Mr. Mee by Andrew Crumey
21 January 2007
A book review published in Goodreads 07w04:1
The truth is I wanted to publish a review of Mr. Mee in the summer of 2005, and it is a novel I read in the summer of 2004, but obviously didn’t get around to it until now. Mr. Mee is a novel of three story-lines, with two of the major players being Rousseau and Proust; Rousseau as a character, and Proust as an idea. It is set a decade ago, in 1997, during the early years of the internet – which is an important element to the fiction. The eponymous character of Mr. Mee is a retired, naive academic who buys a computer in order to use the nascent World Wide Web to try and track down an obscure book. In a Borgesian allusion, Rosier’s Encyclopaedia has been referenced in the bibliography of a book he brought home from a leisurely afternoon at the used bookstore.
Andrew Crumey shifts the scene to tell us more about the Encyclopaedia by bringing us back to 18th Century Paris, and introducing us to two characters, Ferrand and Minard, two down-on-their-luck copyists who are commissioned to copy a bunch of nutty writings by a Mr. Rosier. F & M are named after two people who Rousseau wrote about in his autobiography, and Crumey’s speculation on their backstory, and its consequences were outstanding. This novel is simply intellectually delightful in that regard. Perhaps they had something to do with Rouseau’s famed paranoia? Maybe they thought Rousseau a murderer? And perhaps their paranoia was fueled by their work fair-copying this work of an 18th Century genius who’d thought up 20th Century quantum physics and binary computers in 18th Century terms? (One of my favorite parts of the book describes Minard’s construction of a digital-binary computer out of string and bits of paper, and he is heard to complain about needing more memory. It seems that even in the 1760s, it was desirable to have more RAM).
In the 1990s, a professor lies in a hospital bed, contemplating his life over the past several months, and the possibility of his death. He had been a professor of Proust, and had come to teach this work of autobiographical literature after an adolescent infatuation with the work of Rousseau. And so, as he writes his memoir, he reflects both on Rousseau and on Proust. This is the tour-de-force of the novel. I found this the most satisfying, and appreciated it’s intricate subtleties. The professor comes across as just another dime-a-dozen mediocre academic who live their quotidian lives a students and commentators of past human achievement. The Proust-bug has not yet bitten me, and it was here I learned of how Proust described his magnum opus as being ‘about an I who isn’t I’. The introduction of this thought in the professor’s memoir raises the question of how much of his text is about an I that isn’t he. The overall impression is that, faced with impending death, Dr. Petrie has at last given it a try, written his work of autobiography about and I who isn’t I, inspired by his mastery of knowledge of these two masters of the art. Dr. Petrie ignores whatever sense of failure that has brought him to this point – the broken heart, his cancer, the sense that it was his attempt to initiate an affair with a student which brought on the illness. Instead of being cowed by a sense of mediocrity in comparison to his literary heroes, he gives it a go and in so doing constructs a literature of the self. The added poignancy comes from the embarrassed recounting of the infatuation which he blames for the illness out of a sort of hubris, and it is perhaps through this honest memory that his work becomes literary and becomes the final accomplishment of his life.
And perhaps here it is worth remembering that a year ago, James Frey was in the news for his book of autobiography, and it should be an embarrassment to anyone who claims to run a book club to not understand the need to embellish, to lie, to cheat the details as (what used to be called in a more literate age) poetic license.
Crumey’s skill is seen in his ability to weave together the tale of naive Mr. Mee, the octogenarian centre of the story, with the dying professor and the story of Rouseau’s Minard and Ferrand, and in the process, imagine 20th Century theoretical physics in 18th Century terms, remind us of what the internet was like a decade ago, muse on human foibles and the nature of autobiographical literature.
Perhaps an even more central thesis to the story is that consciousness comes from writing, or at least, from the type of contextualization of memory that can come from writing. If we are not telling the story, than it didn’t really have to happen. Ultimately it ties into the nature of memory in our lives and the nature of identity as a narrated self.
- Published as a Goodreads review (07w04:1)
- 2007-2015: archived on my blog
- Sept 2015: this version produced