Having recently finished The Raw Shark Texts, I literally put that down and picked up Maxwell’s Demon.
First off, I do like attractively designed and typographically set out books that have been packaged with care and attention to detail. Just handling the hardback of Maxwell’s Demon makes for a pleasant experience. Not to get sidetracked here but it does add to overall impact. It’s just one part of the magic that publishers use to transform a manuscript into a published book.
I think, with both the The Raw Shark Texts and Maxwell’s Demon, the conversational talking point of the graphical embellishments are fun but they can detract from the prose, which I enjoyed as a thing in itself. The writing is really accessible for literary fiction, even if Steven Halls work is masquerading behind the label crime fiction (metaphysical crime fiction even), this is a literary fiction novel that’s written with a stylistic simplicity approaching genre fiction, while comfortably retaining its literary fiction badge. That’s no mean feat to pull off. The writing has a certain Raymond Carver-like minimalism about it, which I found very seductive. Indeed, that was what attracted me to The Raw Shark Texts in the first place, the simplicity of its first two sentences (they are both three word sentences (with a contraction in the second).
Steven Hall’s two novels definitely seem to have a Wittgensteinian quality about them. They play with the conceptual nature of existence through his own philosophical investigations (with the ambiguity and doubt of Wittegenstein’s later texts like Zettel and Culture and Value, Zettel being a personal favourite of mine).
I found the novel’s playful sense of humour entertaining. I think a lot of reviews seemed to miss the comedy factor in Steven Hall’s writing. It uses philosophy and scientific constructs to create a — for want of a better term — surreal landscape. Sometimes novels with loads of references can become ‘Google dumping’ but there’s enough quirkiness and a passion for conceptualisation that makes this novel work.
The worlds of his novels are playful and full of strange ideas that cross boundaries between the real and the ideal. This world building reminds me in a way of Douglas Adams. What Douglas Adams did with science fiction, Steven Hall is doing with literary fiction. This absurdly bonkers remix-glitch universe also reminds me of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. Steven Hall, Douglas Adams and Jasper Fforde are completely different kinds of writers but they all build humorously intellectual worlds with their own particular character, tone and terms of reference.
Maxwell’s Demon is like a walk through scenery, where the scenery is the story. It is a landscape of ideas.
To simplify things, there are three types of literary fiction and the novel falls into the last group:
- Genre stories written as literary fiction
- Character portraits
- Literary fiction for literary fiction’s sake (the ideas and the quality of the writing itself)
Why am I saying this? Because, if you read the novel expecting it to fall within the third category you will probably come away from it feeling satisfied. If you are expecting a conventional novel or genre story, you might well be disappointed.
If you ‘just go with it’, it’s an enjoyable metaphysical journey, a work of conceptual art with it’s tongue firmly in its imaginary cheek. No more so is this evident than in its ending, which uses a graphical element.