Reading this novel I couldn’t help but think of the opening lines of Miroslav Holub’s poem, ‘A Boy’s Head’ — ‘In it there is a space ship/ and a project/ for doing away with piano lessons.’
Not that Robbie Coyle, the hero of Crumey’s novel and the son of a socialist/communist father growing up in a small Scottish mining town in the Seventies, has to endure piano lessons, but he is consumed by a passion to become an astronaut, practising in his kitchen cupboard capsule and tuning in to the stars on the ‘flight control panel’ of the radiogram.
Sputnik Caledonia is Andrew Crumey’s sixth novel for which he was awarded what must be the most embarrassing literary award going — the £60,000 Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award. A physicist and former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, Crumey’s head is full of lost universes, parallel worlds and multiple realities — sexy physics you could call it with a literary/philosophical connection. In Pfitz (1995) it was Diderot, Borges in Mr Mee (2000) and Melville in Mobius Dick (2004). In this novel it’s Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship — a dismayingly large novel that I’ve just acquired from Amazon — with a dash of The Wizard of Oz.
The link to Goethe’s story is that Robbie, like Wilhelm, wants to escape from his restricted world. Wilhelm’s dream is to become an actor and playwright, Robbie’s to become an astronaut. Sputnik Caledonia is a kind of post modern, sci-fi Bildungsroman or novel of education. Part I is a witty and poignant account of Robbie’s childhood. Here and in the final part of the book, Crumey writes brilliantly about being a boy and trying to understand everything from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to why giraffes have long necks and why girls are — well, girls.
The middle — and overlong — section of the book flings Robbie into an alternative reality, a life in the closed-off Installation where he’s being prepared to ‘become one with the Red Star’ (a black hole) ‘organically connected to the life of the cosmos.’ Life in the Installation (a mirror image perhaps of Robbie’s father’s dream of a socialist revolution, or the imagination’s version of the military base established in Robbie’s home town) is full of gruesome tests and a loveless sexual education in a place where every woman’s a whore.
This is a novel that keeps you on your toes as it sputniks you through its various realities. Characters in part one reappear in part two. The science teacher Mr Tulloch turns into the mad professor Kaupff; Moira, baby-sitting and demonstrating the lotus posture (and her sky-blue knickers) in part one, becomes the dominatrix Rosalind of the Installation (also in lotus posture though with pale blue knickers) while Dorothy, the girl who gives Robbie his first kiss, becomes — well either his Installation landlady or the whore he falls in love with or maybe Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Still with me?
It’s a relief to get to something like real life again in part three and to find another boy — or maybe Every Boy, as he’s mostly known as Kid. Kid himself thinks that ‘everybody keeps being this new person, the same but different . . . in an infinite universe.’ Possibly this and the idea derived from Goethe that everything is connected is meant to be a comforting philosophy, but it’s not very sustaining.
A brio of a book though. One for the boys, big and little — and for those of us who wonder just what does go on inside a boy’s head.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 5, 2008