Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey

Andrew Crumey is a literary contradiction. On the positive side, he is capable of being a brilliant novelist who can weave literary magic. When he’s at his best (which is often the case) his words are a sheer delight to read and his narrative flow hypnotic. Unfortunately, he can also come across as an academic bore, and in the process affirm the worst stereotypes of university English departments. He is also not shy about getting weird, as is the case with the creepy sex scenes in this novel that are borderline porn. To use a metaphor, reading Crumey is like listening to a breathtaking symphony, but just as the orchestra is building to its climax, the music suddenly stops and a crazy person – with a whoopee cushion in hand – suddenly starts making fart noises while taking off his clothes. As I said, this book is part-genius, part-child-prank.

This is the third novel by Crumey that I have read. The first I thought was so-so, while the second I loved. This book falls somewhere in between. From a stylistic point of view Mr Mee is extraordinary. Crumey’s ability to construct a single, unified tale by combining three separate stories is masterful. While it’s true that he uses the same narrative structure as in Music, in a Foreign Language, his writing is so good one can easily overlook the fact that he’s recycling a previously used narrative structure.

But not everything is perfect with this novel. In certain parts, the narrative flow comes across as the dry musings of an old, boring literature professor, whose pedantic whine will put anyone to sleep. In his defence, Crumey could argue that the character in question is a middle-aged literature professor, and that my problem is that I don’t like this character, not that he is poorly written. There is some truth to this. Nevertheless, a boring personality is still a bore, and no amount of literary analysis can say otherwise.

On the opposite spectrum, some of the sex in this book is unnecessarily voyeuristic. This disturbed me a bit, as I got the feeling that the final sex scene was inserted not because it fit, but because Crumey simply wanted to write a creepy sex scene. If the central theme of your book deals with sexual taboos (e.g. Lolita) then it makes sense to include otherwise shocking sexual acts. If your book does not require it, however, then inserting gratuitous sexual behaviour in an otherwise excellent book is simple gratuitousness.

What about the plot? Well, this novel weaves together three separate tales. The first narrator is Mr Mee, a mind-boggling naïve Octogenarian who is searching for the mysterious Rosier Encyclopaedia, an 18th century work that reportedly proves the non-existence of the universe. The second narrator is a middle-aged professor in the same town as Mr Mee, who writes a book about two men called Ferrand and Minard, two minor characters who appear in the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third story describes the adventures of Ferrand and Minard, which may or may not have been written by the middle-aged professor. In masterful strokes, this novel blends these three stories into a coherent whole. This otherwise fantastic work, however, is undermined by certain chapters that are mind-numbing, as well as some sex scenes whose only purpose it would appear is to allow Crumey to write them.

In short, this novel is half-Beethoven-genius, half-whoopee cushion clown.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars