BOOK REVIEW / Collection mania

Particle Theory by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy Hutchinson, pounds 14.99

Readers put off by abstract, technical-sounding titles need have no fear. Particle Theory is a proper novel, more or less, and not at all theoretical, though it hums with social and psychological commentary. Alternately, it tells two separate stories - one an old-fashioned thrilling adventure, the other a bitter modern farce - about two very different men.

As a boy on Taschla Collective Farm, Ivan Khuchevsky knows strange luminous moments when he seems able to perform supernatural feats. Some, like breaking solid furniture, leave concrete evidence. Others, like creating a kindly nurse or a city called Ruibinsk in the middle of the cornfields, are, to say the least, more equivocal. In any event, Ivan knows he has a secret destiny. There is a legacy of buried icons waiting for him, and meanwhile a training of iron discipline at the brutal hands of the overseer Boris. Unfortunately Boris, who is to tell all on Ivan's 18th birthday, dies two months too soon, in a skating accident for which Ivan believes himself magically responsible.

To find his destiny, Ivan runs away, not once, but again and again, his whole life long. From Taschla he escapes to Ruibinsk, from Ruibinsk to the army, from the army to the West, where he is welcomed into Cambridge. Reuters sends him to Paris; he resigns to run a second-hand bookshop in London. He sets up old people's homes, then advertising agencies. He leads safaris of elderly Americans into the Serengeti, where arm-wrestling skills learned from Boris accidentally win him the chiefdom of a minor tribe. He immediately abdicates to join a think-tank in Chicago. Somewhere along his tortuous way, it becomes apparent that what he is really doing is looking for Sofka, the girl who, while hiding him from the Ruibinsk police, relieved him of his virginity.

Though Michael Wordingham is another orphan, his story is in strict contrast. Overwhelmed by a doting grandmother and her Polish housekeeper, a lonely refugee called Elfreda, Michael never does anything except become obese. There is one magnificent portrait: "Michael at nearly 20 was tall, oval in shape and already losing his hair in front, either because he had pulled it all out or for hereditary reasons. He somewhat resembled a new-laid egg or much sucked bonbon. His habit of running his nails down his plump left cheek continued, and now he often ate the little rolled-up fragments from under them. He liked the salty taste."

Anal-compulsive to the letter, Michael spends his life collecting newspapers, paperbacks, bus tickets, the cardboard middles of toilet rolls. Floor by floor, he forces his granny to evict her tenants from a house in Drayton Gardens, and uses the increased space to accommodate things he finds in skips: bits of string and bottle tops; towel rails and broken hotplates. He collects his own hair; his own excretions. He catalogues his collections and records the cataloguing in his journals. Then he catalogues the journals.

This is an authentically masculine book. Ivan, the arm-wrestler, the good soldier, the dynamic executive, never runs away from anything in defeat, but always at the peak of success. Michael represents the gloomier side of the gender: self-centred, helplessly dependent, manipulative. Each man is obsessed with the woman whose fortune it will be to sanctify his life, should he ever find her. While Ivan dreams of Sofka, Michael yearns for Elfreda, and searches for her with his own mad methodicality, posting two thousand Roneoed copies of a love letter into the letterboxes of Cambridge.There is never any hope, really, for Ivan or Michael, or for us the readers. What turns out to connect the middle-class British boy and the Russian peasant is that both have given their hearts already, irredeemably.

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy is the author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, and he has put at least eight examples of the genus in these pages. When at the end Ivan and Michael disappear from view, we know perfectly well where they have gone: back to the nursery, like all good boys.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border