Tuesday, 25 September 2001

Andrew Crumey: Mr Mee (2000)

Edition: Picador, 2000
Review number: 945

What is the connection between a sex site on the Internet, Marcel Proust, and two men who make a minor appearance in the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau? This self-conscious, literary novel concerns all these things, and though it manages at times to be funny, and at others to be interesting intellectually, it never really quite takes off.

There are three narratives, all connected by the eighteenth century Encyclopedia of Rosier, supposedly a dissenting voice to the famous one written by the eminent French philosophers of the time. One of these is a David Lodge-like story of an academic, a specialist in Rousseau, who develops an obsessive crush on one of his students, another is the story of the minor characters from the Confessions, who are portrayed as an eighteenth century Laurel and Hardy. (Neither of these strands is anything like as funny as their influences.)

The most important strand is also the most original. It is the story of an elderly lover of literature, who becomes interested in Rosier after seeing a couple of references to him. This leads him to discover the Internet as a research tool, but the first time he uses it at home, a search for Rosier leads him to a sex site, to his naive delight and the disgust of his housekeeper. (His innocence is the most difficult thing to believe, as he turns out to be ignorant of quite common English phrases.)

To follow this novel, it helps to be familiar with the the important ideas from Remembrance of Things Past (including "the I that is not always I", which I suspect prompted the name of the main character), the Confessions and eighteenth century philosophy generally. Mr Mee is quite an intellectual novel, but left me with the feeling that it requires more effort than it is really worth. This is really because the characters are never sufficiently interesting or believable.

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