Saturday, March 16, 2013

Are we many selves or just one self? (Books - Dark Matter by Juli Zeh)

I have actually finished three books in the last two weeks, started two more (the new Oliver Sacks - Hallucinations - and a review copy of A Tale for the Time Being), and attended two interesting science talks, but you couldn't tell that from a visit to bookeywookey lately.  I have had some very long days at work and every moment of writing time has gone to my dissertation, so I have been letting things slip around here. I'm afraid I may not remember Tenth of December, the much-talked-about short story collection by George Saunders, well enough to write about it. I don't know that I will have time to write about the discussion of collaborations between scientists and educators, or the other on how scientists and members of the media communicate relationships between brain and behavior.  I hope I can get to Vaclv Havel's memoir To the Castle and Back, but for the moment, I'll write something about Juli Zeh's Dark Matter, because it is freshest in my mind.

Juli Zeh is a German writer and the sometimes stilted, but still involving, translation is by Christine Lo.  I learned about Dark Matter from Lizzy Literary Life - an excellent recommendation, thank you Lizzy.  It is a smart, inventive mystery by a German writer about two physicists and two detectives each, in their way, struggling with love and each, in their way, struggling with time. The two physicists, Oskar and Sebastian, share a long, tangled past full of deep love. This love has persisted even as their diverging opinions about the nature of time and the universe has created an animus between them.  Rita Skura, one of the two detectives, is an odd duck.  A self-conscious giant, brusque, married to her work, Rita is so acutely sensitive to, and also alienated from, people that she has terrible judgement about them.  She would seem to be miscast as a detective, but learned from her mentor, Detective Schilf, that if she went with the opposite of her instincts, she would be dead-on.  When she fails to solve a particularly sensitive series of murders in a hospital in the city of Freiburg, where she lives and works, Schilf is called in.  Schilf is a schlumpy, asocial being, but the combination of a recent fatal diagnosis and a new relationship has spurred him to action.  Although he is meant to help solve the hospitals murders, these overlap with another murder and the kidnapping of Sebastian's son.  These two detectives are likeable, idiosyncratic creations that add much enjoyment to the reading of this unconventional mystery. 

 This is not so much a whodoneit, because we know who perpetrated the murder at the outset, although Zeh creates effective and disorienting tension throughout the execution of the crime.  This is more of a whydoneit.  The action here, appropriate to a crime concerning a physicist, is to discover the force behind the action. Dark matter is theorized to account for a large proportion of the total mass of the universe, and yet it is not visible to our eyes as conventional matter is because it does not reflect light. Its presence is inferred from the forces that it exerts.  The crime in Dark Matter is similarly difficult to see and similarly relies on indirect powers of observation to resolve it. Despite this unconventional format, the book has the pace of a good thriller, and an excellent cat-and-mouse-game between Detective Schilf and the murderer, but it was how the larger themes were integrated with the action that made this a book worth reading.  How do those we love move us to act?  What is responsibility?  This book plays with the many- universe-theory in physics, which posits that roads-not-taken continually branch off from the moment we take decisions, creating alternative universes.  Though it wears a the clothing of a mystery, Dark Matter provokes us to ask what is knowable about the big mysteries like time and the universe, and also littler mysteries - like our own natures.  Or perhaps, that is the biggest mystery of all.  Can we know ourselves absolutely?  Are we stuck with ourselves, or are there alternatives?  Are we many selves and are there many times, or is there just one?


Criticlasm said...

I'll be interested to hear what you think of Hallucinations - I've been enjoying it. I'd also love to read that George Saunders book; I saw him speak about a month ago and he was great.

Ted said...

Hey Cc
So far, I'm enjoying the Sacks. The Saunders was a mixed bag. Alternately involving and calling attention to itself. He's so skilled, but I don't always want to think about that.