Schrödinger’s Ball

A pretty good book if Douglas Adams didn't already exist.

You've probably heard the one about Schrödinger's cat. Sealed box, canister of poison gas, cat that may or may not be dead? And so long as it remains unobserved, it is sort of therefore both dead and not dead? Physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) contrived the scenario as a droll rebuke of quantum mechanics, which allows for such paradoxes. And now Adam Felber—you may know him from This American Life and Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me—has written what amounts to a promising first draft based on the "weird misconceptions" (his words from the appendix) about Schrödinger and his thought experiment. The action takes place mostly around Boston and Cambridge, with a cast that includes a group of postcollegiate slackers, an unnamed narrator who speaks in the first-person plural, and Schrödinger himself, who, though dead, pops up at random moments to deliver impromptu lectures about science, cats, and everything. The book goes careening in multiple directions and is packed with endless distractions, like nine pages of (painfully unfunny) faux Shakespeare, and a chapter that ends in strings of nonsense and the words, "This book has crashed. Please restart this book." Intended as a giddy romp, the novel becomes a grinding chore as Felber's cardboard-cutout characters circle the same themes over and over. Will Grant get up the courage to make a pass at Deb? Will Arlene overcome her negative body image? The banality of this group isn't redeemed by the heady overlay of the multiple-world possibilities of quantum physics. This is partly because Felber's novelic world has a secondhand feeling. The universe teeming with whimsical details, the absurd interconnectedness of everything, the terror of an infinite universe juxtaposed with the comedy of domestic trivia—it's all lifted straight from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This wouldn't be such a bad thing in a world where Hitchhiker didn't exist. But Felber kills even the small pleasures of his whimsical pastiche with relentless nervous tics, like his Knowing Capitalizations ("Deb was taking on a Relationship") and his habit of breathlessly saying the same thing two or three times in different words ("Deb was comfortable, happy, enjoying her surroundings"). Isn't that the kind of thing editors are supposed to help first-time authors with? Do editors actually do anything anymore? Besides running manuscripts through spell check and wrapping them in slobbering blurbs from the authors' friends? Maybe there's an alternative universe where Random House editors still do their jobs, and Felber's pages were sent back to him full of red ink. Maybe in that world, a less grumpy reviewer later types out the words "economical writing and tight plotting save this first novel from being merely a road-show version of Douglas Adams." DAVID STOESZ

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