Saturday, October 5, 2013

An Intellectual Tourist's Guide to Multiple Universes (Books - The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey)

The Secret Knowledge (Dedalus, 2013) by Andrew Crumey was recommended by John Self, and I can't say that I liked the novel quite as much as as I liked the thinkers and thoughts kicking around in it - Theodore Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin.  The year is 1913.  The composer Pierre Klauer is filled with excitement about the symphony he is writing entitled The Secret Knowledge.  He proposes marriage to Yvette, but only minutes later his body is found - a gunshot wound to the head.  Was it murder or suicide?  Or is he dead at all, since he appears in subsequent scenes in the 1920s and 30s.  In the present day, the pianist David Conroy receives the score of The Secret Knowledge.  As he prepares to perform it, he begins receiving strange visits and feels he may be caught up in a conspiracy of some kind.  Or is he just losing his mind? 

Crumey begins with innovative ideas wrought by actual historical figures in arts, politics, and the sciences.  He mixes multiple universes with political machinations, and ends up creating a brainy-sounding, vaguely threatening thriller.  Unfortunately, he speaks entirely in generalities.
Planets where history goes differently, worlds created out of sheer envy and boredom, a universe where an alternative 1941 is happening right now to participants unaware of their genericity.  Destiny, chance, fate: all are illusory in the magic-latern show of history, the eternal now that makes everything fell new when really it is unconscious repetition.  Adorno hears this universe every time he turns on the radio and is subjected to the latest dance tune, no different from the last.  Modern existence is combinatorial, a rearrangment of terms robbed of meaning and Walter was trying to reinvigorate meaning through intellectual montage; all he lacked was a coherent theory. 
Crumey's snippets of Adorno and Benjamin amount to no more than sounds bites.  Minus their context, they come off as double-speak and Crumey comes off as a pseudo-intellectual tourist.  Isn't Benjamin cool, his inclusion in this novel seems to ask.  Is he?  I don't know, because all you have given me in this novel are grand conclusions
"To be consistent is to exist, that is the law of mathematics, a single violation should be enough to make the entire edifice vanish into non-being.  Yet we live in an age of paradox, science has demonstrated it.  Time can be slowed or quickened, space is curved, light is neither wave nor particle, or perhaps is both.  There are our new categories of thought."
Blah, blah, blah.  It is a shame, given their vibrancy, that Arendt and Benjamin aren't fully imaged characters and merely provide the set dressing for a parade of knowledge.  My recently reading of Adjacent, a novel that mined the scientific idea of multiple universes, suggested how a creative mind might play with its potential to distort the timecourse of the conventional novel, or imagine how it might effect human emotion when past and future no longer adhere to their conventional rules.  The Secret Knowledge seemed content to talk about paradox, where a more fully imagined work would have shown me the consequences in action, behavior, or feeling.  It ultimately fails to put flesh on the bones of a clever concept.

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