Politics and Society

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Review: Pfitz (1995), by Andrew Crumey

   Andrew Crumey’s second novel, Pfitz, was a summertime diversion that paid off in spades. Not only did I snag this little 164-page gem for just a buck at my favorite local second-hand shop (Myopic Books); I also found my self thoroughly entertained throughout and wishing at the end that there were more of the same to be had. Having never heard of Crumey before this extravagant and purely speculative financial adventure – yes, I guess that makes me a risk taker – I was not aware of his other works, e.g. Music, in a Foreign Language and the later D’Alambert’s Principle, which comprise with Mr. Mee a now completed trilogy. And there are others.* This is a treat I will probably avail myself of next summer, if not before.
    Crumey has a PhD. in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics from Cambridge. After a post-doctoral stint at Imperial College and Leeds University, and four years as a schoolteacher he became a book reviewer and literary editor for Scotland on Sunday, until an award for his first novel, Music, in a Foreign Language, freed him to write full time. Then came Pfitz (1995) – a NYT Notable book of the year.

   Theoretical Physics, his chosen field is full of some fine examples – most very recent – of wild ideas and rampant optimism about the ‘end of physics,’ the virtual culmination of all scientific understanding and the various ToE’s (Theories of Everything) that have made the parades and pronouncements of the boosters and popularizers of theoretical physics a truly amusing circus for the past 30 years. What better field of inquiry in which to learn that utopian ideas and obsessive enthusiasms are the very stuff of comedy.  Crumey obviously has the intellectual acumen to toy with concepts and perspectives that others take very – or all too - seriously, to find and make the interplay of mere possibilities, however far-fetched entirely plausible –and readily defensible - to a willing mind. He’s the right man to write post-modern fiction!  That is what he has done.
   Pfitz is first and last a romantic comedy, which tells the story of the main character, Schenck, a cartographer in the royal employ of a Prince, and his zany attempt to get close to Estrella, a biographer (also in the royal employ) and the woman of his dreams. The occupations are especially important in this novel, since the action takes place in an imaginary city ruled by a prince, who has devoted all the resources of his city – including the lives and energies of his subjects - to the imaginative creation of another ideal city, Rreinstadt (hence the occupations) –which shall exist only on paper. A city only on paper, yes, but rendered in excruciating detail – and in miniature models – complete to the level of actual pay stubs and employment histories of the imaginary rat-catchers, and drafts of the fictive/ideal sanitation department’s secondary plans for superfluous rain water catchments and  basins (Ok, I’m making some of this up, but the forgeries reflect the spirit of the originals. You see, the level and the spirit of fun is catching!) Among the many details required by the Prince are detailed survey maps of the environs and exact biographies of the residents and even the visitors to Rreinstadt – of which number Pfitz, a lowly servant to a visiting Count, is one such.
   When Schenck first glimpses Estrella in her workspace on the floor above his office he is impelled by the finest and most high-minded lust to find a way to meet her. He investigates her sphere of ‘research’ and finds she is writing the biography of a visiting Count. When he cross-checks the illustrations – yes, there are story-board illustrations of all the activities in Rreinstadt, too – he discovers that "Pfitz", the name of the Count’s servant, has been "written in" over a name (Spontini) that has been partially wiped out, i.e. erased, as with an eraser, from the drawing of the hostel bedroom where he was sleeping on the floor beside the Count’s bed. A mystery develops (and then runs amok) concerning the disappearance – or murder? – of the now missing (erased) character.
   Amidst all this world-shifting mayhem, and in a spirit of comic relief, we encounter Pfitz, the man, as he accompanies the Count, on his journey into the story. Pfitz is an ironically pseudo-intellectual raconteur (a jester) who reluctantly indulges his Lord with stories about himself and his origins to pass the time. This story is itself agonizingly drawn out, too much so for the Count’s liking, and is likewise interrupted by scene changes in the primary story and the progress of the novel – which interruptions are noted, deeply resented, and peremptorily rebuked by Pfitz! (He admonishes the reader and the writer to leave off with these distractions and attend to his tale—or else! His threat to desist from any and all cooperation in this narrative is hilarious on more than one level!)
   Meanwhile Schenck has found his ingress to Estrella’s unapproachable isolation. He concocts a plan to write a book of “Aphorisms,” ostensibly only recently and partially recovered and attributable to Spontini, which he tells her may be important to her biographical efforts. He sets about writing the book overnights in his garret and delivering it piecemeal to Estrella. Imagine imagining wisdom to win a woman’s attention! Ah, what we won’t do for love.
   I would actually love to go on, but I think you get the picture. Throw in a rival, a court intrigue and a mystery and you have the playful magic of Pfitz, a pfitting alternative to the presumptuous sobriety of Umberto Eco’s over-done, post-modern masterpiece, Foucault’s Pendulum. And here too we have it all:
   *A book within the book (“Aphorisms” by Spontini) written by the character, Schenck,
   *characters within a story which is yet to be told by characters within the primary story - objecting (among themselves and directly to the reader) to the scene changes of the primary story, which interrupt their own narrative continuity (= existence?)
   *mysteries within the primary fiction concerning the possible murder of a character
created, and then un-created, and then’ resurrected’ within the secondary fictional space

   This hodgepodge of “inter-textuality,” “meta-fiction”, and play-within-a-play banter is all that one can ask of the new aesthetic, and it is great fun to read. And I think it is the right use of these techniques. These 'post-modern' gimmicks are, after all, just ideas --playthings of the mind! In Crumey’s Pfitz, they are treated by a mind equal to the task with the seriousness which they deserve. The result is one hilarious comedy or ideas!

    * Music in a Foreign Language (1994),  Pfitz (1995),  D’Alembert’s Principle (1996),  Mr. Mee (2000),  Mobius Dick (2004), Sputnik Caledonia (2008)
   Crumey also has a website where essays and short-fiction may be seen, here.

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