To lov­abil­ity and be­yond

Andrew Crumey’s in­tel­lec­tual bril­liance is at risk of ob­scur­ing his read­ers’ plea­sure, finds Lau­rence Ware­ing

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

SPUTNIKCALEDONIA Andrew Crumey

WPi­cador £7.99 hen a reviewer re­sorts to de­scrib­ing a novel by high­light­ing its au­thor’s ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ence (as in “the nov­el­ist Andrew Crumey also has a PhD in the­o­ret­i­cal physics”) or tries to nail a book’s style by imag­in­ing some curious lit­er­ary hy­brid (as in “Sput­nik Cale­do­nia reads like Ge­orge Or­well has got into bed with Kings­ley Amis”), then you can be fairly sure that some­where at the back of the reviewer’s mind is a nag­ging voice say­ing that this book adds up to some­thing rather less than the sum of its parts.

In the case of Sput­nik Cale­do­nia, this is a cry­ing shame be­cause the book, though it re­vis­its some familiar Crumey set­tings, fairly fizzes with in­tel­lec­tual in­quis­i­tive­ness and jokes. With his sur­real world (or should that be worlds?) of se­cret space mis­sions and over-priced pars­ley, Crumey boldly goes where few other nov­el­ists could even be­gin to nav­i­gate.

Three parts in three dif­fer­ent styles trace the life of Robert Coyle. He is a bed­wet­ting school kid with a fan­tas­tic imag­i­na­tion and an am­bi­tion to be­come an astro­naut. He is a sol­dier in post-war com­mu­nist Scot­land who vol­un­teers for a sci­en­tific mis­sion at “The In­stal­la­tion”. In part three, he is – well what is he? – a space­man on a mis­sion, a pae­dophile or is some­thing else go­ing on al­to­gether?

It’s the sec­ond part, the world of The In­stal­la­tion, that dom­i­nates Sput­nik Cale­do­nia. Yet in a book where ev­ery in­ci­dent, phrase and char­ac­ter has its echo some­where else in the story, The In­stal­la­tion couldn’t ex­ist if we didn’t first know about the or­di­nary 1960s town of Ken­zie, where Robert grows up. It’s too long, this in­tro­duc­tory sec­tion, and the jokes wear thin, but we need the life of young Robert – the Rus­sians in space, the old ra­dio­gram, his fa­ther’s in­sis­tently ra­tio­nal mono­logues – for the sin­is­ter world of part two to be pos­si­ble. Above all we need Ein­stein’s The­ory of Rel­a­tiv­ity (Robert’s fas­ci­na­tion with it leaves the lo­cal li­brar­ian be­mused) and that all-im­por­tant first girl en­counter.

For The In­stal­la­tion is an ex­po­si­tion of the “real world” in which Robert has grown up. His child­hood is twisted through sev­eral de­grees in or­der to re-sur­face in an en­vi­ron­ment at once in­tan­gi­ble and log­i­cal. It’s a world of state sur­veil­lance, hooded pris­on­ers and real truths kept un­der wraps. (So, then, maybe this isn’t an imag­ined world af­ter all.)

The In­stal­la­tion is a bleak place, where Robert is ini­ti­ated into a mis­sion de­signed to un­der­stand a mov­ing black hole, known as “The Red Star”. He knows he will give his life to the mis­sion, one way or an­other. Here, Sput­nik Cale­do­nia reads like a teenager’s ad­ven­ture story, ex­cept that it oc­ca­sion­ally feels as if it’s be­ing made up on the spot – as if, in fact, th­ese char­ac­ters are re­ally chil­dren play-act­ing in the woods. Then again, Crumey also in­vests Robert’s ex­pe­ri­ence with ado­les­cence’s deep­est pre­oc­cu­pa­tions – fear, para­noia and sex. Like the space­man’s rocket and his fa­ther’s wa­ter pis­tol, Robert’s world is darkly phal­lo­cen­tric. The pe­nis is king and women (but for a dom­i­na­trix) are slaves. Crumey tells a story not about the emo­tional fan­tasies of a teenage boy but through them.

For all that Crumey bril­liantly in­hab­its the ado­les­cent mind, the re­sults are strangely pas­sion­less. Ev­ery el­e­ment of the book is as care­fully in­ter­locked as a Ru­bik’s Cube, but there’s an an­thro­po­log­i­cal ob­jec­tiv­ity about the writ­ing that never qu ite fully en­gages the emo­tions. It is nei­ther ter­ri­fy­ing, like Or­well, nor hi­lar­i­ous, like Amis. You want to love this novel for its in­tel­lec­tual ex­u­ber­ance. How­ever – and here’s the book’s real black hole – it stub­bornly re­fuses to be loved, pre­fer­ring in­stead to fly ideas like hy­per­ac­tive kites.

Crumey plays in­tently with the no­tion that all truths are rel­a­tive, and asks (but does not an­swer) a pro­foundly se­ri­ous ques­tion about how many truths there can be within a healthy democ­racy. And in the book’s con­clud­ing sec­tion, he re­it­er­ates (but does not ex­am­ine) the most un­set­tling of truths – that life turns on a dime. Go down one path and you may save the world; go down an­other and you could end up with ra­dium-in­duced can­cer.

The as­tro­physi­cist in Crumey wants to say that the uni­verse is in­fi­nite and so are our choices. The prag­ma­tist in him knows that you can only choose one be­cause “God’s such a bor­ing bas­tard.” But this melan­choly fi­nal sec­tion is, un­like the other two, too short – as if Crumey has been more in­ter­ested in play­ing with the­o­ries than in en­gag­ing with mean­ing­ful so­lu­tions.

The writer and jour­nal­ist Andrew Crumey also has a PhD in the­o­ret­i­cal physics

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