“Never plays it safe” – Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall

IMG_2022-2-8-063544Steven Hall is a fascinating writer. His debut novel, Raw Shark Texts came out in 2007 and became something of a cult classic. A strange mash-up of Murakami, Mark Z. Danielewski and a dollop of Jaws, it was weird, funny and playful, but ultimately a very accessible novel about the hunt for a conceptual shark. Since the publication of Raw Shark Texts, Hall has been off the radar, prose wise, instead writing for videogames (his credits on Battlefield 1 earned him a Writer’s Guild Nomination). Maxwell’s Demon then, represents the first novel from him in almost fourteen years, and with that comes a huge amount of baggage and hype. It would be a pleasure to say that Maxwell’s Demon lives up to all of that, but unfortunately it is a rather disappointing second novel that promises the blend of playfulness and head-expanding weirdness that Raw Shark Texts delivered in spades, but never quite lives up to it.

Thomas Quinn is a novelist who spends his days working on other people’s ideas, his writing days spent working on IP’s like Captain Scarlett. He’s still reeling from a harsh critique of his novel by his mentor and his father’s assistant Andrew Black. Black published a huge million copy bestselling novel, Cupid’s Engine, and then disappeared into obscurity after a bunch of legal battles. Quinn’s wife is working as a researcher overseas, her every move watched by millions on a webcam that Quinn himself tunes into when he speaks to her. Quinn’s life is already strange, but is plunged into even stranger territory when he receives a postcard from Andrew Black, and a phone call from his late father.

Maxwell’s Demon sets itself up to be every bit as smart and complex as Raw Shark Texts. Hall’s book plays with the perception of time passing in a novel brilliantly.

“It’s an unsettling business, when you really look at it. Unsettling to think that when we read a novel, we’re burning through years of a writer’s life in a matter of hours,”

he writes, following it up at the end of a short paragraph with,

“The truth is, it took me forty-eight minutes to get from writing the words, ‘it’s an unsettling business’ to here.”

Elsewhere, footnotes in the shape of leaves are scattered across the pages. There are entire chapters devoted to thought experiments (one of which is responsible for the titular Demon).

Raw Shark Texts concludes with a recreation of the most famous fictional shark hunt in history, as the characters assemble Quint’s boat from Jaws out of laptops and office furniture, intent on trapping the concept of a shark with the concept of a shark hunt. It has a flick book, and something like that just shouldn’t work. But it does because it all feels of a whole.

Maxwell’s Demon doesn’t have that same cohesiveness. Hall’s narrative is clever and playful until it just… isn’t? The climactic moments, in which the truth of what’s really going on is revealed isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is, and though it is rather sweet, it raises far more questions than it answers. For all its quoting from the Bible and Joseph Campbell, and for its proposition that a novel is a closed system beholden to the second law of entropy, you would be remiss to think that Maxwell’s Demon is a book about our faith in stories and why we like the tropes of fiction. It’s perhaps less about that and more about why we rely on those tropes as writers, about acts of creation, and the difficulty and trauma those acts can sometimes incur. It has fascinating things to say about all of that, and it is certainly not a dull read. In fact, it’s often (as with Raw Shark Texts) extremely witty. But it never really comes together.

That it reaches high but never quite gets there isn’t to say that Maxwell’s Demon isn’t worth a read. Certainly many readers may get a lot out of it, and you cannot fault its ambition. Hall has fascinating things to say, and there are still glimmers of the brilliance of Raw Shark Texts in this novel.

Perhaps the problem is in Hall’s attempt to have this machine-like deconstruction of the novel, or the story as an entity, and the emotional human story of Quinn’s search for Black and the truth behind it all combined within its pages. Those two sides of the story never really marry together, and that causes a big disconnect between that side of the book that’s having a ton of fun, and the side that’s trying to do the heavy emotional lifting. In the end, Maxwell’s Demon is a war between two different stories that winds up at an impasse.

Any Cop?: Yes and no. This is a disappointing read, but many readers will find something worthwhile in here. Who knows what this would be like without the hype behind it, and perhaps it was always destined to be a disappointment, but it is an ambitious novel, and it never plays it safe. Perhaps that on its own means it is worth a recommendation.

Daniel Carpenter

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