An Elaborately Constructed Artifice: Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall

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Steven Hall’s first novel, The Raw Shark Texts, falls into a fuzzily defined genre known as slipstream. This term, coined by sci-fi author Bruce Sterling in 1989, never really caught on partly because its parameters are imprecise, but every few years a writer like Hall publishes a new book and the term rears its head again, like some kind of literary cicada. For Sterling, slipstream described what resulted when literary novelists appropriated sci-fi and fantasy tropes, including novels like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Sterling also included metafictional experiments like Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, and dark, Gothic tales like Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, in which nothing fantastical occurs but an unsettling and off-kilter atmosphere dominates. These kinds of works have been described as postmodern (Pynchon, Barthelme), magical realist (Morrison), or hysterical realist (Rushdie, Pynchon again, Zadie Smith), but none of those terms quite contains them all. If we reached back further, we’ll stumble onto terms like historiographic metafiction and satire and modernist and picaresque. More recent writers like Helen Oyeyemi, Téa Obreht, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ali Smith, Karen Thompson Walker, and Marlon James would, presumably, also exist under this enormous umbrella. Employing one single term for these disparate styles and approaches seems like an overreach, but devising an endless list of terms seems just as ineffective. Slipstream may as well be what we call our bewilderment.

It’s natural, after reading a novel like The Raw Shark Texts, to try to contextualize it into a genre, as it defies and combines our conventional categories. The narrative revolves around an amnesiac who is pursued by a “conceptual shark,” an abstract entity made of text that eats memories and is attracted to information streams. It’s like a mashup of Stephen King’s novella The Langoliers and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, with a dash of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. It’s the kind of novel that’s easy to imagine becoming a cult classic—so the fact that it was an acclaimed best-seller is a bit surprising. Did mainstream readers really vibe with The Raw Shark Texts? It’s hard to imagine a wide readership for such a story, especially because Hall’s outlandish concepts don’t really work as plot devices. There’s a whole lot of goofy exposition, stuff like this:

“For a long time,” Fidorous said, “there existed a very discreet society, a school of logologists, linguists and calligraphers. When I joined them, they were called Group27, but before that they were The Bureau of Language and Typography. The name has changed many times through the years but originally they were known by the Japanese name Shotai-Mu.”

To be sure, Hall’s debut is unique and inventive, and it even carries a dollop of emotional heft, but it’s a bit too bogged down by its ideas to be successful.

Now, fourteen years later, Hall has written a follow-up, Maxwell’s Demon. Like its predecessor, Maxwell’s Demon contains uncanny occurrences, mysterious concepts, and abstract philosophizing, but here the materials are firmly tactile, earthbound, real. It’s also more recognizably autobiographical, not so much in terms of the story—which is far-fetched if not fantastical—but its details. The protagonist, Thomas Quinn, is a novelist with one published book under his belt, although it was a commercial failure. Quinn’s late father, a celebrated journalist and author, was named Stanley, like Hall’s late father (to whom The Raw Shark Texts was dedicated). Another novelist character, Andrew Black, is Stanley’s protégé, a genius who published an enormously successful and critically acclaimed debut called Cupid’s Engine, after which he promptly disappeared from the limelight and never published again.  It’s hard not to read this story about two stunted writers as autobiographical: after all, it was written by a novelist who took nearly a decade and a half to follow up his debut.

Throughout Maxwell’s Demon, Quinn meditates on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the narrative arc of “the hero’s journey,” as if, in the writing of this novel, Hall obsessed over just how to fulfill the potential that critics and readers saw in his first book. Quinn and Black represent two sides of the literary world’s coin: one book undersold, was remaindered and then forgotten; the other became the center of an entire subculture dedicated to picking apart the depths of such an auspicious and ambitious first novel. Neither of these lines up exactly with Hall’s experience, but both contain elements of it.

The plot revolves around Quinn’s relationship with Black, his rival for his late father’s esteem. At the novel’s start, many years have passed since Stanley died and since both Quinn’s and Black’s novels were published. Quinn now writes “digital, downloadable short stories and audio scripts for existing intellectual properties” (not unlike Hall, who in the last decade or so has written scripts for computer games and radio plays, the latter of which were based on Doctor Who). Quinn’s wife, Imogen, works as a researcher on a remote island over eight thousand miles away, from which a public livestream broadcasts slightly delayed video of her daily activities. The narrative is set into motion via two inexplicable occurrences. Quinn receives a voicemail from his dead father, a nonsensical message in which Stanley asks, “Why knocks an angel in Bethlehem?” The next day, he receives a photo of an impossibly black sphere from Andrew Black with a note that reads, “What do you think this is?” Then, something even more bizarre happens: standing outside of Quinn’s home is a man who looks exactly like Maurice Umber, a character from Andrew Black’s Cupid’s Engine.

Quinn sets out to solve these riddles, a quest that has him traveling around looking for Black and tracing through memories of his late father. Hall is in a much more meditative and philosophical mood here than in his first novel. Quinn ponders the state of creativity and its relation to intellectual property, goes down rabbit holes of the history of nativity scenes, contemplates the nature of storytelling, and considers at length the concept of entropy. These sections are interesting, even insightful, if not always dramatically compelling. Research in contemporary narratives is difficult to dramatize in a meaningful way; it often feels as if you’re merely reading about people googling shit.

Still, these mysteries thrust the story along briskly and effectively. Hall is certainly gifted at conjuring up strange situations, and in both of his books the reader cannot genuinely predict what will happen next. But Hall suffers from the same problem a lot of novelists who work in this vein face: the solutions are rarely as fascinating as the questions. By the time Maxwell’s Demon concludes, the thrill of the unknown gives way to the ambivalent feeling of elaborate explanation. Such unsatisfying denouements retroactively revise the mysteries into skillfully and ambiguously presented information. This is, of course, how fiction works, but an answer that renders the question suspect is no answer at all; it is a fact coyly doled out. The finale isn’t bad, exactly—it just doesn’t measure up to the pleasures of the set-up.

Hall occasionally includes references to The Raw Shark Texts in Maxwell’s Demon. The name Thomas Quinn appears in both novels. Quinn’s disappointing novel is called The Qwerty Machinegun, and in The Raw Shark Texts there is a decoding procedure called the QWERTY code. For eagle-eyed readers, such allusions amplify the sense of metafiction pervading the text, especially because of the autobiographical details sprinkled throughout. Maxwell’s Demon is in many ways a meditation on the role of the novelist, an exploration of Hall’s own commitment to his craft. Quinn fears he has become a character in Black’s novel, under the control of an author with godlike power. “Very little about a novel is exactly as it appears,” he comments as he considers the genius of Andrew Black, “and if you think about it, very little appears at all.” Quinn thinks of the novel in terms of “tricks” and “illusions” and “the temporal disparity” between the writer’s years-long effort and the reader’s much shorter experience.

Hall, then, is like a magician informing his audience that he’s about to trick them, and then doing so despite their alertness to his chicanery. Everything within the novel—Quinn’s jealousy toward Black, who earned the acceptance of Quinn’s father he so desperately yearned for; Imogen’s physical and emotional distance from Quinn—is fodder for Hall’s narrative “tricks.” Hall informs the reader of certain information that turns out to be untrue—or is true, but means something completely different than it did in its original context. Without giving away the ending, Quinn is put into situations in which his limited perspective convinces him that his reality has completely shifted. Hall takes full advantage of Quinn’s incomplete point of view to challenge what the reader believes to be true. By the time Quinn locates Black in a tiny town running a shop selling miniatures, Hall has established enough enigmatic elements that a twist feels inevitable. The reader won’t be able to predict the turn, but they’ll definitely see one coming.

There is a fundamental disparity between creators of art and their audiences. A novelist knows how essentially manipulative the enterprise is, how it relies much more on the right words in the right order (to borrow Tom Stoppard’s phrasing) than it does on any emotional or thematic motivations. A novel is not a free-flowing expression of pure, personal feeling but rather an elaborately constructed artifice built to extract the most effective response possible, even if its initial construction came from purely personal feeling. The process of rewriting and editing becomes a process of maximizing the seemingly ephemeral qualities of the text by organizing it to do so. The thematic elements may compel a writer to begin, to push through the doubts, but the more practical, nitty gritty part of creation—the editing—is what makes those emotional components ring through. Readers might view such a perspective as cynical—perhaps because it kind of is, but also because it spoils the magic literary art works on us, exactly like finding out how a magician does his trick. It is never as beautiful when you know how it works.

Jonathan Russell Clark is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Read It Forward. His work has also appeared in Tin House, the Atlantic, the San Francisco ChronicleThe MillionsRolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. More from this author →