being full of casual fictions, aimed at silencing or pleasing. In a sense you feel his novels are "suitable replies" to the questions he toys with.
Mobius Dick begins straightforwardly. A theoretical physics professor, John Ringer (will he, you wonder, end up dead? Is he dead already? Is he someone else's doppelganger? ) receives a mystery message on his Q-phone: " 'Call me: H.' Nothing more. No indication of who H was, or how he was supposed to get in touch. Only a 'user not found' when he hit 'reply'. Immediately he thought of Helen."
Helen turns out to be his ex-lover, a long-ago fling. But perhaps what the message meant was: 'Call me regarding H'. Some important news. Even a chance to meet again, he thinks, his excitement ill-concealed.
Are we on the verge of a tale of romance? Perhaps a quest tale; even a metaphysical thriller? Then a third thought occurs to Ringer: the call is probably … a stray text, a wrong number. A tiny, trivial piece of another person's existence that had inadvertently dropped itself into his, forcing him to make sense of it. We are a species of pattern finders. Evolution made us so.
And so, in the novel's very first pages, we learn to trust its central figure. A man of reason. Probabilities and patterns shape his universe. Drawn into his ordered world, we engage with memories of his early encounters with Helen, their tentative courtship, exchanges of knowledge (she is a student of German literature, he an enquirer into the work of the physicist Schrodinger, who derived the basic rule of quantum mechanics). So far, so simple. Helen mentions Thomas Mann, one of whose characters, in the novel The Magic Mountain, went to a TB clinic in Switzerland. Ringer remarks on the coincidence - for Schrodinger, while vacationing at a similar TB clinic in the Alps, had made his fundamental breakthrough. Is this coincidence or fate? The question stalks much of Crumey's work. Are we fixed in our course, or subject to random interventions that alter the pathways of cause and effect? But just when he latches you on to his philosophical wavelength, Crumey distracts you again, draws you into the blossoming love affair.
Finding such links was no more than an erudite form of flirting a "'Nietzsche lies behind Doktor Faustus', Helen told him gravely, and while her face was lowered he divined, like a faint galaxy, the protrusion of a nipple beneath her red pullover."
You are hooked; the characters breathe: "Leaning towards him over the table a he could smell her perfume. A loose lock of hair on her bare neck invited the correcting stroke of a finger a They could have debated whether Beethoven and Einstein really had anything in common beyond a shared aversion to hair combs, but it was time to try and move beyond ideas."
THIS IS erotic, subtle prose, imbued with restraint and a touch of jocosity to defuse the charge of lust. Its telling paradox lies in the fact that what we are moving beyond is the couple's intense relationship - that ideas are where the action is.
Thus Ringer's teasing fixation with long-lost Helen becomes a key strand in the book's interweaving of what is remembered, what is imagined and what is real. It shares the torchbeam of Crumey's scrutiny with passages from the (invented) fictional works of Heinrich Behring, published post-war by the (also invented) Cromwell Press, in the British Democratic Republic. Thus the historic past is rewritten.
From this point on the novel adopts recorded events - invoking Schumann, Liszt and Goethe - who in his writings has Helen woken from the Trojan dead a the lost love (of Goethe) raised from the past.
This eerie parallel with Ringer's apparently resurrected lover hints at time -shifts in the offing.
Thus, enter Carl Jung and Erwin Schrodinger, and the 20th-century physicists Bohr and Heisenberg. Ringer courts Helen with his discourse on Heisenberg's version of the uncertainty principle. From this they move to the doctrine of quantum mechanics and its inception. It's stirring stuff that risks the reader's disaffection, and Helen's patience. Then the plot deepens.
To add to the tales of Ringer and Helen, and that of the physicist Erwin Schrodinger in Switzerland (as told by Heinrich Behring, which incorporates a character instrumental in Mobius Dick's unexpected - and satisfying - conclusion), we have the memory twists, writ large, of Harry Dick. False Memory Syndrome is Harry's supposed condition. He scribbles notes about what he knows - a stream of subconsciousness - and one of his doodles of memory coughs up a character called John Ringer. A putative fiction? With still two thirds of the book to go, the reader's world is decisively flipped.
For from that point forward, the characters' pasts and futures converge. Ringer's "time-present" takes us to Scotland, meeting a "Helen" who isn't Helen, becoming involved at the edge of experiments in the Highlands that may collapse the space-time continuum of the universe. Science fiction? Science fable? Orwellian nightmare? Huxleyesque myth? The point of this novel, in part, is to question the very pigeon- holing of science, art and life. Crumey revels in the confusion and conflation of such distinctions. At times the detail (scientific, historic, artistic) feels overwhelming, as though the carcinogenic footnotes have taken over the textual body.
However, the author's daring and aplomb is thrilling throughout. Difficult time-shifts and altered states of dubious consciousness are handled with assurance. Jokes and lampoons are in good supply. The writing exhilarates at its finest, and keeps you afloat the rest of the way.
John O'Connell. Time Out "Book of the Week". July 07, 2004
Andrew Crumey's fifth novel is a feast of worlds within worlds, texts within texts, invented futures and possible pasts; a formally ingenious novel of ideas which hurls readers around a Mvbiusloop rollercoaster harnessed by trenchant satire and wry comedy, and consoled by a cast of beguilingly antiheroic characters who light our way through the metaphysical fog.
The action is triggered by a mysterious text message 'Call me: H' received by a physicist, John Ringer.
He thinks it must be from Helen, a woman he once met across a university refectory table, an 'arts' person whose specialism (Thomas Mann) turned out to complement his (Schrvdinger, of cat fame) when a coincidence presented itself: both Mann and Schrvdinger did their best work in the course of a stint at a tuberculosis clinic in the Swiss Alps.
On such coincidences does 'Mobius Dick' turn, except that it doesn't regard themas such, parlaying them instead into quantum events whose focus is necessarily on multiplicity and reversal. To this end, Crumey alternates a James Bond-style subplot involving Ringer's visit to a sinister nuclear facility in Scotland withexcerpts from the work of a (fictional) writer called Heinrich Behring.
Before long you start to realise that the book's structure is totally involuted,self-reflecting to the point where it's explicable only in terms of the relationships between its various narrative components.
An allusion to Borges towards the end hammers the point home;
other antecedents are plainly Pynchon, Barth and Kafka, but also those very British purveyors of accessible experimentalism, David Lodge and Jonathan Coe.
It would be nice to think that this magnificent piece of work stood a chance of winning the Booker. It's certainly my novel of the year.
Joseph O'Connor. The Guardian. July 10, 2004
It is recounted by the Romantic painter, Benjamin Haydon, that Keats once proposed a scornful toast: "Confusion to the memory of Newton!" When his drinking companion, Wordsworth, sought an explanation, Keats muttered a slander that still festers in some innocent hearts: "He destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism." For many imaginative writers, especially in the English-speaking world, scientific ignorance has long been translated into starry-eyed bliss. This fine novel by Andrew Crumey belongs in a more intellectually engaged tradition. It's science fiction, Jim, but not as we know it.
John Ringer, a physicist, receives an ambiguous text message on his mobile. It might be from a one-time lover; he isn't sure. Despite being a professional scientist, he can't figure out how the callback feature on his phone works - an endearing trait, as well as a plot hinge. Whatever its source or meaning, the communication sets off a chain of odd events and ostensibly unrelated narratives. Before long, these different stories and time zones are being subtly intermingled, revolving around each other in a mysterious dance.
We get Ringer's reminiscences of a fantastically cerebral love affair ("predicated on German philosophy"), an account of the last days of the composer Schumann, and the fumbling attempts of amnesiac Harry Dick to write autobiographical fiction. Coincidences, analogies, flukes and recurring motifs begin to loop the disparate elements together, until we realise, about a third of the way in, that the Ringer story is perhaps being composed by bed-bound Dick. Each storyline is written wonderfully and is nearly always convincing, even as what is happening becomes curiouser and curiouser.
This contrapuntal form, with its contrasting tones and voices, gives an almost musical dimension to the organisation of the novel. Crumey knows that structure can be part of a novel's allure: you find yourself drawn into the cavernous architecture of his wonderland, a dreamscape of shifting realities, quantum computers and "vacuum energy". False memory and telepathy thicken the plot. People vanish before each other's eyes. Proust's fiction was actually written by Flaubert. The United Kingdom was once invaded by Germany but is now called the British Democratic Republic. One thinks of Stephen Hawking's remark about the quantum multiverse: there could be a parallel world in which Belize is winning all the Olympic gold medals.
In some ways this is an edgily modern book, with Dick's namesake, Philip K Dick, among its guiding spirits. Admirers of Flann O'Brien's fictions will be struck by the beguiling ways in which Crumey uses unreliable narrators and worlds within worlds. In another sense the novel reaches back to a Renaissance aesthetic, in which art and scholarship, if not quite the same thing, are mutually adoring twins or lovers in a fable. Refreshingly, this is a novel in which science is a central character rather than a metaphor for something else.
That said, it isn't a boffin-fest but a glitteringly original piece of storytelling, unapologetically intelligent, driven by tightly focused narrative skill. It is also acerbically funny, peppered with digs, while an Orwellian irony makes clear that the questions implied are not about some imagined culture, but concern the one in which we wake up every day.
There is a winning sense of spaciousness in the writing, a feeling that the words are pouring out spontaneously. This quality is all the more impressive because the ideas are complex: indeed, those of us who are a bit rusty on Heisenberg's interpretation of wave functions may sense we're missing out. And even readers who marvel at Crumey's expansive, frisky prose may feel the allusion to cultural titans becomes a little relentless: Melville, Thomas Mann, Foucault, Nietzsche and Lacan are all name-checked in the first few pages. ("Writing about writers is best avoided," comments Dick's therapist. This isn't advice Crumey would tolerate.) But while Mobius Dick is a work of sophisticated erudition, its playfulness and artistry make it a page-turner, too. It is perhaps the only novel about quantum mechanics you could imagine reading while lying on a beach.
Scarlett Thomas. Independent on Sunday. July 11, 2004
Quantum theory is a slippery fish indeed. Back in the days of Newtonian physics, you knew where you were. You knew where something had been and, therefore, where it was going, thanks to the laws of motion. Newton's deterministic cause-and-effect universe was just a giant piece of clockwork, ticking along in a manner unchanged since the act of creation - the first winding of the big clock.
But quantum physics - the study of sub-atomic matter - says differently. When you look at the microscopic world you find almost nothing that can be explained by cause and effect. Instead, matter behaves both as waves and as particles; does crazy stuff at random; can possibly travel faster than the speed of light and, crucially, does not "really exist" until you look at it. This uncertain place, where observer meets matter in the quantum world, has led to some of the most profound metaphysical speculation in the history of science. Some arguments suggest that a particle is both everywhere and nowhere until it is observed; in a superposition, or a smearing, of all probabilities. This is the "wavefunction".
Somewhere in the middle of this novel, the protagonist John Ringer is trying to explain all this to a journalist, who, incidentally, may or may not be a parallel universe version of his lost lover Helen. He describes the wavefunction as a big book containing all the possible stories about certain characters. "Out of all the possible stories in the book, my observation selects just one. This is called a quantum jump… As soon as you take the tiniest peek, the wavefunction collapses, leaving you with a single story."
But what if, as Hugh Everett asked in 1957, the other possibilities don't simply disappear? What if, at the point when the wavefunction collapses, the universe (or, more accurately, "multiverse") splits into alternate realities? If this is true then there are worlds out there in which Germany won the war; worlds in which you have six fingers, or are really called Tim. (If you're thinking, "But I am called Tim", then you are obviously already in this world.) If the multiverse theory is correct (and it has never been disproved) then every novel in this world faithfully recreates a reality somewhere else. Think about it. Nothing is real, or, perhaps, everything is.
In this novel there looms a huge particle accelerator that may accidentally smear "reality", causing these kinds of alternate possibilities to exist simultaneously. Blossoming around this centrepiece is a physicist who sees visions of himself in the future, a patient in another world suffering from Anomalous Memory Disorder, where people from our world keep creeping into his (his psychologist writes off Thomas Mann, Schumann and Flaubert as "Penis Man", "Shoe Man", and "Flow-Bear" - all "false" memories), and the other-world novels of Heinrich Behring, including "Professor Faust", a story in which Schrudinger goes to the mountains to think about his wave equation. With kaleidoscopic themes, including Jungian psychoanalysis, coincidence, inversion, cycles, Vedic philosophy and the nature of writing itself, this novel was initially rather puzzling but, ultimately, turned out to be the most rewarding book I have read all year. Mind bending? Yes. Delicious twist? Yes. What else do you need?
Clemency Burton-Hill. The Observer. July 11, 2004
'A novel that has a mirrored double personality at its heart should be called Mobius Dick ,' Andrew Crumey informs us helpfully, after his protagonist wonders if 'some imaginative novelist could conceive a logical scheme linking everything. . . some grand unified theory in which (people) would be quantum resonances'.
Mobius Dick has more than a mirrored double personality at its heart; it has the whole of history, humanity, philosophy and physics at its radioactive core. Crumey traverses time, space and multiple universes to develop a new paradigm of causality and explain, basically, why a random text message can generate all manner of emotional, epistemological, ontological, transcendental and dialectical chaos. (Or, in layman's terms, what happens when a misdirected text prompts you to think it might be from somebody you were once in love with and then makes you think you see them disappearing round a street corner.)
John Ringer is a professor of theoretical physics who 'inadvertently' stumbles into a literature seminar called 'Vicious Cycloids'. Annoyed by its 'parade of coincidences masquerading as insight', John is, nevertheless, dogged by its question of whether history is hinged on chance and coincidence and whether events are as random as they seem.
This follows his receipt of a text which simply says: 'Call me: H.' Having once loved a Helen, he obsesses that it might be from her - all the way to Craigcarron, where he's to give a lecture and meet an old student who works at the nuclear plant there. The same student divulges Craigcarron's plan to build a network of quantum computers to create instantaneous and total global communication. Ringer worries this would be preposterously dangerous, because, harnessing the energy of the vacuum between reflective plates, the potential production of a non-collapsible wave func tion corresponding to a high-energy photon could wreak all manner of havoc on the universe.
(Just in case you're having trouble remembering your Copenhagen Interpretation, let me refresh your memory. When waves are measured, they mysteriously 'collapse' in a quantum jump; thus, an electron is everywhere and nowhere until it interacts, leaving its footprint on the universe. Two conflicting stories can therefore be true, because when the universe splits after any event, what is 'real' depends on your frame of reference.)
But the wave function must collapse and, if Ringer's fears are justified and some 'stubborn, vacillating, recalcitrant' wave refuses, the hall of quantum mirrors will mutate from a device for communication into one of confusion and chaos. 'Its trapped, rebounding particles would be ghosts and vampires, oscillating eternally between one universe and the next, bridging worlds and confounding them.'
And what would it take to lead to disaster? Nothing so monumental, apparently, as a stray hair. The earth, the planet, 'perhaps even the very cosmos itself', would become 'make-believe, a joke'. What's more, it could be happening already and we wouldn't even know about it. Cue spooky music.
Spliced into John's story are alternative narratives of music, madness, memory, mobiles, Mann, Melville and, er, whales; none of whose relevance is quite grasped until the novel's apocalyptic resolution. But forget collapsible wave functions; Mobius Dick is so self-referential it threatens to collapse in on itself. Crumey is a talented writer and a major brain, but he will need to turn his hand to something non-scientific soon in order to prove he can transcend science faction.
Then again, this may just be the green-eyed gripe of someone who abandoned physics with unbridled glee after GCSEs. Because despite the exegesis of dialectical matrix mechanics (do I sound like I understand it yet?) Mobius Dick is quite lighthearted and fun, beginning with a text message and ending with an old chestnut. 'How vivid it all was,' he writes. 'How soon the dream is finished.'
Dream? Well, it's good to know that even scarily intelligent theoretical physicists can't get themselves out of some narrative dilemmas.
Alan Taylor.The Sunday Herald. July 11, 2004
It is just about possible, I suppose, that Andrew Crumey's new novel, Mobius Dick, is the most marvellous thing since deep fried Mars bars. Who he? I hear you ask. Mr Crumey is literary editor of Mayday! Mayday! and was briefly on the latest "Best of young British novelists" list until he ruled himself out because he was too aged.
Reviewing Mobius Dick, the Hootsmon, Mayday! Mayday!'s sister paper, talked about "erotic, subtle prose imbued with a touch of jocosity to defuse the charge of lust". Ignoring for the moment the question that must be on all of your lips - what's so awful about lust? - the Hootsmon loyally congratulated Mr Crumey on his "difficult time-shifts" and "altered states of dubious consciousness", concluding: "The writing exhilarates at its finest, and keeps you afloat the rest of the way."
Personally, I always feel that it's good to keep afloat while reading a novel, but that is by the by. What is more to the point is the credibility of a review in a paper whose reviewer cannot claim to be unbiased, particularly when that reviewer, jocose Tom Adair, reviews regularly for Mr Crumey in Mayday! Mayday! Indeed, he put in an appearance last Sunday. Listen closely and you may hear the squeaking of backs being scratched.
Could they perhaps be related?
Paul Pickering. The Express. August 20, 2004
When I was revising for my finals I found myself in a cubbyhole with a physicist who at first resented my presence until, as I was trying to learn quotes from Marlowe and he w restled with finite probabilities, we discovered a mutual interest in the Kray twins and would wander off to look up the court case together.
Somewhere around Jack The Hat McVitie being concreted into the Bow flyover he started to explain the basis of Einstein's theories to me: "Imagine the universe as a five-pointed star with all the points being the Bow Flyover. . ." until I had the same brow-furrowed expression as dear Ronnie and Reggie in the famous David Bailey picture. I now cannot think of quantum theory without seeing those hard-boiled eyes looking at me, daring me not to understand.
The same thrillingly fearful confusion descends in Andrew Crumey's brilliant new novel, which has double personality at its core. John Ringer is a professor of theoretical physics who "by chance" stumbles into a literature seminar called V icious Cycloids. He is appalled by its "parade of coincidences masquerading as insight". But, after he leaves, he cannot get rid of the question of whether we are governed by chance and coincidence and that everything is as random as it seems.
All this might be put down to donnish indigestion, except he has received a text w hich says: "Call me: H." He once loved a girl called Helen and he is convinced it is from her as he travels to the highlands of Scotland to give a lecture and meet an old student who works in a nuclear plant.
The student tells of a plan at his Craigcarron plant to build a network of quantum computers for instant global communication. Ringer knows this will be terribly dangerous because, harnessing the energy of the vacuum between reflective plates, the potential production of non-collapsible wave function corresponding to a high-energy photon could wreak all manner of havoc. When w aves are measured they collapse in a quantum jump, thus an electron is everywhere and nowhere until it interacts, leaving its footprint on the universe. For the writer, two conflicting stories can be true because w hen the universe splits again, after any event, what is real depends on your frame of reference. Confused? Most people outside physics departments and certain mental hospitals are.
And as far as I know, the Krays never used the quantum theory in general or this Copenhagen Interpretation in particular as a defence for slaughtering Jack the Hat and being home with their mum at the same time, taking tea.
Wave function MUST collapse or the planned hall of quantum mirrors at Craigcarron will become a device where "rebounding particles would be ghosts and vampires, oscillating eternally between one universe and the next, bridging worlds and confounding them." But this is not all.
We have allusions to Herman Melville, Thomas Mann, Foucault and Nietzsche, coupled with an energy which makes this a real page-turner. People vanish before each other's eyes and Proust's fiction was actually written by Flaubert.
AMONG all this are the fumbling attempts of Harry Dick (a reference to writer Philip K. Dick) to write fiction.
Coincidences and chances come together until we realise that the Ringer story is being composed (or not) by the bed-bound Dick.
But the narrative is always convincing. Mobius Dick is a triumph of a book and one which will keep you thinking long after you have put it down. Ringer is thoroughly entertaining in this wonderfully baffling novel. I can see Ronnie and Reggie staring at me right now. . . I do understand, boys. Honest.
Kevin Wood. The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo). October 3, 2004
Andrew Crumey has clearly taken the dictum "write what you know" to heart, and with his PhD in theoretical physics and job as literary editor at a major weekly newspaper, Scotland on Sunday, what he knows makes for a interesting mix.
In his fifth novel, Mobius Dick, Crumey combines quantum theory with literary and scientific history to produce an imaginative, erudite and playful novel of alternate realities peopled by such historical luminaries as authors E.T.A. Hoffman, Herman Melville and Thomas Mann, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, composer Robert Schumann and scientist Erwin Schrodinger.
When Scottish physicist John Ringer receives a mysterious text message--"Call me: H"--on his new "Q-phone" he wonders if it could be from his former lover, Helen.Visiting a former student at a secretive research center, Ringer is offered a chance to work on a new kind of communications and computing technology based on quantum theory and meets Helen's double. Things get progressively stranger and more mysterious for Ringer as coincidences mount and his memory starts to play tricks.
Ringer's story is intercut with excerpts from a metafictive novel supposedly published in 1949 by Cromwell Press in the British Democratic Republic. Heinrich Behring's The Angel Returns relates a visit by Goethe's mistress to Schumann in a mental hospital and a capsule history of Schumann and his wife, Clara, in which Brahms appears as Clara's lover.
Next, in another narrative thread that could be part of Ringer's world, Behring's "reality" or another metafictive excerpt, we meet accident victim Harry Dick who may be suffering from false memory syndrome along with partial amnesia. He meets a fellow patient named Clara and a writing therapist who has never heard of Mann or Gustav Flaubert.
Another supposed excerpt from a Behring novel Professor Faust deals with Schrodinger's sojourn at a Swiss rest clinic where he has come to meet his lover and search for a scientific theory that will make him famous.
Crumey shuffles these four threads until the cards blur together, handling the deck like a professional sharp. Themes examined include causality, dualism, the differences between what is real, what is remembered and what is imagined, and particle/wave quantum theory.
It sounds heavy, but the author leavens the heady mix of provocative ideas and twisting, tailswallowing plot with a generous measure of humor that runs from goofily sophomoric to cleverly self-referential. In the opening chapter, Ringer stumbles on a literary lecture titled "Vicious Cycloids" that absurdly cross-references Moby-Dick, the works of Schumann, Hoffmann and Mann. Ringer scoffs at the false significance given to coincidences in the arts, musing: "No doubt some imaginative novelist could conceive a logical scheme linking everything: Hoffmann, Schumann, Schrodinger, Mann. Some grand unified theory in which Helen and Ringer would be quantum resonances...a narrative inevitability." Mobius Dick is a pleasurable paradox that leaves the reader smiling, if a little dizzy.
Michael Holroyd. New Statesman "Books of the Year". November 29, 2004
I have a weakness for Andrew Crumey's novels. I call it a weakness because I've noticed that, when reading them in waiting-rooms or on trains, people look up angrily whenever I laugh. There's much to laugh at in Mobius Dick. Like a magical conjuror, Crumey keeps all manner of subjects - chaos and coincidence, quantum mechanics, psychoanalysis, technology, telepathy and much else - whirling amazingly in the air. Owen Sheers's The Dust Diaries breaks every rule and ignores all the guidelines that divide fiction from non-fiction as he tracks down his great-great-uncle, once a legendary figure in Southern Rhodesia. 'I want more than facts,' he writes, though acknowledging that fiction arises from facts and that stories never end. I hope not too many writers try to follow his example, but simply enjoy what is a unique achievement written with integrity and great imaginative power.
Scarlett Thomas. Independent on Sunday "Books of the Year". December 26, 2004
The most exciting novel I read was Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey (Picador pounds 16.99), probably the only novel this year (ever?) to explain the wave function and then apply its principles to a work of fiction. It was the only book I read twice, and the only one to inspire me to draw a diagram. Maybe I had mangled my mind, however, by previously reading the whole of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Sceptre pounds 16.99) in Torquay Coach Park (don't ask). This must be one of very few novels in which the structure alone makes you feel like an intrepid mountaineer. There's only one thing at the top of the mountain - but it is, well, a pretty big thing. Jonathan Coe's sequel to The Rotters' Club, The Closed Circle (Viking pounds 17.99) was certainly the most compulsive novel I read this year. To get the full effect, you'll need to re-read The Rotters' Club and then arrange for someone to make you hot chocolate for a few days (you could always feign a cold) while you lie in bed gasping with delight (you can pretend you're coughing). Coe's cleverest moment? Creating an ambitious, unscrupulous, right wing New Labour MP, and then having him oppose the Second Gulf War. Makes you wonder what kinds of idiots actually did support it.
Fiona Mcglynn. Evening News (Edinburgh). January 31, 2005
THE JAMES TAIT BLACK NOVEL LONG LIST 2004: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell River of the Brokenhearted by David Adams Richards Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey Paradise by AL Kennedy Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi GB84 by David Peace Havoc in its Third Year by Ronan Bennett Case Histories by Kate Atkinson In Another Light by Andrew Greig The Master by Colm Toibin The Afterglow by Anthony Cartwright Author, Author by David Lodge
Jonathan Gibbs. The Daily Telegraph. June 18, 2005
When the physicist John Ringer receives an anonymous text message saying "Call me: H", he thinks it could be from his former lover Hannah. What follows is a playful piece of scientific and literary conjuring, with Schrdinger, Schumann and Melville all folded into three increasingly bizarre interlocking narratives.
The central plot hangs on a quantum computer buried deep under a Scottish mental hospital that Ringer fears might just produce "the biggest bang in 14million years" - or, worse, entangle our reality with other possible realities, turning "the planet, perhaps the very cosmos itself, into a joke, which God alone might laugh at".
The author has a PhD in theoretical physics, so you feel you're in safe hands, even as he leads you on a merry dance through the madder fringes of scientific conjecture. I'm not sure my grip on non-collapsible wave functions was any firmer by the end of the novel, but it was certainly a stimulating ride.
Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski. Independent on Sunday (London). July 10, 2005
When physicist John Ringer receives a text message from someone called simply 'H', he immediately wonders if it's from a former lover, Helen. Later, having travelled to Craigcarron nuclear power station in the far north of Scotland for discussions about some revolutionary technology, he meets a woman who he's sure is Helen; but she's a journalist called Laura, investigating why so many people in the area have become sick. Haunted by his old flame and disturbed by hallucinations, Ringer wonders if the work at Craigcarron might be dangerous: the deployment of quantum computers like this, he once theorised, could lead to 'reality' breaking down.
While these events unfold we are also presented with chapters authored by one Heinrich Behring, a character writing in the British Democratic Republic in 1949; and the tale of a hospitalised man called Harry suffering from memory loss. Behring's tales offer subtly warped versions of history as we know it; Harry's tale always feels like it's leading back towards Ringer. Both strands let Crumey develop ideas raised in the main 'Ringer' narrative (although it's questionable whether you can call it that by the end of the book).
This is a brilliant exposition of the possibilities lurking in quantum physics and an aggressive take on how the idea of 'great art' is losing currency. It's an absolute sin that this book didn't win last year's Man Booker Prize.
Barbara Black. The Gazette (Montreal). April 8, 2006
Andrew Crumey is a Scottish Renaissance man: a literary editor with a doctorate in theoretical physics. In Mobius Dick, he has written a challenging but enjoyable novel in which science is more than a device; it's a character in the plot.
The story begins with John Ringer, a physicist, who gets a mysterious cell phone text message saying "Call me: H." Is H his old flame, Helen, with whom he struck up a romance 20 years ago while discussing German philosophy? No, it's Harry Dick, a novelist with amnesia, who has been writing a story in which Ringer is the central character.
The plot continues, encompassing a potentially dangerous quantum communications device at a decommissioned nuclear station, the cat-in-a-box theory of Einstein contemporary Erwin Schrodinger, the mental illness of musician Robert Schumann, the novels of Thomas Mann, a Fascist British republic and many other intriguing things.
The Mobius strip is a three-dimensional figure with only one edge and side, a continuous twisted loop. This novel is like that. By exploring the conundrum of quantum physics with parallel stories and conflicting realities, it suggests that with the intervention of chance, all things are possible.
Fortunately, Crumey knows how to write witty, appealing fiction. His physicist isn't a know-it-all. He's just an ordinary guy who can't figure out the options on his cell phone. When John Ringer discovers he might not be real - might, in fact, be a ringer, or a copy - we all squirm a little.
Kirkus Reviews. February 1, 2015
Worlds collide when a university professor stumbles across a machine that threatens the fabric of the universe. Readers with a deep interest in theoretical physics, applied philosophy and alternative histories may dig this imaginative but demanding speculative novel by Scottish writer Crumey (The Secret Knowledge, 2013, etc.), which was published in the U.K. in 2004 and is now available for the first time in the U.S. The central mystery is carried forward by physics professor John Ringer (whose name is just the first instance of Crumey playing with identity), who receives a mysterious text on his "Q-Phone" that simply reads "Call me: H." He wonders if H. is actually Helen, the former paramour who disappeared after leaving him. Once Crumey has set up Ringer's visit to a remote town called Craigcarron to give a talk about noncollapsible wave functions, he introduces interstitial chapters from invented novels by author "Heinrich Behring" that concern, among other things, composer Robert Schumann's confinement in a mental hospital and the intellectual struggles of physicist Erwin Schröaut;dinger, he of the famous cat.
Crumey also introduces a "Harry Dick," who is confined to a nearby mental hospital, suffering from a new illness that causes victims to lose the ability to separate fact from fiction. Ringer soon learns that a murky corporation has launched a machine powered by quantum technology that could potentially violate the laws of physics. "We would all be like Schröaut;dinger's cat: an unresolved mixture of possibilities, in a box from which no power of heaven or earth could ever free us," he muses. "It might take no more than a poor alignment of those nickel-tantalum mirrors to cause the fatal leak of doubt. Then once it spread, there would be no more truth or falsehood; no fact or fiction."An intellectually nimble doomsday scenario that makes all those worries of creating an accidental black hole at the Large Hadron Collider sound benign by comparison.
Barcelona Review. Issue 44 (Sep-Oct 2004)
Intellectually stimulating thriller/sci-fi/historical fantasy/philosophical novel—the best I can do to summarize this intriguing new novel by English author Crumey (Pfitz, 1995; Mr Mee, 2000)— which is sure to be a contender for the Mann Booker Prize. Multiple themes and plot directions are at play—causality and coincidence, parallel universes, fictionalized historical encounters, the relevance of books, the key to creation, etc—with quantum physics forming the loose structural thread. It may sound daunting, but it's not: the thriller element keeps one turning the pages; the sharp, clear prose and flashes of satire are a delight; and the story—and stories within stories—make for a mesmerizing read.
Mobius Dick begins with John Ringer, a physics professor, reading a text message on his Q-phone that he is unable to understand. It merely says, "Call me: H." But who is H? He thinks of a lover from many years ago named Helen, but that doesn't seem likely. He tries to read his phone menu to understand how to trace a call but fails, and inadvertently stumbles across the university itinerary, which announces a lunchtime talk to be given by an English professor, titled "Vicious Cycloids." He attends the talk and gets angry at the woman's forced interpretation of a passage in Moby Dick, "with its facile relativism, its denial of objective certainty, its intellectual game playing" (the joke being that this could apply to Mobius Dick).
Shortly thereafter, Ringer is invited to the north of Scotland by an ex-student, Don Chambers, to give a talk on one of his physics papers. Chambers, now working at a nuclear power facility that is about to become defunct, tells Ringer that although the plant is closing it will soon convert into a huge physics research center with loads of money backing from U.S. entrepreneurs. He hints that their work involves "harnessing vacuum energy," and he promises to let Ringer in on the project if Ringer will "adjust" some figures in his paper to appease the money backers. The principal goal is the creation of a quantum computer, which would "make the Internet look like pigeon post." As Chambers says: "The smartest people have already given up on superstrings and black holes . . . the smart guys have gone inside the wire." They have already begun to create the energy vacuum chamber, the Vacuum Array, involving something like a vast array of mirrors, serving as a portal of sorts to the universe.
Ringer points out the danger of the project; i.e., at such uncharted energies, quantum theory itself might be altered. It could create all sorts of havoc if something were to go wrong—parallel universes, past/future collisions, unpredictable quantum wave behavior, people meeting their double: a totally confused universe in short. Chambers refuses to listen to his old professor and simply declares: "I want you to be with me, not against me."
While Ringer is staying in the small Scottish village of Ardnahanish (where Herman Melville once stayed) near the research plant, he sees a woman who he thinks is Helen—and indeed there are many similarities—but this woman is Laura, a journalist, looking to find out why so many people are sick in the area. Ringer, in order to get close to her, decides to tell her everything he knows about the research project, and he attempts an explanation in layman's terms. An old hotel outside the village has been converted into a heavily guarded mental hospital, and they both vow to get inside somehow, knowing it must be related to the quantum project.
As we follow Ringer on his quest, his story is intercut with the English "translations" of extracts from the novels of one Heinrich Behring. Also spliced in is the story of Harry Dick. As one might surmise from the title, the multiple stories reflect and coil around on each other.
The story of Harry Dick begins in a hospital. He has had an accident and doesn't remember his past. The female Dr. Blake—ambitious to promote her discovery of AMD (Anomalous Memory Disorder)—is "treating" Harry. In a humorously satiric touch, a "writer-in-residence" at the hospital is assigned to Harry. She gives him blank paper on which to write, and dumps the contents of her purse on his bed, telling him to make a story of what he sees. (She mentions that in her M.A. writing program it was more important to "know your market" than to read books; she has never heard of Thomas Mann, and concludes he must not have been too important.) Harry has no concept of time or who or where he is. But he will indeed fill in the blank pages, and in them he writes of one John Ringer. Thus begins one parallel: that between Ringer and his old lover Helen; and of Harry Dick and Clara, another patient he meets at the hospital.
Meanwhile, in the novel extracts of Heinrich Behring, we read of Goethe's mistress, Bettina von Arnim, and her visit to Robert Schumann in a mental hospital, where he is composing the as yet incomprehensible music of Schoenberg/Leverkühn. We get a 'history' of Schumann (and his wife Clara), in which Brahms appears as Clara's lover and Joseph Joachim as her friend. Elsewhere we follow the physicist Erwin Schröaut;dinger, who plans a rendezvous with his lover in the Swiss sanatorium where he was once a tuberculosis patient. She doesn't show but he ends up with the head doctor's wife, Frau Schwarkopf; although his principal reason for checking into the sanatorium is to wrestle into being the idea that will make his name. Much table conversation ensues, covering Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Byron's Manfred, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Schopenhauer and others. Also produced is a letter by Melville written to Nathaniel Hawthorne while Melville was staying in Scotland in search of his ancestors—all names which crop up and spiral around each other throughout the book.
In one sense Mobius Dick is an old-fashioned "hall of mirrors" novel, but it is taken to new and daring heights. The whole quantum physics debate sounds plausible enough in this world of Star Wars and cyberspace—OK, it's ridiculous, but we can suspend disbelief anyway. What is the next step after all? As convoluted as the plot is, the novel is a success because whether the author is talking about a quantum physics equation or Schumann's madness or the cat theory of Schröaut;dinger or an addled B & B hostess or an overly ambitious physicist who now speaks like an American businessman—it's all equally engaging and entertaining. Ringer's story finds its dynamic conclusion. But in a postscript by Heinrich Behring, we have the ending which will stick with us. I dare not give it away, except to say that it leaves the reader questioning the universe in which he finds himself.
A fitting blurb for the book could be the conclusion of Melville's letter to Hawthorne:
What worth is a book, if it be not aflame with madness? Are the scriptures not filled with divine folly? And if my words offend you, then you have not understood them. There is a wisdom that is madness: I have seen it here in Ardnahanish, in this ancestral land of ghosts and spirits. Hail, friend!