Omega Minor, By Paul Verhaeghen

A blast of nuclear fiction

It is hard to imagine Omega Minor, Paul Verhaeghen's extraordinary new novel, having the same success in England as it has enjoyed in Germany, the Netherlands and the author's native Belgium. Indeed, it seems likely that the author has translated the book himself not as a display of his polymath abilities but because he might have found it hard to find another translator prepared to take on a 700-page novel about cognitive psychology, quantum physics, Nazis and Neo-Nazis. It would be philistine not to admire the sheer ambition of the book, especially when the market for serious fiction is under endless assault, but the author has a number of quirks that may alienate some readers. Foremost is a bizarre fixation with ejaculation, prompting phrases such as "pearly liquid", "creamy harvest", "frothy broth" and, most imaginatively, "an acrobatic snake snapping at – but missing – its own tail". There are dozens more.

Verhaeghen is an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and one of the novel's many triumphs is his vivid depiction of academia, a milieu few authors can make dramatic. Most of the hero's research students have one ambition: to get from European universities to the promised land of America. But Donatella, a physicist hunting for dark matter, has her eyes on the Nobel Prize.

As she explains to Paul Andermans, a Dutch cognitive psychologist, there is a major discrepancy between the mass of visible matter in the universe and the universe's total mass. Einstein created the parameter Omega to define the ratio between the actual density of the universe and the density required to keep it from imploding, before dismissing this idea as the biggest blunder of his life.

Donatella believes Einstein was wrong to retract the notion and that investigation of Omega will tell us what will happen to the universe. She also believes that something is wrong with Omega. Donatella thinks it is tied to the total amount of mass in the universe. Some physicists claim that the missing mass is hidden in MACHOS (massive compact halos objects); others believe they are in WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles). Some scientists think WIMPS are made out of neutrinos, particles so tiny and fast they shoot through matter, but Donatella believes the missing mass is made of magnetic monopoles, a particle so rare nobody has observed it.

This theory is at the centre of the novel's argument: a cosmological mystery that drives most of the intellectual conversation. The death of the universe has always been a question that concerned serious novelists (particularly Martin Amis), but too often it can be used as a justification for depicting human degradation. There is plenty of unpleasant violence in Omega Minor, but it is elevated by the fact that the characters are searching for evidence that we don't live in a dying universe. There's a lightness to Verhaeghen's depiction of the interaction between Donatella and Paul that counterbalances his desire to explore the 20th-century's worst atrocities.

Among authors of big novels that address science, technology and psychology, Verhaeghen is closer to William T Vollmann, Don DeLillo and the underrated British author James Flint than Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. He has almost no interest in popular culture and his conspiracy theories tend to focus on historical injustice rather than sinister cabals. Although it is always entertaining, and rarely heavy going, there is nothing whimsical about this book. He doesn't skimp on character detail, and is as good as inhabiting the imagination of a woman sexually attracted to neo-Nazis as in depicting competition among aspiring intellectuals.

Equally impressive is his depiction of pre-Second World War Berlin, the wartime years and the aftermath. So many authors have already explored similar territory: it's extraordinary that Verhaeghen manages to make his survivor's tale seem original. The memories of Jozef de Heer make up the most compelling sections of the book, and as with the contemporary narratives, it is the accumulation of telling details that makes the prose so vivid. His vision of Berlin nightlife is beautifully rendered. That this narrative has a predictable twist doesn't seriously weaken what comes before.

Omega Minor is undoubtedly a curate's egg, but few recent novels rival its richness. And there is something admirable about an author who challenges not just the structural limitations of the novel, but also the limitations of our understanding of the universe. For all its flaws, this is an uncommonly intellectually stretching- and satisfying - experience.

Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Cherry' (Phoenix)

Dalkey Archive Press £9.99 (691pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

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

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam