Thursday, 30 June 2011

Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey

A strange but engaging novel.  It's made up three very different sections.  It starts with a boy called Robbie growing up in a small Scottish town in the 70s.  He's fascinated by science, his dad talks about socialism all the time, and Robbie dreams about becoming a soviet cosmonaut.  This is a funny and effective coming of age story, and I'd guess it's partly drawn from the author's experiences (he's Scottish and has a PhD in theoretical physics.)

It then jumps forward a few years and sideways a lot into a different universe.  Robbie finds himself in a Stalinist version of Scotland, coming to what had been his home town in another life, but turned into the "Installation" - a closed off research facility which no-one ever appears to leave.  And it looks like he could become Scotland's first cosmonaut.

This middle section is fantastic.  It paints a bleak and sinister picture of the UK under communism; of people trying to lead normal lives while constantly afraid.  The characters are very well drawn, including Robbie himself, as as he slowly decides to take a stand

The shift from the first part is really interesting - Robbie as a boy keeps on slipping into vivid daydreams, and at first this section just seems like an extended version of that.  Everyone he meets is like a version of someone in his "real life", and The Wizard of Oz is referenced a few times.  As well as the preoccupations with space and communism, there's a lot of stuff about sex, and the shift comes right after young Robbie has his first kiss.  And although it feels very real, some bits seem like they're in a schoolboy's mind - the plot for instance concerns a black hole which has "entered the solar system" like it was a comet, and the scientists are planning to reach it.  Very odd.

All this could've been difficult to pull off, but the author does a fantastic job and I thought it just added to an already convincing story.

The last shorter section jumps again, and this part is less successful.  It's certainly not predictable, but it leaves rather too many unanswered questions for my taste.  There's some great stuff here as well though, particularly about loss and growing old.

So, this gets a hearty recommendation from me.  Crumey's got another book - Mobius Dick - which has a better title than this one at least, so I'll be keeping an eye out for that.


zungg said...

That sounds great, I'll check it out the library and read it next. I'm thinking Lanark meets Omon Ra.

Joe said...

Lanark is just what I was thinking about when I finished the review actually. It's about time I tackled that big boy. Got a pelevin book out the library - the werewolf one. Omon ra sounds good.

I think you'd like this one. Definitely shades of the unconsoled, Kafka and the dream life of sukhanov by olga grushin, if you know that one.

zungg said...

Okay, I've obtained it from the library and it's a bit of a beast. With the heft of it and the split narrative, it seems very much like a latter-day Lanark.

Sukhanov's going on my list too, cheers for that.

I'm reading Benito Cereno by Melville at the moment, and dipping into Poe and the Arabian Nights.

Joe said...

It's an easy read and I got through it without even thinking about it. I got it out the library at random, resigned to the fact that I'd probably never get through it, so a pleasant surprise. I'd imagine it's a lot easier going than Lanark.

Don't know much Melville, apart from the one about the lazy guy who doesn't want to do anything. Employee from hell.

Anonymous said...

Mobius Dick, a dick that goes o forever... Like my dick ;-)


zungg said...

Finished it this week. Very much in the mould of Lanark and also The Bridge by Iain Banks, but not as good.

I thought the opening section was OK although all the characters seemed to be archetypes. I liked the way the narrative faded into the young lad's dreamworld. Then the meat section I enjoyed a lot, I thought it a craftily-conceived rabbit hole and it was fun spotting the parallels (e.g. Dora/Dorothy) as well as just wallowing in the fucked-upness of it all. I'd have happily read a whole novel set there.

But the third section I thought was pretty dire. Hated the contrived voice of "kid" which reminded me of the execrable Vernon God Little. And old Joe lost all his humanity in the welter of paranoia and I ceased to give a shit about him. And I agree with you that the conclusion wasn't quite tight enough - I like an unanswered question as much as the next guy but there weren't enough hints in this one. Reminiscent of Murakami's endings where it always seems like he just isn't able to think up a decent one so leaves the reader with a faux-enigmatic shrug.

Joe said...

The last section was weak all round. I really didn't like the walk on appearance of Luss (can't remember his name in the Installation) as an oily MSP and Rosalind as homeopathist or whatever. Shoehorned and trite.

I didn't mind Joe's change through loss and age into a shadow of his former self, though I was annoyed at the way he was killed off as an afterthought.

Yes, I also get the impression the author was struggling for ending, and just went with "enigmatic."

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