Meet­ing of sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy

THE GREAT CHAIN OF UNBEING By An­drew Crumey (Dedalus, £9.99)

Sunday Herald Life - - Books Reviews -

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

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