Book review: The Great Chain Of Unbeing, by Andrew Crumey

Full disclosure: I know Andrew Crumey. Given he was my predecessor as literary editor of this paper, it would be rather surprising if I did not. But there are two things to bear in mind. I had read Crumey's work before I met him, and I still maintain he is an underappreciated Scottish writer. When I first read his work '“ it was, as I recall Pfitz '“ it struck me as astonishing that someone more aligned with the work of Borges, Calvino and Diderot was being overlooked in favour of the poverty porn of some writers I could name.

Andrew Crumey PIC: Sean Bell

This is Crumey’s first short story collection, after seven novels. It is a delightful introduction to his singularly riddling work – and in Crumeyesque style it is an intermezzo that doubles as an overture. For those, like me, who have read all his work it is a joy to see familiar themes and beats and characters in an askance way. For a reader who has not experienced his work, it is a self-contained introduction to the oeuvre and his mythos.

It is in some ways a novel masquerading as a short story collection. The first story, about a man whose blindness may have been caused by his father’s exposure to radiation during nuclear testing, is both witty and informative – Crumey having been a physicist before becoming a novelist. But at the end of the story, the narrator, who has mentioned an esoteric disciple called Tribology, and who describes, though sightless, a photograph of his university chum Roy Jones, ponders, “I wonder whatever happened to Roy Jones?”

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The next story, entitled “Tribology” begins with Roy Jones arriving in Moscow Airport, to give a paper on “mixed-phase lubricants” and inadvertently (or not) being taken to a different conference about philosophy, having been mistaken for another Mr or Dr Jones.

The links begin to proliferate. In some ways Crumey was one of the earliest writers to realise that the internet idea of “links” might be replicated in prose. Across the collection darts the sinister figure of Richard Sand, who appears in multiple stories in different guises; other memes include Beethoven and a planet in the orbit of the “anomalous binary Korr-Helgason 45C”, the idea of duplicates, the Marxist thinker and musical snob (I mean that in an approving way) Theodor Adorno and the inevitable reference to the mysterious Rosier – whose Encyclopaedia once disproved the existence of the universe.

This subtle stitching is reminiscent of previous works by Crumey. D’Alembert’s Principle was a triptych of stories where things interlinked. Both Möbius Dick and Sputnik Caledonia were again tripartite novellas that by winking between the stories became novels. It is a typically deft touch here that the third story is called “Introduction” and that it opens with “The Unbeginning” and closes with “The Unending”.

For a reader who is new to his work, the thing which stands out – more than the quantum physics and philosophical paradoxes – is how funny a writer Crumey is. Two pieces are particularly good. In “Between The Tones” we meet Conroy, a concert pianist who narrates his life in the style of a Raymond Chandler hard-man, and who seems more than apt at making mistakes about conspiracies he fears around him. Also, it seems he is playing music that does not exist. It has, if there is such a thing, a tiny manifesto when Conroy says, “Punk doesn’t seem to get the irony. That’s the thing about irony: you can always count on idiots not getting it.”

The other notable piece for comedy is “Fragments Of Sand”, a sextet of stories featuring an insect professor that nods at Kafka, a man who perfects the art of being a postman, an underworld Scotland and a globally warmed Scotland (now a kind of gap-year paradise), a little Roald Dahl tale of the unexpected and a piece about “word cameras” that, as they become more accurate, put novelists out of business and lead to a “Campaign for Real Literature”.

In another of the puzzle-box combinations, Crumey sardonically takes on sci-fi. In “Impossible Tales”, some sections feature future slang. I still don’t really know the meaning of korfl, Osbobulb, ronked, janking (I think I do know what that one means), rimp or vert. It is not an easy proposition to make up new words that the reader can infer a meaning into, without it seeming somehow rococo, but he gets away with it. And it makes you snigger.

Although there is both wit and insight in this collection, there is an undertow of melancholy. It circles around human failings even in alien circumstances. The longest piece, “The Assumption” has the queasy ennui of Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice. There is a sense of desperate repetition: the same tribulations, the same deceits, the same prevarications. If, as in Crumey’s horrific thought experiments, everything happens again and again and again, then it is at least a consolation that I shall read this again and again and again.

The Great Chain Of Unbeing, By Andrew Crumey, Dedalus Books, £9.99