Book Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
With this opening dedication, Blake Crouch had my full attention and I quickly consumed this science-fiction, alternate universe, philosophy oozing, romance novel.
I had heard about this book from Michael Kindness in some of the last months of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, so I knew that I would speed through this adrenaline pumping crack. Writing this review, though, will be tricky, since I will try to remain spoiler-free.
The book's opening:
Jason Dessen has been living what seems to be a pretty regular existence. He teaches physics at a local college, has been married to Daniela for years, and they are more or less happily raising their teenaged son Charlie. They're middle-aged, after all, so life seems pretty bland.
An old college friend/academic adversary has recently won a prestigious physics prize. Jason walks to his local bar to celebrate the accomplishment of this other man, while mentally wandering the corridor of what ifs wondering what he could have achieved if he had not chosen to give up research for the more stable professor path.
What if, indeeed.
By the end of the first chapter Jason has been kidnapped and taken to the dreaded second location. Here his abductor asks him "Are you happy with your life?" and then knocks him unconscious.
And that's where the pacing takes off.
The science-fiction, alternate universe story:
The man versus technology conflict here is pretty spectacular. The technological breakthroughs combine with neurological advances to create a perfectly rational sounding method of traveling the multiverse for anyone willing to suspend their disbelief.
And the man versus man conflict takes a turn that I was not expecting. About three-fourths of the way through the story, Crouch effectively twists his events and characters in unpredictable ways.
I was genuinely surprised by several happenings. Once I thought I knew where he was going plot-wise, I was still kept in suspense. Crouch's treatment of the multiverse made it clear that anything could happen. No character was safe. And I loved how invested I became with seeing how everything would resolve.
The philosophy oozing bits:
This thriller treatment, though, is not without some sobering moments.
The abductor's question to Jason "Are you happy with your life?" encompasses a nice chunk of my overthinking. And then when Jason realizes what kind of journey he's in for, the questions keep coming. Like "If there are infinite worlds, how do I find the one that is uniquely, specifically mine?"
Essentially this story is Jason trying to get back to his family. Along the way, he struggles with experiences in various versions of the infinite worlds out there.
He weighs the career sacrifices he made against the family he gained. He analyzes his choices and the doors he shut with a few scenes that felt a little like Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carrol. But he's really there. As witness. To another version of himself.
So which version of Jason is the real Jason?
Within the romance angle lies my one criticism of this novel. Jason never wavers in his desire to be reunited with Daniela. I could almost hear Westley saying "This is true love. You think this happens every day?"
But to prove this point, Crouch pairs Jason on his journey with a female companion. Amanda conveniently appears when Jason needs her and just as conveniently disappears when her existence could make their relationship more complicated.
I was a bit miffed that Amanda was treated like a toss-away single-serving K-cup. At least make her recyclable.
Even with this frustrating use of one character, I did still admire Jason's tenaciousness. He just kept trying to get back to his family. And as a reader, I kept wondering if he would ever get to them. Kudos to Crouch for keeping me on the edge of my seat with the questions.
Crouch's writing style is direct and punchy. His sentences are often short. If you're looking for long pondering metaphors, you should probably pass on this novel. But if you're looking for a fast read that truly makes you reconsider the roads not taken, then this story is for you.