Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Will Self, Nicholson Baker and Javier Marias.

There was an undeniably modernist edge to many of the books covered in the past week's reviews. Not least Javier Marias's A Heart So White, which, the New Statesman's Jonathan Coe asserts, is doing nothing less than "trying to rebuild the novel form." "After the modernist revolution, most novelists blithely carried on as before but a handful of writers have since applied themselves to the task of rebuilding things" and Marias's book, first published in 1992 and reissued this year by Penguin, is a "deadly-serious attempt to keep the novel, as a form alive and evolving." From the very first line "any promise of a conventionally linear narrative is immediately shattered". "For, "like Laurence Sterne, Marias is prey to profound scepticism about the novel's capacity to render the complexity of subjective human experience in anything other than the crudest, most approximate way." Though his "lithe, unreliable sentences" make it "a more opaque, demanding work than its predecessor", All Souls, Coe is adamant that A Heart So White is "a novel to treasure."

Boyd Tonkin must have been in similar mind when he exclaimed in the Independent that “sentence by glorious sentence, is there a better novelist alive in Europe now than Javier Marias?” “Translated by Margaret Jull Costa, this novel starts from a suicide to explore the secrets of two marriages with all the hypnotic, even sinister, beauty of his style.” GQ calls it a “haunting portrayal of two generations, two marriages, the relentless power of the past and the terrible price of knowledge.”

Carrying on the modernist baton is Will Self's latest and Man Booker long-listed novel, Umbrella, the radical structure of which Self claims to have modelled on its titular object. Thus the three main narrative "spokes" configure around Audrey, a pacifist arms factory worker in 1918, Zack, a 1970s psychiatrist, who is trying to cure Audrey, who has been trapped in a catatonic state for decades by Encephalitis lethargica, and Zack as a retired divorcee in 2010.

Following the controversy of last year’s Man Booker, Mark Lawson notes in the Guardian that Umbrella “is widely seen as a deliberate correction to the controversial plea from last year's judges for "readability", and some may conclude that Self's book represents the opposite quality.” “The book is, in effect, a single paragraph of 397 pages and around 120,000 words”. Its challenging structure is vindicated by being “clearly encouraged by the subject-matter: Encephalitis lethargica represents a paradox of consciousness, in which the patient, though in medico-legal terms still here, is predominantly somewhere else.” And “though hard work is certainly demanded from the reader, it is always rewarded.”

This, no doubt, is one prong of Self’s modernist desideratum. Matt Thorne, writing for the Independent, is interested in the claim in the blurb that “not only suggests 'he is taking up the challenge of Modernism', but states that only Modernism alone 'can unravel new and unsettling truths about our world'. It's a bold claim, but Self has never lacked ambition.” Yet he believes that Self does “something different than the Modernist writer: not so much following Ezra Pound's instruction to 'make it new', but instead making the old new.” “The style may be new (for Self, at least), but the content remains familiar: a Swiftian disgust with the body; a fastidious querulousness about human sexuality; a forcing of attention on human frailty.” Self’s trademark luxuriating in language is also present: “here he has great fun snuffling out forgotten words, which increases the verisimilitude of his period writing and gives the prose a dense texture absent from much historical fiction.” Thorne echoes Lawson when he admits that, though this abets Umbrella’s nature as “a somewhat remorseless read”, “its challenges seem, for the most part, worthwhile.”

Yet it’s unsurprising that Self's experimental style repels some reviewers. Metro’s Anthony Cummins assaults it alliteratively as “a bamboozling breezeblock of a book” with “little by way of an anchor for those who feel adrift in what isn’t so much a stream of consciousness as a tidal wave.” He concedes that if you “stick with it . . . the novel’s politics begin to bite in a surprisingly moving story of common people crushed by the state,” yet he fears that “if Umbrella bags the Booker, it may be a novel more bought than read.”

(To read the New Statesman's take on Umbrella, pick up the next issue, out on Thursday.)

Similarly, the inventive, yet sometimes intractable, prose of Nicholson Baker’s The Way the World Works seems to both beguile reviewers and make them despair, sometimes all at once. “There is a lulling quality to Nicholson Baker’s writing,” George Pendle writes in the Financial Times, “a tweedy sincerity and good humour that makes it easy to forget what a fundamentally radical author he is.” “Simply sitting down in a chair is for Baker what casting off from shore was for Melville . . . This is a world of tiny sensation enlarged into giant stepping stones of experience.” Little wonder then that the “intensity of detail can seem almost hallucinogenic” or “induce vertigo in his descriptions of the fathomless depths that our most mundane surrounds hold within them.” “His obsessive curiosity is “a way of ordering and indeed paring down the wildness of the world. But if anything, this curiosity takes us to places that are much wilder and more disorientating.”

The New York Times’s reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, is left with a less favourable after taste. She calls it a “hodge-podgy collection”, though titled The Way the World Works, she argues "it’s anything but a wide-angled take on the human condition". It is, rather, "just another random anthology”, the component pieces of which “vary greatly in quality. Some showcase his eye for detail and his ability to nail down those details in velvety, Updikean prose. Some read like parodies of self-absorption” and even the “more substantive essays also fluctuate wildly in their persuasiveness.” However, Kakutani does soften these criticisms by acknowledging that Baker is “adept at coming up with evocative analogies” and is a “remarkably observant witness” in the essays on technology.

David L Ulin, writing in the Los Angeles Times disagrees: “[T]his is a random collection, Baker is telling us, that turns out not to be so random, in much the same way as the world it seeks to explain.” “Here we see Baker's aesthetic in a nutshell: whimsical, self-reflective, always looking at the line between imagination and reality; it's an aesthetic of connection, of possibility.” He calls it a “literary cartography: Baker mapping his own mind”, that offers an insight into “how we think, our idiosyncratic dance with both experience and memory, defines who we are.” “Yet, despite the acuity of these connections, there is something about The Way the World Works that feels a little scattershot. This is in the nature of collections, but if Baker mitigates that to an extent, some of the pieces here feel repetitious, negligible.” “Baker is not out to cover new ground. Rather, he is looking back, trying to find the common territory of his obsessions, the landscape where it all connects.” Like many modernist works, “it is not, perhaps, a volume for the uninitiated. But it is a testament to indirection.”

Author Javier Marias (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood