Feb 16, 2021
The long-awaited follow-up to The Raw Shark Texts falls into some plot holes, but remains ingenious fun
Thomas Quinn, the protagonist of Maxwell’s Demon, is a novelist who has failed both artistically and commercially; he is also the son of a great and famous writer, now dead. As the book opens, we find Thomas still haunted by his estrangement from his father – but even more so by another writer, the enigmatic genius Andrew Black, who was his father’s protege. Black’s only book, Cupid’s Engine, was a masterpiece and an industry-changing bestseller. Years ago, Black vanished after refusing to fulfil a publishing contract because his publisher would not agree to his demand that they never publish any ebooks again. The existence of ebooks, according to Black, is going to bring about the apocalypse.
Then Thomas receives a letter from Black that consists of a single line – What do you think this is? – with a photograph of a mysterious black sphere. Despite a warning from the agent he shares with Black (“He will walk you right over a cliff,” she says), Thomas sets out to find him and solve the mystery. Soon characters from novels are showing up in real life and entire towns are turning out to be fictional constructs. By the time Thomas is finished, everything he thinks he knows about the world will be shattered. Continue reading...
Apr 17, 2020
An enthralling caper about a plucky band of activists with a crazy plan to free 900,000 battery hens in Iowa
Deb Olin Unferth’s strange and brilliant second novel is a caper story about a motley crew of lovable criminals banding together to pull off the biggest heist of their careers. All the familiar mechanics are in place: the plot that’s so crazy it just might work, the jaunty banter, the mishaps, love blossoming between two of the gang. We also get the stock characters: the spunky greenhorn with unorthodox ideas, the cantankerous old hand, the reluctant specialist who is tempted back for one last job. Here, though, the criminals are animal liberationists, and the heist is freeing 900,000 chickens from an industrial egg farm in the US. As the spunky greenhorn puts it: “All those birds. Missing. It’s wild, it’s disorienting, it’s beautiful.” The reluctant specialist retorts: “It’s impossible. Impossible to organise, impossible to get them out, impossible to find places to put them.” Then, of course, he helps.
If the book has a weakness, it’s in its relationship with the farming community in which it’s set. The idea of freeing the chickens comes from Janey, a disaffected, angry teenager with no history in animal rights activity and no particular affection for animals as far as we see. Her motivation is vaguely framed as rebellion, tinged by her contempt for small-town life in Iowa. Broadly speaking, the book seems to share that contempt, and its least appealing element is how it draws rural, working-class lives as one-dimensional, meaningless and devoid of emotional connection. People work at depressing, dead-end jobs, eat fast food and watch trash TV, and that’s all they ever do. Presumably, she’s trying to make the point that all life is turning into a battery farm experience, but since only the rural working-class characters get this treatment, it remains jarring. Continue reading...