Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Andrew Crumey: Mobius Dick

A few weeks ago I read a half-page review in the Sunday Times (I think it was) of a book called Mobius Dick, by Andrew Crumey. The review was an enthusiastic one, and it gave a warm recommendation of a book which had every appearance of being a work of science fiction – for want of a better description – so I made it my business to get hold of a copy.

Well, sadly the novel didn’t turn out to be as interesting as I’d hoped. But I learnt a little in the process of reading it.

To begin with I learnt something which hadn’t been mentioned in the review that I read, namely that Crumey is the literary editor of The Scotsman. Well, that explains a good deal. You remember that last week I pointed out that a writer will benefit greatly from being a member of one or other of the various mafias. And, when it comes to getting favourable reviews from newspapers, there is one small but perfectly formed mafia which packs a punch like no other: it is the literary editors’ mafia.

Let us suppose, for the sake of example, that you are the literary editor of the Daily Globe, and you have written a book. The one thing that can be guaranteed, and is an even safer bet than that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning, is that every newspaper in what used to be called Fleet Street will review your book.

This is true for others in the newspaper business too, even if you have not quite reached the vertigo-inducing heights of a literary editorship. Being a mere junior reporter will do the trick. In fact, you can probably be the third cousin twice removed of the lady who cleans the editor’s office, and your chances of getting your book reviewed will be much improved.

Why is this so? Well because sooner or later every literary editor is going to write a book himself; or herself. And when that day comes he is naturally going to want to be reviewed, so that he can sell lots of books. So, obviously, he makes sure that he reviews the books written by everybody else in the newspaper racket, just to ensure that he gets a favourable reception when it comes round to his own book-plugging time.

And in case you are sniffing in a somewhat superior way, and thinking how shocking this is, let me point out very sharply that there is nothing immoral or improper in this practice. Goodness me, no. What is the golden rule of morality? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, naturally, every literary editor in Fleet Street will ensure that a book by another literary editor gets at least a half-page review, because that’s the way he himself wants to be treated, next year or the year after. When he finally gets around to writing that novel or whatever. And it follows, therefore, that the fact that Crumey got a big write-up in whatever paper it was that I happened to be reading is not an example of corruption and mutual back-scratching of a dubious kind. Dear me, no. Not at all. It is an example of morality at work. And we would all be better off if there was more of it. I’m sure you agree.

Not everyone does agree, however. This being the world of writers and publishers, there is always someone who grumbles. And shortly before his death, the literary agent Giles Cooper wrote an article about the Fleet Street mafia, criticising it in fairly outspoken terms. He drew attention to the fact that a recent novel by, I think, a reporter on the Evening Standard, had been given lots of column inches, while a much better book (naturally) by one of his own clients (also naturally) had found it hard to get any sort of a mention at all. Was this fair, he asked. And he made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, it was not.

This Times article was, as you will appreciate, a total waste of time. Giles Cooper knew perfectly well how the world works, and he was just taking the opportunity (a) to get his clients mentioned, and (b) to earn a few guineas.

Back to Mobius Dick. If you want to have a really good laugh, try reading the sycophantic and gushing review of the book which appeared in the very newspaper for which Andrew Crumey is the literary editor, namely The Scotsman. ‘Andrew Crumey writes like a dream,’ it begins. Yup, folks, but it could be a nightmare. I nearly fell off my chair laughing. I believe Private Eye has an award for this kind of thing.

Mobius Dick is a hard book to summarise, but briefly it seems to be about the possibility of parallel universes in which things do not happen in quite the same way as they do in the universe with which you and I are familiar. A number of ‘real-life’ historical figures make their appearance, among them Erwin Schrodinger, Robert Schumann, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche again, you see. That son of a bitch gets everywhere; he was in a play by George Bernard Shaw a few days ago.

If I read Mobius Dick correctly, these real-life personages do not have quite the same characteristics and history in the novel as you and I are led to believe they had in the ‘real’ world. Always assuming that we can tell the difference between the real world and an imagined, or parallel one. There is always at least the possibility that we, the readers, or perhaps the characters, are victim to the False Memory Syndrome. What we think we remember as true may just be an idea which somebody has planted in our brains to see how we react.

If that sounds confusing, it is, at least for me, which is one of the reasons why I didn’t like the book all that much. Andrew Crumey, however, has a PhD in theoretical physics, so he probably finds it easier to follow than the rest of us.

One of the redeeming features of Mobius Dick, which kept me reading a little longer than I otherwise might, is Crumey’s sense of humour. At one point he portrays one of his characters, Harry Dick, as receiving ‘writing therapy’ from a woman who has had no less than 17 short stories published. ‘So you see,’ she says, ‘I really am a genuine writer.' One of her stories, she explains, was a three-page tale (Gash magazine, Issue 4) in which an old woman looks out of her kitchen window. ‘That woman was me, really,’ she explains to Harry. ‘But the whole point, do you see, is the moment when she notices the wilting hydrangeas and it brings everything back. We call that sort of thing an epiphany.’ Well, that’s the polite word for it.

Of course there is nothing desperately new, or of itself interesting, in writing a story about shifts in time and space. It is a practice which goes back at least as far as H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine of 1895. But if such a story is to become really involving for the reader, you have to care about the fate of the characters, and I’m afraid that, in this instance, I for one did not care. For a much better treatment of similar ideas, try Alfred Bester’s Tiger, Tiger (aka The Stars My Destination).

Final thought. Mobius Dick is, by any reasonable interpretation, a work of science fiction. But the author, I remind you, is one of the literary elite, and his publisher is Picador, a stronghold of lit’ry stuff. And, my dears, the lit’ry elite would rather cut off its right hand than admit that it has anything to do with that sordid, grubby and downmarket stuff called science fiction. So you will look for this phrase in vain in any of the publisher’s publicity for the book. Instead we are told that it is ‘an homage to classic literature and an indictment of cultural relativism.’ Makes it sound really inviting, doesn't it?

5 comments:

Zing said...

Hi Michael - I think you mean Giles Gordon, not Giles Cooper. And Andrew Crumey is literary editor of Scotland On Sunday, not Scotsman. Actually, I don't think there was any review of his book at all in Scotland On Sunday. Nor in quite a few other papers, from what I recall. But you're perfectly right, of course - the book world's a mafia. Keep up the struggle!

Your comrade in arms, Zing.

Jules said...

Well now the things in Paperback, I've actually read it, and personally I enjoyed it - as someone who loves Borges, Crumey is pretty much right up my street.

The funny thing is that it's been negatively reviewed on SF sites for, well, not ticking the right SF tickboxes. It is SF in the Vonnegut and Philip K Dick sense, but not in the sense of what makes up the SF bestseller lists - and Vonnegut mostly gets stocked in the mainstream literature section these days.

Crumey's previous books are similar in concept (literary games, characters who are fictional authors, etc) so to market it as SF would be to suggest that authors books should all be filed by genre.

Personally, I thought the book was as much 'about' German culture as quantum physics. That was more the plot device on which the themes were strung

Jules said...

Back again - unfortunately for your conspiracy theory, it appears that it was more the other way round, and that he became Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday AFTER having 3 novels published and critically well received.

http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~crumey/index.html

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