Jason Dessen has it all. Well, almost everything.
He hasn’t even come closing to realising the impressive potential he showed at university as one of the most promising astro-physicists to come along in years, a man destined for great things.
But while that nags at him, and he wonders if, in another life, he might have risen to others’ pre-conceived notions of greatness, he takes great comfort in the love of his artist wife Daniela and his 14 year old son Charlie and his career teaching at Lakemont College.
His life then is one of reasonably blissful domesticity, hardly shocking or surprising or frenetically burbling along on the path to Nobel Prize-awarded greatness – or in the case of Blake Crouch’s latest engrossing read Dark Matter, the Pavia Prize, named in honour of his editor Julian Pavia – but inordinately satisfying achievement even if high-achievers like his former college roommate Ryan don’t see it that way.
The central idea underpinning Crouch’s remarkably accessible treatise on choice and the many paths different choices can take you, is the multiverse, an intriguing theory that posits that every choice we make creates it own reality, resulting over a lifetime, or even part of a lifetime in Jason’s choice, in a multiplicity of equally valid timelines, each of them following their own fateful paths.
“What if all the pieces of belief and memory that comprise who I am – my profession, Daniela, my son – are nothing but a tragic misfiring in that gray matter between my ears? Will I keep fighting to be the man I think I am? Or will I disown him and everything he loves, and step into the skin of the person this world would like for me to be?” (P. 75)
In some, for instance, Jason is a brilliant physicist, a man who gives the multiverse accessibility through a remarkable black cube-like structure sitting in a state of quantum substantiation, that can take you, if you are of the right mind, to all manner of realities, each of which literally waits behind a door in a maddeningly endless black corridor of possibilities.
In others, he is dead, or destitute, or the world he inhabits is poisoned, riven by war or close to being his reality but off by crucial, all-too-easily noticeable degrees.
It’s Sliding Doors on acid, a free-ranging, fast-barrelling trip through the infinite chances life gives us, a thousand moments of opportunity that we give little though to us we rush from train to errand, work to social engagement but all of which matter a great deal and can be the beginning and end of all things.
But matter these decisions both large and small most certainly do and Crouch does an admirable of breaking down mind-boggling physics so that it makes enough sense to enjoy this afternoon-consuming book.
Moving at a brisk pace as the author ratchets up the pace from a slow-burning start where Jason has his cosy, happy world spectacularly ripped asunder and altered to the point where his wife no longer recognises and his son doesn’t exist, to thriller-like speed where Jason is on the run from those who would steal his reality and from a multitude of Chicagos, all of whom are intriguing but none of which are home.
Barely pausing for breath but always deeply intelligent, emotionally-resonant and utterly-captivating, Dark Matter is above all an intensely personal love story, of one man’s driving need to get back what was taken from him.
“Amanda once said that her old world has begun to feel like a ghost, and I think I know what she means. We associate reality with the tangible – everything we can experience with our senses. And though I keep telling myself there’s a box on the South Side of Chicago that can take me to a world where I have everything I want and need, I no longer believe that place exists.” (P. 240)
As the novel progresses, with time ticking down with relentless speed and little mercy, and the windows of choice narrowing to suffocating degrees, Jason is forced to come to terms with what matters to him, who he is once all the trappings of career, social engagements and the minutiae of modern life are stripped away, and it is he ultimately wants.
Is it a glittering, achievement-filled career and the admiration and veneration of others or is it the love of his wife and son and a life defined by connection, emotional resonance and glasses of wine and pasta on a Friday with those he loves.
These decisions, so seemingly simple on the surface but utterly powerful in the context of Crouch’s tale, drive this compelling story, one that on the surface comes dressed in thriller-like simplicity but which is profoundly intelligent and emotionally transformative as you grappled with the idea of choices not made, decisions not taken, and the way in which they have changed your life for the worse or the better.
While Dark Matter does suffer from a lack of substantial world building – each of the various realities that Jason lands in are explored to a limited degree but are then left behind with tantalising in-filling still beckoning – and the characters aren’t really given much time to ponder the lessons they are learning or the wacked-out realities they are confronting (Daniela and Charlie handle the news of the multiverse with an all-too narratively-convenient swiftness), it more than makes up for that with an emotional understanding of what it is that underpins our lives.
Yes we all want to feel like we matter, like we have done something significant and worth remembering over the eons, but in the end what defines us, without a hint of maudlin sentimentality or corniness, is the connections we make with others and the love that permeates everything we do, and it’s this, says Crouch in Dark Matter, that is the ultimate arbiter of success in anyone’s life, whatever path it may take.