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.