At his recent event at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Andrew Crumey pointed out that there were two types of mystery novels. In one the puzzle was like a jigsaw, satisfyingly pieced together until complete but then rather redundant; in the other the puzzle is never entirely solved and those looking for a solution will only experience frustration, as if the jigsaw had a number of pieces missing, or pieces from other jigsaws had infiltrated the box. Suffice to say that Crumey’s work is much like the latter: those coming to The Secret Knowledge expecting that secret to be unveiled by the end are in for a disappointment. Those, however, looking to be stimulated and challenged may want to open the box.
It will be no surprise to those familiar with Crumey’s work that The Secret Knowledge contains more than one narrative, and that hints of alternative realities are never far away. The novel begins romantically in 1913 with a proposal from composer Peirre Klauer to his lover Yvette shortly after he has informed her that he has recently begun a symphony (the titular Secret Knowledge), a private commission from:
“A variety of people. Dreamers and scholars; an intellectual fraternity.”
Pierre says he has one final test for her: “Wait here and when I come back our future can begin.” A few minutes later he shoots himself.
In the second narrative, David Conroy is a pianist on a downward spiral. Once tipped for greatness, he is now only rarely invited to perform and spends most of his time (when not feeling sorry for himself) teaching. Through a chance meeting (though the novel throws into question the very concept of chance) he comes into possession of Klauer’s symphony and passes it on to a new student, Paige.
Crumey (a physicist) said that the novel is not about physics, but, though music is the unifying language of the novel, a stray physicist does appear in a remark by Conroy:
“I met a physics student the other day and asked him about Schrodinger’s cat. You know, the thing that’s neither dead nor alive, but both at once. The student said, maybe we’re all inside the box.”
Of course, maybe this is a physicist in-joke –an obligatory mention of the one idea that seems to have penetrated popular consciousness. Nevertheless, we find Pierre alive and well in Glasgow in 1919; and Conroy’s wife seems to fade out of existence, not only leaving him but leaving no trace. Alternative realities are also a literary device (as is a mysterious manuscript), and Crumey takes us through an almost recognisable historical landscape featuring philosophers such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, as the story of Klauer’s symphony between 1913 and the present unfolds. This leads to sudden immersion in philosophical discussion at times, however Crumey is careful to dramatize these discussions, for example making clear the enmity between Adorno and Hannah Arendt. (And for those wanting to explore the issues the novel raises further, they provide a handy reading list.)
Crumey is a writer to be treasured because he is a writer of ferocious ideas. Just don’t expect him to provide all the answers:
“…I want you to keep hold of the confusion, don’t try to resolve it, because I can tell you now, there won’t be an answer, there never is. Art is always inconsistent.”