23 April 2008

Andrew Crumey - Sputnik Caledonia

I enjoyed Andrew Crumey's last two books, Mr Mee and Mobius Dick, which involved, respectively, French literature and philosophy, and German literature, philosophy and music. They stimulated me to read Diderot and ETA Hoffmann, and to explore those cultures more deeply. His eclectic breadth of reference - he has a PhD in Physics, yet cites Schumann and Mann - is exciting, and he makes witty connections across centuries and genres.

So I was looking forward to his new novel, and I was disappointed when I read it. It's longer than his previous books, which were tightly plotted and packed with ideas. This is flabby, and, at 550 pages, twice as long as it should be. It's in three parts. The first is about a young boy growing up in Glasgow in the early 1970s. It's written in a plain style, reminiscent of David Mitchell's recent Black Swan Green, similarly mining pre-adolescence for familiar experiences, and similarly unsatisfying.

The second part is the largest chunk of the book - 300 pages - and is set in an imagined future in Scotland. Robbie, the boy from part one, is now a conscript in a Socialist state, and a volunteer for a space programme. The narrative is slow, and written in a very basic style, with many scenes reminiscent of the daydreams of Robbie from the first part, which is a hint to its purpose. It emerges, in the third part, that the middle section is imagined by Robbie as he's in a coma. By this point I'd deduced this, but also had grown weary of a narrative supposedly imagined by a 12 year old, with the limitations that entails.

So this was too long, and a pointless exercise. It was easy enough to read, and Crumey is both funny and intelligent when on form, but as an experiment in form it's not nearly ambitious enough to be worthwhile.


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