When is a book of short stories not a book of short stories? When it is written by Andrew Crumey. As those who have read his previous work, (which includes Sputnik Caledonia, Pfitz, and The Secret Knowledge), will know he is a writer who appears to derive great delight in the undertaking of writing and the possibilities it offers, and also in playing with the expectations of readers. He unashamedly embraces ideas and examines them with a forensic, yet playful, eye. This has never been shown to better effect than with his latest book The Great Chain Of Unbeing – a collection of stories which are bound intrinsically, yet almost imperceptibly, by interrelated situations and characters. Just who, how, why, where and when – these are all for you to uncover and unpick.
It begins at the ‘Unbeginning’ and ends with an ‘Unending’. Between the two are the stories which make ‘The Great Chain Of Unbeing’, a title which hints at the connections which run through these tales, and which asks questions about what we can claim as real. “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”. Crumey tackles that question, but not head on – more a tackle from the side. These connections are not linear, they are a network with strands leading you in unexpected directions.
It’s an idea which is perhaps more common, at least recently, in cinema, with films such as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, or Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales, where you have stories which appear to stand alone, but when you step back and view them as whole a bigger picture begins to emerge. That’s certainly the case with The Great Chain Of Unbeing and part of the book’s appeal is trying to work out just how they connect.
The title carries a suggestion of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and like that novel there are many themes running concurrently, including love, sex, and relationships as well as philosophy, science, history, and culture. This may suggest that The Great Chain Of Unbeing is a deadly serious undertaking, but Crumey is always impishly perverse. There are few other writers who would bring together the philosopher Liebniz, the writer Walter Scott, the demonic Scottish midgie, and the etymology of Häagen-Dazs as disparate but vital strands – in fact there may be no other.
Crumey deals in ideas, but never takes himself too seriously. Liebniz’s Principle of Plenitude, more commonly known as the possible worlds theory, is examined closely, but the examples used to do so include the Chicken Sisters concerned about the possible outcome of Wobble(TM) Ball. And you’ll just have to read the book to understand what that the hell that means. But there is the suggestion that these tales are just that – versions of innumerable possible outcomes. That feeling is strengthened by multiple appearances from certain characters, particularly the mysterious and enigmatic Richard Sand who seems to influence lives in a manner which could be malevolent, or it could be completely imagined – and so could he.
In my opinion Crumey is one of the most underrated and overlooked writers at work today, although his shortlisting for this year’s Saltire Fiction Book Of The Year may see that change. There are a couple of comparisons with other authors who have appeared on these pages I could offer in terms of style and substance; David Keenan and M.J. Nicholls are the two who spring to mind – but if I’m being truthful Andrew Crumey stands alone. If you haven’t read his work before then I think The Great Chain Of Unbeing an ideal place to start. All his books can be read on different levels, but that applies to this one more than most while still giving you the full Crumey experience. Put simply, he makes you think. More than that he challenges you to think, and that’s what a great writer should do. We all need a challenge, otherwise what’s the point?