British writers who set their first novels in America are apt to come horribly unstuck. One of the pleasures of Sam Leith’s debut novel is its sureness of tone. All the elements here are properly balanced. Nothing feels clumsy or over-egged. So what? you might think. Isn’t this what any halfway decent novelist does? Yes, but few attempt anything as ambitious, as exuberant, as downright weird as this.
At the heart of Leith’s novel is an examination of the role of chance and the nature of coincidence. This, though, is only the half of it. Clustered all around is a host of ostensibly disparate elements — there’s a naïve Cambridge graduate planning to propose to his American girlfriend, a pair of incompetent hitmen, an apparently crazed mathematician and a mysterious organisation called the Directorate of the Extremely Improbable. Swathed in rumour, steeped in paranoia, the Directorate was shut down after the Kennedy assassination and reactivated by Donald Rumsfeld in the run-up to the second Gulf war.
When a 737 jet is found in the backwoods of Alabama with no identifying marks on the fuselage and an unconscious man lying nearby wearing the uniform of a TWA pilot from the mid-1980s, DEI operatives are assigned to investigate. Could someone have succeeded in inventing a device that makes the impossible merely improbable? If so, then everybody wants a piece of it.
What follows at times resembles an episode of The X-Files written by Thomas Pynchon, but if there are some obvious debts and influences here, they are lightly worn. Throughout, Leith adroitely fuses big themes with more breathless, harum-scarum stuff — a car chase involving scores of identical silver Pontiacs, a bungled assassination in a Las Vegas parking plot.
On almost every page you find neatly wrought images. There’s a man ‘whose Adam’s apple bobbed up and down his neck like a fisherman’s float after a motorboat has passed’ and a description of Las Vegas as a place someone might have dreamed up ‘after falling asleep with the central heating on too high and a belly full of Stilton’.
The pace never lets up, nor does the invention. Reading The Coincidence Engine is a bit like being stuck in a spin-dryer on maximum revs. But there’s plenty here for your brain to chew on long after your eyeballs have stopped rotating in opposite directions.