Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

…I’ve always known on a purely intellectual level, that our separateness and isolation are an illusion. We’re all made of the same thing—the blown-out pieces of matter formed in the fires of dead stars. I’ve just never felt that knowledge in my bones until that moment, there, with you. And it’s because of you.

Jason Dessen has a perfectly ordinary life as a physics professor of a middling college and comfortable relationships with his art-teacher wife and teenage son Charlie until he’s kidnapped on his way home from meeting a colleague for drinks. Plunged into an alternate reality of his life where he never married his wife and instead chose the path of professional success, Jason has to decide what he really wants—does he want the impressive but lonely life of professional acclaim or does he want his ordinary, imperfect life back? Once he chooses, can he find the world where he belongs?

Universal appeal, despite the Amazon category
I’m late to the party on this one as Dark Matter has been out for quite some time but after everyone in the MMD Book Club raved about it, I had to get my hands on a copy. Amazon classifies this book as a “Technothriller” and “Science Fiction;” however, this is one of those don’t-judge-a-book-by-it’s-Amazon-category instances. This is one of the few books that seemed universally enjoyed and is a frequent recommendation within the MMD Book Club. I think, in fact, it might be the only book that I’ve never seen anyone say they disliked. The group has a wide variety of members, including readers who steer clear of science fiction altogether who still enjoyed this book. Several of the women in the group commented that it was a book even their non-reader husbands really enjoyed.

In order to understand the plot in Dark Matter, you need to understand the idea of the multiverse—essentially, that the universe you are conscious of living within is but one of many universes. For each choice you make, in another universe you made a different choice. You had Life cereal this morning? In another universe you had Cheerios. In another you never ate breakfast because you actually died in a car accident last week. Dark Matter is set within this infinitely unfolding multiverse. Currently only a theory (since consciousness itself destroys the ability to prove the multiverse—you can only be aware of the universe in which you find yourself), Dark Matter places Jason squarely within a world in which the multiverse has become his reality.

Sound overly complicated? For a book about quantum physics, Dark Matter remains a remarkably accessible book. Crouch explains the concepts necessary for the reader to understand what, exactly it is that’s happening without becoming bogged down in technospeak or losing the reader. I sped through this book, gobbling it up—I even woke up an hour early one morning just to go to Starbucks so I could read it for an hour before I went to work. Despite the speed with which I was reading, I had no trouble understanding the scientific concepts—I never had to go back and re-read to understand the science (despite the degrees on my wall showing I was a humanities major in college). The physics sets the stage but the relationships between Jason and his wife, Daniela, and Jason and himself are what drive the book.

While the story revolves around Jason and his journey through the various realities in which he could have lived, seeing Daniela through Jason’s eyes in each of her iterations was a joy (well, except for one…you’ll know which one when you read the book). Crouch manages to strike a balance with her where you see and feel how deeply she is loved, yet, she remains beautifully real. She is Jason’s ideal, yet not unfairly idealized—my favorite description of her was her tendency towards being “belligerently kind” when she’s been drinking. I want to know her, to sit on her couch and drink wine, to hang her art on my walls.

The choices people make and whether those choices were objectively “good” or “bad” is a pretty common theme within literature and fiction. In placing that plot point within the multiverse, Crouch flips this concept entirely on its head. Want to know how your life would have turned out if you had made a different choice—chosen the job, chosen the spouse, said something different? Within the multiverse you can. The path not taken is a doorway away within an infinite hallway of choices. Crouch reveals that choice is going to be a central part of his book from his dedication of the book “[f]or anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken.”

I’m not going to say more as doing so would spoil the book; however, this is the first time I’ve seen this kind of time-bending work so well to establish a universe where a character can see how his choices affected different parts of his life and where the reader quickly understands how that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

I’ve been lucky so far this year in curating books that hit the mark for me in writing. Dark Matter is another one of those books that is tightly written, with perfect turns of phrase here and there that really shine, though the book never becomes flowery. The writing is simple enough to convey complicated scientific concepts, descriptive enough to place you with Jason in each of the worlds he trips across in the multiverse, yet spare enough that the book moves forward at a quick pace without unnecessary words cluttering your path. In some ways, the prose is more impressive in a book like Dark Matter than The Heart where the focus isn’t the writing itself for the sake of writing. For the prose to be so well crafted feels like an extra gift, the cherry on top (if you like cherries…otherwise this metaphor doesn’t really work).

And if the quote at the top of this review isn’t one of the most romantic things you’ve ever read, then do you even have a heart?

Dark Matter is one of three books so far this year that upon finishing, I had to go buy my own copy because I knew I would need to re-read it and recommend it widely. (I actually took pictures of the pages where I had book darts so I could transfer them into the new book….it was a lot of pictures). Luckily for you, the book is available in paperback; alternatively, it’s still in stock as a book you can add to your monthly box on Book of the Month.

As I noted above, this is a book that people from every walk of life have enjoyed within my book club and it’s got an impressive rating on both Goodreads and Amazon. If you enjoy solidly written fiction and have even a mild tolerance of science-fiction, this is the book for you. But when you stay up all night reading, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Published: July 26, 2016 by Crown (@crownpublishing)
Author: Blake Crouch (@blakecrouch1)
Date read: June 14, 2017
Rating: 4 3/4 Stars

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