Meeting of science and philosophy
THE GREAT CHAIN OF UNBEING By Andrew Crumey (Dedalus, £9.99)
ANDREW Crumey has carved out a unique place for himself amongst Scottish novelists. The Kirkintilloch-born holder of a PhD in theoretical physics (specialising in “infinite dimensional algebras”, no less), he was a voracious reader of great literature throughout his scientific studies, which has resulted in a very distinctive authorial voice and way of looking at the world. His novels, beginning with Music, in a Foreign Language all the way back in 1994, and including Mobius Dick, D’Alembert’s Principle and Sputnik Caledonia, have ventured into exotic, esoteric realms where quantum physics and philosophy merge into one another. In a Crumey book, one might encounter impossible machines, alternate realities or historical figures from the 18th century wrestling with metaphysical conundrums, if not all three at once. And still, for all his inventiveness, originality and proven track record, he remains largely unknown.
The Great Chain of Unbeing, then, is a fine opportunity for new readers to get on board and see the kind of thing he does. It’s comprised of 10 very loosely connected short stories approached in a variety of ways. One of the surprises the book has in store is just how well Crumey writes straight, naturalistic fiction. “Tribology”, about a professor attending a conference in Russia and having an intense conversation with his cabbie on the way to the hotel, is a gripping and ultimately satisfying short story.
And “The Assumption”, by far the longest story here, is the most conventional and the one that elicits the greatest emotional investment in its main character, a troubled young woman who meets an old hippy espousing Zen philosophies just as her relationship with her father and stepmother has reached its lowest ebb.
On the opposite end of the scale, “Between the Tones”, featuring a pianist who goes through life like a paranoid hitman, and which also pairs Theodor Adorno up with the father of FM radio Edwin H. Armstrong, is Crumey at his purest: throwing ideas together to see how they interact, and no doubt being surprised himself at the results. Those yet to discover
Crumey shouldn’t come away with the impression that his oeuvre is po-faced, highbrow experimentalism. His stories are animated by a spirit of mischievous curiosity, nowhere more so than “Fragments of Sand”, wherein a postman elevates his job to the status of art, an insect lectures students on nature’s more extreme mating habits and a subterranean Scotland can’t get its currency taken seriously by surface-dwellers.
There are numerous links between the stories, but they’re subtle and not always noticeable at first glance. But there are also pointers to the future. Self-taught pianist Crumey’s next book is going to be about Beethoven, who gets several mentions here, plus a cameo in a vivid, absorbing vignette about 10-year-old prodigy Carl Czerny nervously auditioning for the composer. It whets the appetite for the forthcoming novel, which might possibly be the culmination of all Crumey’s done to date. For the moment, though, we have The Great Chain of Unbeing, a book bursting with fertile fusions of ideas. Surely this Scottish Borges can’t be overlooked for much longer.
Kirkintillochborn author Andrew Crumey