Book Review: Maxwell's Demon, by Steven Hall

Almost a decade and a half after his acclaimed debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall is back with another painstakingly wrought puzzle-box of a book. It’s been well worth the wait, writes Stuart Kelly
Maxwell's Demon, by Steven HallMaxwell's Demon, by Steven Hall
Maxwell's Demon, by Steven Hall

Has it really been 14 years? The first author interview I conducted for these pages was with Steven Hall, for his first novel, The Raw Shark Texts – in an aquarium in Hull for obvious reasons. It was a book I adored: Eric is a grieving amnesiac who is being hunted by a “conceptual shark” made of language itself, which feeds of human memory. It was typographically gorgeous, philosophically profound and deeply, deeply moving. It embraced pulp fiction, literary theory, ideas of personal identity, bibliophily, psychogeography, and love. More than a book, it had a spin-off online game: a calling-card, distributed in bars and bookshops, had a number, with a message, that took you to various websites, where eventually you would find additional material about the story, a kind of geekish scavenger hunt. There were also 36 “Un-Chapters” hidden in the real and virtual world, and although I never found all of them, part of the book was a minatory warning that obsessive quests have a tendency not to end well. Then – well, the rest was not exactly silence.

I don’t play computer games, but Hall wrote a few well-received titles, as well as one of the finest Doctor Who Big Finish audio dramas, A Death In The Family, pitting the Time Lord against a “Word Lord” called Nobody No-One who can disguise himself in language. I don’t think I am breaking the seal of the confessional to say that when his name came up during out deliberations over the Granta Best of Young British Novelists, the fact that The Raw Shark Texts was his sole book was raised. Another judge brandished a copy and said “Yes, but it’s THIS book”.

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Well, the wait is over. I read Maxwell’s Demon in proof in 2019, publication was delayed because of the pandemic, and it is now here. I re-read it in the finished copy and it was more than worth the wait, and rewarded being read twice. I found even more traps, foreboding fore-shadowings, dialogue that only reveals its true importance in retrospect, sly references and clever sleights of hand. It is also – ingeniously – about a long-awaited difficult second novel.

The protagonist is Thomas Quinn, a man whose life had been blighted by wanting the respect of his late father, a veritable “man of letters.” He never showed any interest in Quinn’s sole novel, The Qwerty Machinegun, but gave a rare public endorsement to a book, Cupid’s Engine, by his assistant, the mysterious Andrew Black, an erstwhile friend of Thomas. Cupid’s Engine was a bestseller that also spawned obsessive fan sites dedicating to cracking all its mysteries, and worse than that, Quinn knows it is the better book. He’s eking out a living writing promotional franchise tie-ins, and at the outset is in the doldrums as his wife Imogen is on a research trip to Easter Island, investigating catastrophic collapse, and their only contact is through a time-lagged webcam. Then he gets – or rather, misses – a phone call that seems to be from the deceased Stanley, with the cryptic message "Why knocks an angel in Bethlehem?” This is only the beginning of the weirdness. Quinn seems to see the villain of Black’s novel skulking in the streets, Black sends him a photograph of an impossible black sphere, a random diversion leads him to a nativity scene in an abandoned church and worst of all, he divulges that he knows that Black had written a second novel, Maxwell’s Demon. His financial woes will be solved if he can procure the book, and deal with Black, who is more than a recluse: he refuses to have anything to do with digital texts, has reneged on his contract, and might have an inkling about the End of Days.

It moves at an exhilarating lick, as befits its pop culture propensities, but with highbrow sensibilities, its concerns including the Kabbalah, whether the world is made of words, the origins of the alphabet, the mythopoetic nature of the hero’s journey and what angels look like. Of course, it also has the eponymous devil. The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell posited the demon as a thought experiment to prove a loophole in the Second Theory of Thermodynamics – put bluntly, mess is always more likely than order. Entropy is the novel’s fascination; how things decay and become diffuse. Leo Szilard – who, if you are in need of any more physics infused metatextual literary fiction is key to Lydia Millet’s rambunctious Oh Pure And Radiant Heart! – solved it. The card up the demon’s sleeve is intelligence.

Black imagines the novel as an engine or machine and poses the question: if this is so, then what does the machine do? Or indeed manufacture? The delay in the novel seems almost prescient: a propos of the online world, one character says “The world really is ending, you know. A hyperlink really is an atom bomb and truth will mean nothing at all in a year or two, you’ll see. It’s all falling apart”. But the genius of the book is that despite it seeming like an elegant orrery, all these wheels within wheels are a carapace, a psychic armour against a grief (and it’s not the grief you were expecting). Beneath this truly beautiful astrolabe is a beating human heart.

Maxwell’s Demon, by Steven Hall, Canongate, £16.99

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