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