It’s hard to know where to start with Andrew Meek’s Quintessence. What can I compare it to? Dürrenmatt’s Die Physiker? Tarkovsky’s Solaris? To an extent, yes. To the extent that this is a book in which physics, metaphysics, philosophy and the dark pit of human loss combine.
But one could equally refer readers to Lee Rourke’s The Canal, to Bolaño’s 2666, to David Foster Wallace at his tricksiest, a sign of Quintessence’s true originality. It tells the story of Alexander Staalman, a man on whom an awful guilty secret weighs so heavily that it literally smashes him apart. Under his therapist’s watch, Staalman’s mind splinters as he seeks to put right the terrible wrong done to his wife, and reality splinters around him. Not just his reality but reality itself, falling away layer after layer until the conclusion reveals the secret at its core, the quintessence. That Meek has revealed the elements of his own personal history that went into the book (when he told his wife, in essence, “The baby’s life, or mine?” as he put it in one interview. Whilst real life had a much more positive outcome after the birth of the author’s daughter, he was haunted by the terrible possibilities, and it is that ghost that infuses Quintessence) may not meet with everyone’s idea of what a detached author should be, but it makes the events the book contains all the more devastating.
Staalman is a physicist, and it is the possibilities this opens that raise the book to the level of the sublime. It is interesting that the greatest influences Meek cites for his work are non-fiction writers, people capable of lifting the scientific to the sublime like David Deutsch and Daniel Dennett. The shifting sands between physics and metaphysics, the gaps in time and space, between universes and realities, these become the fissures down which an increasingly paranoid narrative feed us. But Meek is never hamfisted in his exposition, and he never descends into hokum, which I am sure has a lot to do with his grounding in scientific literature. Unlike many authors in this field, he knows enough of the science not to get bogged down trying to explain it, and like great scientific writers he is able to see the magic that a simple idea well-presented can create. He has created a delicate and thrilling book that offers us a panorama of the widest canvas of all by zooming ever further in on the smallest scale. Like those stone sculptures in which through mastery of gravity rocks stand one on the other whilst barely touching, this is one of those rare moments when plotting, character, and ideas coincide gloriously right to the devastating end.
Quintessence is literary fiction on the speculative end that would appeal to the readers of Murakami, Bolaño, or Miéville
Reviewed by Dan Holloway