This is not the age of experimental fiction. It’s the age of Franzen, not Foster Wallace. That shift was on its cusp in 2007, when the critic James Wood had declared in favor of realism, and Steven Hall published his debut, The Raw Shark Texts. Noted for its innovative design — it transformed into a flip book in which a text-block shark menaced the reader — that British metafictional novel created a big splash.
In the 14 years since then, Hall has been undeterred by shifting fashions, and his follow-up shares many of the features of his debut. There are blocks of text in the shape of leaves, characters who may not exist, and long discourses on entropy: the titular demon is a conceptual one that briefly appears to break the second law of thermodynamics.
The protagonist is Thomas Quinn, a struggling novelist and the son of a late, famous writer. His wife is away, working on Easter Island, being livestreamed and getting rather too close to a colleague. Lonely and broke in her absence, Quinn receives an intriguing photograph from a former protégé of his father’s, the hugely more successful, and now reclusive, novelist Andrew Black. Soon our hero is on a quest to find Black and steal his valuable new book.
Written in the first person and paced like a thriller, Maxwell’s Demon has an intimacy and immediacy that quickly grips you. Even the long digressions on theory — a trademark of the form — are enjoyable to read. As it wears on, though, the plot’s improbability jars with its striving for emotional resonance. Far-fetched and relentless twists are fine in a picaresque romp, but less so when we’re expected to care. In the final pages there’s an interesting, unexpected turn: a literal interpretation of the post-structuralist idea that language creates, rather than merely describes, reality. The problem is that we’re not invested enough in one of the key characters to give it the heft it seeks. A perfect example of this sort of ending — indeed of this sort of book — is Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, which was published two years before Hall’s debut. It remains the gold standard.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2021 World edition.