Now, here’s a little book that wants your attention. You may be familiar with its author from his regular spot on NPR’s quiz show “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” and/or his popular political satire website, Fanatical Apathy. If so, you’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Schrodinger’s Ball since early this year; you probably had it pre-ordered and delivered to your home the day it was released (as happened at Chez Kaizerin.)
But in case you’re not already a fan of the author, this book has other attention-grabbing tricks up its sleeve. The neon-green cover must be visible from halfway across any Mega Book Retailer you care to frequent. It’s probably on the Staff Picks shelves at bookstores all over the country, given its author’s edgy leftist humor cachet. It has a geek-friendly title, complete with umlaut (which, if I figure out how, I will come back and add into this review where necessary), and a come-hither pair of shapely legs on both the front and the spine; even shelved in a long row of similar trade paperbacks, this one shouts, “Look at me! Pick me up!” This is a book that will not be ignored, nor should it be. For all the desperate bids for attention on the cover, there’s quite a good story inside.
For most of its length, Schrodinger’s Ball follows three major, and several minor, story threads. The primary of these is the story of Johnny Felix Decate, whose accidental death on page one doesn’t keep him from spending a weird, magical, emotional weekend with his three best friends, during which relationships will begin and end, Johnny will attain an earthly kind of godhood, and his friends will all find themselves permanently altered.
Playing against Johnny’s story are two other main threads: that of the President of the Free State of Montana, whose bid for secession fails almost as soon as it begins, sending the President out on the lam; and one in which the famous Dr. Erwin Schrodinger (isn’t he also dead?) wears out his welcome with a long-suffering, unnamed first-person narrator. Schrodinger not only blathers on at excruciating length about theoretical physics, he’s also an inconsiderate houseguest and incorrigible mooch. Add in a mentally-unstable homeless woman who’s writing a very funny alternate history of the world while monitoring robot activity in Harvard Square, a schizophrenic man waiting for an unspecified sign from God (he’ll know it when he sees it), and a sewer rat (literally) fending for himself outside his usual territory, and honestly, you could have something of a mess. (Oh, I almost forgot the alien scout sizing up Earth for possible colonization by his people!) Quite far into the book, I was still wondering what in the world any of these threads had to do with one another, and what the point of the whole thing was going to be. But Felber does pull it all together, and he does have a point.
You don’t have to know much about physics to pick up this book, and you won’t know much about physics when you put it down, either. In an afterword, Felber says he set out to explain the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal, badly. In this, he succeeds; but of course the Uncertainty Principle, and Schrodinger’s famous mockery thereof (the cat in the box), aren’t the point of this story; they’re just the devices that get us to the point. Which is…for each of us to determine for ourselves, but it has to do with unseen connections among people, the ways Fate maneuvers us into position so that Those Things Which Must Happen can happen, and how none of us know where we’ll end up, what we’ll see along the way, or what effect we might have on the people around us. The divergent plot lines don’t make a lot of sense as a whole until they entertwine in the climactic event of the novel, and then you realize that the only thing they had in common all along was that they were all going to end up here.
It’s a lot like life, that way. We usually only notice these things when a tragedy occurs–because no-one bothers to trace the paths that led people to perfectly uneventful days, do they? But let something spectacular and unexpected happen, good or bad, and you instinctively start running the lines backward, playing the what-ifs: What if I’d left the house five minutes later? What if I’d taken the bus today instead? What if I had bought a lottery ticket this week? What if I hadn’t gone to that party and met that person? How would things be different now?
This is a light, funny, fast read that will leave you thinking about surprisingly weighty ideas. Don’t miss it. And let me know when you’ve read it, because have I got questions for you!