The new best book within a book within a book
October 29, 2021
“Maxwell’s Demon” by Steven Hall, author of “The Raw Shark Texts” (2009) was published in Great Britain in February 2021, shortly before being released in the United States in April 2021. The book itself is strange on a first readthrough, a mixture of narrative and philosophical tangents that become more interconnected as the book moves through its story, but the unraveling of the story is not an unsatisfying one, and not all is as it first appears.
The novel stars Thomas Quinn, the son of famous writer Stanley Quinn, who has been unsuccessful in creating a foothold for himself in the world of fiction. His wife, Imogen, is living on the other side of the world on a research expedition, and his only real company is memories of the past, specifically of his father and his father’s mysterious protege, Andrew Black. Black wrote a wildly successful novel under the guidance of Stanley Quinn and never wrote another, instead retreating to a seaside town to live as a recluse. Quinn himself died six years before the beginning of the novel.
One day Thomas receives a voicemail from his dead father with a strange message that will begin to undo the stitching of Thomas’s dull life and make him question everything he’s ever known, as well as force him to find the answer to the question: “Who is Andrew Black?” The world begins to come apart around him as he sees fictional characters in the streets and starts to wonder how real words and ink on a page can really become.
“Maxwell’s Demon” is not a long book, but it almost feels twice as long as it is. The pages are packed full of a narrative that carefully draws the reader in and long-winded tangents from Thomas’s perspective on the nature of certain philosophical, literary, and scientific concepts, from entropy to the Hero’s Journey to the titular Maxwell’s Demon. The story almost has the same feeling as watching “The Truman Show” does, that ever-present sense that you are a spectator to a story that is unraveling around the protagonist, no matter how they attempt to stop it. It is a story that feels so grounded that it makes the reader doubt their own world at every turn and yet feels so fantastical that it reminds you that it’s no more than words on a page, presenting you with a world that is not your own.
Anyway, with the pretentious overview out of the way, this book is really good.
It has few characters who are so much as named, much less interacting with Thomas for an extended period of time. Most of the novel is simply Thomas alone with his thoughts, which leads to the tangents and musings that he presents to the audience. There are also some metanarrative elements (think a story within a story) throughout, as Thomas indirectly addresses the audience throughout his extended considerations on a concept, which differentiates them from the rest of the novel, which is simply Thomas’s narration of his own actions, thoughts, memories, and feelings, as with any narrative.
There are also some interesting visual elements, especially related to the footnotes contained within the novel. These footnotes also are told from Thomas’s point of view, and the book itself almost naturally feels like it was written by him, whether in hindsight or in the theatre of his own mind. The notes themselves are marked by different types of leaves and are also made to look like them, adding a unique style to each page.
I personally finished this book in one sitting over the course of six hours, which is really how I recommend reading it. If possible, it should be read all at once. It’s not a novel that needs to be savored until after you’re finished reading. All of the puzzle pieces don’t fully connect to a bigger picture until the final part, so it’s best to experience the ending with the rest of the novel fresh in your mind.
All of this is to say that the novel is a twisting, unreal, and creative mystery that pushes the bounds of the pages it’s contained on and reaches out with a narrative that feels both fresh and conventional.