Andrew Crumey is one of those writers – it seems an endless family – whose books I’ve been boring everyone about ever since … ooh, his last one. Mobius Dick (2004) was a masterpiece, a dazzling contraption made of multiple worlds interlocking like clockwork. Furiously clever in both scientific and artistic realms, it was also wonderfully entertaining. Probably I was only so delighted by it because I had scratched my head a little over his previous novel, Mr Mee (2000), though I know I’ll love it next time around, and on reflection what’s not to like about a book which opens with the line “It’s said of the Xanthic sect that they believed fire to be a form of life, since it has the ability to reproduce itself”?
More amazing still is that Crumey wrote these sparklers while holding down a job as literary editor of Scotland on Sunday. Then after Mobius Dick, he was awarded the Northern Rock Foundation writer’s award, which enabled him to give up the day job and concentrate full time on his next one. He said, “With all my other novels I would write bits and pieces and they would connect together and usually have several threads. With this one I wanted something which was a bit simpler but with more complex ideas going on.” More complex ideas! Is the man mad?
And here we have it, Sputnik Caledonia, and a whopper at 550 pages; he sure is giving Northern Rock value for money. And despite the length it is “a bit simpler:” I wouldn’t say linear exactly, but where the earlier books cycled regularly between different characters, centuries and worlds, this has three separate (but not quite discrete) sections. In the good-natured first part, Robbie Coyle is a twelve-year-old boy in the Scotland of the 1970s, brought up by a whimsical and uncomplaining mother, and an avidly socialist father (“Even if I’m wrong I never go back on my word”), who longs for the revolution:
His own experiences as a child, he told his offspring, had been enough to convince him that the Catholic Church in which he was raised was only another way of controlling people’s minds, along with capitalism, television and golf, the latter being one of Mr Coyle’s pet hates. … ‘At least he was a good socialist, I’ll say that for Jesus. It’s these people who want to bow down and worship him that I can’t abide.’
Robbie, fascinated by space flight but inculcated into hating America, decides to learn Russian and astrophysics and become a cosmonaut. All this, in case I have failed to get across the tone, is done with one eyebrow raised. He also falls in love, and it’s at a moment of consummation (“their lips touched and he was blasted into space”) that everything changes.
The central chunk of the book – 300 pages – sees Mr Coyle get his revolution (“The Coyles’ next door neighbours were the Dunbars, who had a telephone, a car, took package holidays in Spain, and would face summary execution come the uprising”). We are in the British Democratic Republic, the same alternate present which Crumey has used before in his first novel Music, in a Foreign Language, and in parts of Mobius Dick. Robbie – now called Robert – Coyle is a soldier at The Installation:
‘The Installation was created over thirty years ago, right at the end of the Patriotic War, when the invading Nazi scum who terrorized this land of ours for five dark years were defeated by the People’s Army. The Central Committee knew that if such horrors were to be prevented from ever happening again, then Britain needed to have its own nuclear deterrent alongside that of our Soviet allies.’
To go into more detail would definitely be spoilerish, but Crumey creates a world which at first appears to have occasional parallels with the first part, and gradually is shown to have threads of light peeking out and linking the worlds in a complex matrix of equivalence, and even characters who balance others in the alternate world (and yes, The Wizard of Oz is acknowledged, before you put your hand up). “Everything is deliberate. Nothing is accidental.” Crumey has fun with the language of ideology, such as when the Installation’s recruits are being lectured on a heavenly body:
‘In the capitalist world, such hypothetical objects are referred to as black holes. Of course we reject the term, with its colonialist implications, its unsavoury air of medieval clericalism, its sheer inaccuracy. … We follow the Soviet nomenclature and call it a frozen star. What to capitalists symbolizes a fate worse than death represents for us the highest form of astrophysical evolution. Our visitor is not a monster – it is a unique opportunity for socialist exploration.’
At the same time, a little mirroring goes a long way, and Crumey plots out the story in this central section in too painstaking detail. As a result the book appears less complex and rich than the much shorter Mobius Dick and Mr Mee. I missed too the literary intelligence of those books, which by reference and parallel lit up whole ranks of European authors from Hoffmann and Mann to Proust and Rousseau: here, we have just a little Goethe. The central notion – “Everything in the universe both determines and is determined by everything else” – is hammered out repeatedly. Did the freedom of writing full time soften Crumey’s sharp edge?
But it is foolish to feel disappointment that Sputnik Caledonia is not more like Crumey’s earlier books. We should not want such gifted writers to repeat themselves (though weakly, I often do). Fortunately then, the third part of the book gives a new dimension to Crumey’s writing: this master of making our heads spin has found out how to hit the heart. Again, little more can be said without ruining it, and the new voices he adopts take time to bed in, but it neatly undermines any, well, neatness in our assumptions of how Part 2 can be explained. It also provides a moving portrait of decline and loss, which is not bad going for a book which started out on a cleverly comic note.
Sputnik Caledonia is a long but approachable book; it takes time to read, but remarkably, it forces your brain to carry on finishing it even after the end. Must be some scientific trickery hidden in the pages. In Part 1 Robbie, while ‘training’ for space travel, reads textbooks which become “his Bible: sacred, encyclopaedically authoritative, open to infinite interpretation, and almost entirely unreadable.” A couple of these epithets, very definitely excluding the last, could be applied to the works of Andrew Crumey.