Andrew Crumey: In the multiverse, novels are all true
Andrew Crumey has just won the Northern Rock Foundation Writer's Award for his mind-boggling and brilliant blend of out-there fiction and cutting-edge science. He talks to Scarlett Thomas about psychophysics and Many Worlds theory
Sunday 09 April 2006
Andrew Crumey, the possessor of a PhD in theoretical physics and author of the hugely acclaimed novels Mobius Dick, Mr Mee, D'Alembert's Principle, Pfitz and Music, in a Foreign Language, has just won a huge prize for his writing. On the basis of some sample material from his work-in-progress, Sputnik Caledonia, a novel about quantum physics, telepathy, and a boy who embarks on a space mission, the Northern Rock Foundation has awarded him £60,000. The money is paid out over three years, and is intended to enable a previously published writer to live on a salary while doing a job that, as we all know, doesn't always pay the bills.
I call him up to congratulate him and he says, simply, "Thanks", and then asks about my writing. This is completely in character: Crumey is one of the most modest writers I've ever known. It turns out that we're writing about a lot of similar subjects. According to the synopsis of Sputnik Caledonia, Crumey is once again connecting theoretical physics with theories of the mind, although this time he's making a new connection with Marxism, and writing about a 1970s working-class, left-wing Scottish childhood not too far removed from his own.
I'm intrigued by the "psychophysics" mentioned in the synopsis and tell him that I've also got telepathy (of a sort) in my next novel. Before I know it, I've told him the whole plot. Embarrassed, I quickly make a joke.
"Hey," I say. "We should round up all the competition - all the other people writing about Schrödinger's Cat and the multiverse and the connection between matter and consciousness - and lock them in a room and not let them out."
Crumey laughs, clearly humouring me. "Er, yes." He's been researching Lenin's view of science and identifies himself as an anti-idealist materialist atheist. Perhaps he thinks I'm serious and there could be an actual room. Maybe there will be.
Enough of my lame jokes. What does the prize mean to him?
"Time, first and foremost," he replies. "And freedom. I'm obviously not a writer for the money, but this award means that I can write for three years without having to worry about making a living. Prizes also mean recognition, which is lovely. But the usual experience with prizes is not winning, so you develop a thick skin."
You do need a thick skin to write professionally. Not only is it all about not winning prizes, it's also about the disappointment of people not understanding your work (Crumey recalls thinking that everyone was going to understand his first novel. When they didn't, he realised that you sometimes have to make the connections "more obvious"), and being regularly described as "postmodern". Crumey is not a postmodern writer, however. Postmodern writing has little or no depth, but Crumey's work asks the biggest questions there are - and manages to connect political, scientific and philosophical ideas in a way that isn't possible for many people in a culture that seems keen to split these subjects into "disciplines". Crumey acknowledges that his fiction is about "finding things out", but when he claims it's for his own pleasure rather than for the benefit of humanity, I'm not convinced.
I suggest that perhaps we're all trying to get at the truth, and it doesn't matter if we approach the big questions using science, art or philosophy.
"It depends on the question you want to ask," Crumey says. "If you want to find out whether there's another planet beyond Pluto, you couldn't find out by writing a novel about it. The problems begin when you use, say, religion to ask questions about the origin of the universe. If you want to do science, you have to be able to test your results; you can't do the whole thing in your head."
Perhaps novelists just ask the questions, then, I say. Perhaps it isn't about answers. "What we do," he says, "is to create something autonomous without truth and falsehood. It's very different from what the scientists are doing. Mathematicians, for example, are constrained by logic."
I think that perhaps we are just as constrained by the limitations of our comedies and tragedies, still Aristotelian after all these years. But Crumey's novels don't actually follow these rules. The end of Mobius Dick has some comedy and some tragedy in it. Is this a paradox? I wouldn't be surprised. Crumey likes paradoxes.
"To me, a novel is made up; it is a fiction. But it's the paradox of being unreal and real at the same time that interests me. F Scott Fitzgerald talked about the importance of being able to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time. It's a very child-like way to be as well. Even as grown-ups we go to a magic show and we can be impressed by the illusion and we don't want to know how the trick is done. That's what novels are like."
As a physics undergraduate, Crumey became interested in Hugh Everett's Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics: the idea that every probability exists in a parallel universe somewhere. First he treated it as "a joke"; then as "a fairy tale". It later became a key idea within Mobius Dick.
I tell him about the time I realised that if you go along with the Many Worlds interpretation, then every novel we write actually describes some reality out there in the multiverse. Nothing is fiction.
"Many Worlds theory is very much a thing of our time," he says. "The idea of alternatives, and this sense that anything should be possible for anyone."
Like the American Dream?
"Exactly. The capitalist dream. The film The Matrix is the ultimate realisation of the capitalist dream: the world is an illusion, but if you try hard enough you can beat it." Crumey then connects Many Worlds theory with DVD extras - which may give you some idea of the sort of novelist he is. "All the outtakes and deleted scenes... It's like a multiplicity of possible works," he says.
Psychophysics turns out to be just like the Many Worlds interpretation: he likes and dislikes it at the same time.
"Remote viewing; goat staring... It's all a bunch of hoaxes," he says. "I like all that stuff, but it's basically junk. You may as well imagine that we've got eyes on the ends of our fingers or something. In my novel I'm going to use psychophysics in an attempt to explore the material basis of consciousness... But I don't believe in any of it," he says, laughing.
I bet he does believe in it a little bit. There must be a parallel world out there with an Andrew Crumey who believes...
I tell him that I believed in the strange physics in my novel by the end, but he doesn't take the bait.
"Doublethink is what writing is all about," Crumey says. "You believe and you don't believe all at the same time. Everything is possible." He talks about Leibniz's view that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But for Leibniz, of course, it's the existence of God that guarantees this.
But in our postmodern world - or even the world of materialist atheism - there surely is no God?
"Well, that's too bad," says Crumey. And he laughs again and says he has to go and pick up his kids from school.
Scarlett Thomas is the author of 'Going Out' and 'PopCo' (both published by Fourth Estate). Her next novel, 'The End of Mr Y', will be published by Canongate in 2007
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