WHEN I ATTENDED university, probably around the same time that Andrew Crumey did, it was pretty much a given that arts students and science students looked down on each other’s work. Science thought art lazed in bed till lunch-time and sat exams a two-year-old could pass; art despised science’s rote-learning and geekiness. And ne’er the twain shall meet. But in the late Eighties, the arts in University were given a rude shock: they were to be subjected to Thatcherite market forces, to science-type assessments and questions about productivity rates. It hardly made art and science better friends, but enforced shared values had an impact.
In 1995, an American science reporter called Dava Sobel had a surprise popular hit with a true-life historical science tale. Longitude charted the discovery in the eighteenth century by John Harrison, a Yorkshire clockmaker, of the way to measure longitude (and thus save sailors’ lives). It was non-fiction but its story was paced and characterised as if it were a novel. The “true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his age” combined art and science to great effect, and its success did much to encourage similar hybrids.
A year before Sobel’s book appeared to such world-wide acclaim, however, debut author Andrew Crumey, who had a doctorate in theoretical physics, published his novel, Music, In a Foreign Language. It was self-consciously literary, telling its story from multiple points of view and it was political too, taking as its setting a British Communist state. Its main character, Charles King was a theoretical physicist based in Cambridge, who was having an affair with a much younger woman whom his secretly gay friend, Robert Waters, suspected may be a government spy. Even King’s physical attraction to women was subject to his more cerebral concerns: “Although he could easily assess the volumes, the masses, the textures which ought in principle to lie beneath a cotton blouse, or a skirt; still that final act, that process of mental undressing, was a conceptual leap which forever lay beyond him. The naked image was an abstraction, a theory; a thing inferred, but not capable of being appreciated unless actually seen”.
Crumey’s novel was praised for its choice of literary antecedents: “a writer more interested in inheriting the mantle of Perec and Kundera than Amis and Drabble” wrote one critic, and this European heritage surfaced in subsequent novels, not just in terms of Crumey’s style (parallel worlds, competing narratives, intellectual voices) but in terms of content: early novels Pfitz and D’Alembert’s Principle hinted at their legacy in the titles alone, and later works like Mr Mee and Mobius Dick revelled in their use of Rousseau, Schumann, Hoffman, Schrodinger. In fact, his first novel, Music, and his last-but-one, Mobius Dick, shared quite a lot: both referred to a “British Democratic Republic”; both featured a male physicist as their central character; both were concerned with alternative realities, how science could help or hinder us to assert what is real and what is not; both were concerned with the manipulation of history as part of that reality.
And so to Crumey’s latest, Sputnik Caledonia. Robbie Coyle isn’t a physicist but he is an astronaut in the alternative reality that is a Communist British state, the British Democratic Republic, and, like Mobius Dick and Crumey’s previous five novels, it weaves in the work of the great European philosophers and writers like Goethe, Schiller, Kant. Sputnik Caledonia begins with a Crumey staple: a lecture on physics by an older man, in this case, nine-year-old Robbie’s father. It’s the early Seventies and a new plane, Concorde, flies overhead. Robbie asks his father how it can fly faster than the speed of sound. Robbie’s father gives a lengthy illustration by way of explanation, which begins with him asking his son to “imagine a plane that could fly at the speed of a bullet. On board, a hijacker sits patiently waiting in seat 13C, gazing out at white clouds rolling like cauliflower beneath him. At a carefully chosen moment he will stand up, bring out the pistol he carries concealed in his clothing, and point it at an air hostess called Barbara Perkins who happens to be travelling on her very first flight and will subsequently describe the tragic events which follow to the world’s press and television reporters”.
This is explained on a family walk in the country; Robbie and his parents and sister pass a memorial to an act of heroism that took place in the mid-nineteenth century, when a young man jumped into a river to save two small children from drowning. Seasoned Crumey readers will know that any individual act in history – whether hijacking a plane or saving two small children – will be subject to the forces of the universe and therefore will not stay the same, and that their alternative, or at least one of them, is bound to re-appear somewhere later in the book. As, indeed, both incidences do.
The first section of this, Crumey’s lengthiest novel to date at over 550 pages, concerns the young Robbie and his world. And it’s a magical section, one that’s winning thanks to the naïve yet also intelligent voice of pretend-astronaut Robbie, whose relationship with his father, fond but distant, in a Scottish kind of way, is one built on trust. Joe Coyle is a committed Communist who sees government control in everything, and who tears to shreds every official statement he hears. He engenders in his son a healthy scepticism and encourages both his curiosity and his fondness for logic. But this is no simple father-son story; details from Robbie’s childhood will emerge in a different form in the second section of the novel. Out playing one day with a school friend, Robbie comes across a derelict piece of land where a huge pile of odd-looking green glass has been deposited. He fanta-sizes about it being a secret government installation, removes a small piece of glass and keeps it under his pillow at night.
The second section begins with an adult Robbie, who has been selected as a volunteer at, yes, indeed, a special secret government installation. It’s a place closed to the outside world, but does have its own ‘town’, where Robbie and the other ‘volunteers’ will be housed during their time at the installation. It’s a depressing vision; there is little variety in the town, little outside signs of wealth. Grown-up Robert has no history; he never refers to his past, the time before his ‘illness’. The family with whom Robbie is staying resemble his own childhood one, if only he could remember them – the Communist believer father, Arthur; his long-suffering but patient and loving wife, Dorothy; the hostile and sceptical daughter, Miriam.
Meanwhile, training at the installation involves various bizarre tests. Their trainer, the beautiful and inaccessible Rosalind alternately tempts and torments them, humouring them then laughing at their reactions.
Senior Professor Kaupff (“the father of the bomb”) lectures them in astronomy, philosophy and Marxism, testing their knowledge and exposing what little they know. They are taken as a group to the bar-cum-brothel, the Blue Cat, to see how they behave. It is a miserable experience for Robert, surrounded as he is by male volunteers who treat the women in the bar with contempt.
Recognising one of them as a waitress in the installation canteen, he tries to help her get out of prostitution, and this leads him into the hands of Miriam’s friends, who are fighting back against the government.
As, one by one, each volunteer falls away after failing character tests, the Installation and the government who run it look increasingly sinister. Volunteers have constantly to watch what they say, and especially to whom they say it. Their commander, Davis, a chauvinistic Party man is ready to report on, and to dispose of, anyone who does not embrace the Party line. He is also, of course, a man interested only in his own success. Crumey toys with a number of possible betrayers of Robert: Rosalind, Kaupff, Davis, even Miriam and Arthur, who, for different reasons, could expose him as a danger to the government, although he is no such thing.
Work at the installation concerns the location of the Red star, which Kaupff believes is “emitting information in the form of scalar waves”. As he explains to Robert, “Perhaps the frozen star is really the gateway to some distant region of the galaxy – or to an entirely separate universe, a mirror world whose history is quite unlike ours. There could be another you, with a completely different life”. As the hero ofMobius Dick, physicist John Ringer contemplates Schrodinger’s theories, Kaupff recalls the 1957 proposition of a certain Hugh Everett who wrote of the “‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics; he went to work at the Pentagon and pursued the rest of his career behind closed doors leading to amusing suggestions that he was involved in attempts to make parallel universes interact with each other in the hope of steering our world into one where the Russian revolution never happened” (Mobius Dick). As his ‘author’ protagonist says in Music, “Why do these medical anecdotes fascinate me? ….Because I am reminded that what we regard as reality is only a point in an infinite space of possibilities”.
These themes of similar worlds, other realities, history as a series of coincidences that could easily have turned out any other way is of course a consequence of Crumey’s combined interests in physics, philosophy and Marxism. What is interesting about these theories is their reiteration in so many of his works, which begins to beg the question of their relevance. Yes, we could be living in a post-Communist revolutionary state. That we’re not doesn’t exclude the possibility of us existing in it in some parallel universe, if we want to follow those theories. But what does it tell us to be presented with this so many times? When the world we live in is dominated by capitalism, what does repeatedly contemplating Britain from an imagined post-Communist point of view do for us?
If there is no history because we simply repeat ourselves in never-ending cycles of life, populating the universe with parallel worlds, where is humanity? This missing aspect of humanity was a failing of Crumey’s work before now. His characters have often seemed little more than ciphers (for example, the cold, unconvincing courting scene where Ringer woos his first partner, Helen at the beginning of Mobius Dick; their conversation tends to go along the lines of “did you know…”, “yes of course I did”, and so on), spouting theories and philosophies, which, fascinating though they may be, do not a living, breathing, credible character make. But, now, with Sputnik Caledonia, full of the same theories and philosophies as it is, Crumey has found a way to make us care about the people he’s writing about.
In the third section, which attempts to unite the first two sections of the book, we return to the Coyle family, but many years later. The parents are still mourning the death of their young son, Robbie. Joe Coyle is now an old man, retired and forgetful, his days comprised of fetching and carrying for his invalid wife. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of what has happened to this once-content family; estrangement and tragedy have altered it forever. Meanwhile, a young boy known only as Kid has met a strange man who seems to be from another world and who goes by the name of – Robert Coyle. This adult figure returns us to the kind of cipher-type character that Crumey previously liked to use. But this time, thanks to the magic he weaves around the figure of Joe Coyle, the humanity of the character is not lost.
It’s easy to see why this is Crumey’s best novel to date – his own theories may not have advanced; familiar philosophical forebears may still be trotted out to dazzle us with their thoughts – but here, at last, are characters we can feel for, who we can identify with. Science fused with art, this successfully reveals our humanity. And humanity is what underpins it all.
Andrew Crumey Picador, £25
pp553, ISBN 9780330448413