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issue 44: Sept - Oct 2004

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Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey: Picador, 2004

Intellectually stimulating thriller/sci-fi/historical fantasy/philosophical novel—the best I can do to summarize this intriguing new novel by English author Crumey (Pfitz, 1995; Mr Mee, 2000)— which is sure to be a contender for the Mann Booker Prize. Multiple themes and plot directions are at play—causality and coincidence, parallel universes, fictionalized historical encounters, the relevance of books, the key to creation, etc—with quantum physics forming the loose structural thread. It may sound daunting, but it’s not: the thriller element keeps one turning the pages; the sharp, clear prose and flashes of satire are a delight; and the story—and stories within stories—make for a mesmerizing read.

Mobius Dick begins with John Ringer, a physics professor, reading a text message on his Q-phone that he is unable to understand. It merely says, "Call me: H." But who is H? He thinks of a lover from many years ago named Helen, but that doesn’t seem likely. He tries to read his phone menu to understand how to trace a call but fails, and inadvertently stumbles across the university itinerary, which announces a lunchtime talk to be given by an English professor, titled "Vicious Cycloids." He attends the talk and gets angry at the woman’s forced interpretation of a passage in Moby Dick, "with its facile relativism, its denial of objective certainty, its intellectual game playing" (the joke being that this could apply to Mobius Dick).

Shortly thereafter, Ringer is invited to the north of Scotland by an ex-student, Don Chambers, to give a talk on one of his physics papers. Chambers, now working at a nuclear power facility that is about to become defunct, tells Ringer that although the plant is closing it will soon convert into a huge physics research center with loads of money backing from U.S. entrepreneurs. He hints that their work involves "harnessing vacuum energy," and he promises to let Ringer in on the project if Ringer will "adjust" some figures in his paper to appease the money backers. The principal goal is the creation of a quantum computer, which would "make the Internet look like pigeon post." As Chambers says: "The smartest people have already given up on superstrings and black holes . . . the smart guys have gone inside the wire." They have already begun to create the energy vacuum chamber, the Vacuum Array, involving something like a vast array of mirrors, serving as a portal of sorts to the universe.

Ringer points out the danger of the project; i.e., at such uncharted energies, quantum theory itself might be altered. It could create all sorts of havoc if something were to go wrong—parallel universes, past/future collisions, unpredictable quantum wave behavior, people meeting their double: a totally confused universe in short. Chambers refuses to listen to his old professor and simply declares: "I want you to be with me, not against me."

While Ringer is staying in the small Scottish village of Ardnahanish (where Herman Melville once stayed) near the research plant, he sees a woman who he thinks is Helen—and indeed there are many similarities—but this woman is Laura, a journalist, looking to find out why so many people are sick in the area. Ringer, in order to get close to her, decides to tell her everything he knows about the research project, and he attempts an explanation in layman’s terms. An old hotel outside the village has been converted into a heavily guarded mental hospital, and they both vow to get inside somehow, knowing it must be related to the quantum project.

As we follow Ringer on his quest, his story is intercut with the English "translations" of extracts from the novels of one Heinrich Behring. Also spliced in is the story of Harry Dick. As one might surmise from the title, the multiple stories reflect and coil around on each other.

The story of Harry Dick begins in a hospital. He has had an accident and doesn’t remember his past. The female Dr. Blake—ambitious to promote her discovery of AMD (Anomalous Memory Disorder)—is "treating" Harry. In a humorously satiric touch, a "writer-in-residence" at the hospital is assigned to Harry. She gives him blank paper on which to write, and dumps the contents of her purse on his bed, telling him to make a story of what he sees. (She mentions that in her M.A. writing program it was more important to "know your market" than to read books; she has never heard of Thomas Mann, and concludes he must not have been too important.) Harry has no concept of time or who or where he is. But he will indeed fill in the blank pages, and in them he writes of one John Ringer. Thus begins one parallel: that between Ringer and his old lover Helen; and of Harry Dick and Clara, another patient he meets at the hospital.

Meanwhile, in the novel extracts of Heinrich Behring, we read of Goethe’s mistress, Bettina von Arnim, and her visit to Robert Schumann in a mental hospital, where he is composing the as yet incomprehensible music of Schoenberg/Leverkühn. We get a ‘history’ of Schumann (and his wife Clara), in which Brahms appears as Clara’s lover and Joseph Joachim as her friend. Elsewhere we follow the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who plans a rendezvous with his lover in the Swiss sanatorium where he was once a tuberculosis patient. She doesn’t show but he ends up with the head doctor’s wife, Frau Schwarkopf; although his principal reason for checking into the sanatorium is to wrestle into being the idea that will make his name. Much table conversation ensues, covering Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Byron’s Manfred, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Schopenhauer and others. Also produced is a letter by Melville written to Nathaniel Hawthorne while Melville was staying in Scotland in search of his ancestors—all names which crop up and spiral around each other throughout the book.

In one sense Mobius Dick is an old-fashioned "hall of mirrors" novel, but it is taken to new and daring heights. The whole quantum physics debate sounds plausible enough in this world of Star Wars and cyberspace—OK, it’s ridiculous, but we can suspend disbelief anyway. What is the next step after all? As convoluted as the plot is, the novel is a success because whether the author is talking about a quantum physics equation or Schumann’s madness or the cat theory of Schrödinger or an addled B & B hostess or an overly ambitious physicist who now speaks like an American businessman—it’s all equally engaging and entertaining. Ringer’s story finds its dynamic conclusion. But in a postscript by Heinrich Behring, we have the ending which will stick with us. I dare not give it away, except to say that it leaves the reader questioning the universe in which he finds himself.

A fitting blurb for the book could be the conclusion of Melville’s letter to Hawthorne:

What worth is a book, if it be not aflame with madness? Are the scriptures not filled with divine folly? And if my words offend you, then you have not understood them. There is a wisdom that is madness: I have seen it here in Ardnahanish, in this ancestral land of ghosts and spirits. Hail, friend!


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Billie Morgan by Joolz Denby: Serpent’s Tail, 2004 (October)

Forty-six-year-old Billie Morgan’s recurring nightmare that her error—her ‘colossal, terminal fuck up’—is about to be uncovered leads her to write down the whole story in a diary cum autobiography cum confession. As a northern ex-biker chick, her memoir is mostly delivered in a chatty, over-a-cup o’ tea style, with sprinklings of Bradford vernacular— ‘tek care of yersel first, right?’. But Billie is articulate and the occasional odd word like ‘perspicacity’ crops up. The big words and the adjectives come to the fore when she veers away from factual story-telling and ruminates. Billie is our narrator and she thinks she paints a reasonably balanced picture of herself, which is actually pretty bleak, but when she lets her guard down and allows others to express their opinions of her we do see chinks, flashes that alert us to the possibility of an even darker person inside.

Directly from the prologue we know that Billie is a murderer. She murdered someone during a drug deal twenty-odd years before. The tension and the thriller aspect of the book builds on what happened? Will she finally get caught, and if so, how and what will be her fate? But her huge ‘fuck up’ is in reality what makes her ‘Billie Morgan’; everything she is today is because of that fateful night. Instead of fleeing Bradford she becomes so anchored to it, so defensive of it, that it would appear impossible she could ever leave. The guilt also causes her to form relationships with the victim’s junkie wife and her son, a boy whom Billie sees as almost her own and the reason she never remarried or had her own kids. So, if she is discovered, if the journalist currently rooting around the past uncovers anything, then Billie’s fragile world collapses and with it the fragile world of those who now depend on her, people she would never have befriended if she just hadn’t….

For me this is the best book, so far, of 2004. It works on all levels, containing strong writing and good plotting, believable characters, a good mix of light and shade, and delivers an acceptable conclusion. The latter is important as it seems the amount of otherwise excellent books destroyed by a hurried or weak ending is on the increase. In fact, even Billie Morgan gave me one or two worries, but luckily Denby pulls it off. If it has faults, they are inconsequential: thriller addicts, for example, may find the childhood sequence rather long, but then they would be missing the fact that it is a wonderful portrayal of family life and growing up in Bradford in the 60s and 70s. I don’t doubt certain reviewers, shamelessly tagging on to the ‘greaser’ bike-gang episodes, will offer comments like ‘a tearaway rip-roaring read that fires on all cylinders’. So, let me get it in first!

Bradford and motorcycle gangs are all part of Denby’s world and the fondness for both gives this novel a breath of authenticity; there is certainly a hint of autobiography here and it was no surprise to find a photo of Denby at the National Portrait Gallery, looking like Billie Morgan—a largish, dare I even say mannish, grown-up biker chick. Denby does more than write critically acclaimed novels (Stone Bay; Corazon); she has performed as a spoken-word artist, worked with cult band New Model Army and Jah Wobble, appeared on numerous radio and television shows, and is an illustrator. Find out more at, where the photo is a lot nicer than the one just mentioned. Highly recommended. MGS

© 2004 The Barcelona Review
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issue 44: September - October 2004  

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