Psalms for the End of the World by Cole Haddon

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Review by Annabel

It took mere seconds to say yes please to a review copy of this book – I read the words ‘1962’ and ‘physics’ on the publicity blurb and knew I’d get on with it. When the copy arrived, it was chunkier than I’d anticipated, but once I started reading, I was hooked. However, I was left with a problem! Psalms For the End of the World isn’t the easiest book to categorise or talk about. How best to give you a flavour of where it sits in the literary pantheon?

Although it very much exists in its own world, many possible influences popped into my head while reading it; if you’ve enjoyed any of these you will surely be intrigued. The first obvious reference would be David Mitchell’s history-hopping Cloud Atlas. To that, add a dash of the Man in Black and world-hopping doors of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, then waft a bit of Westworld and The Matrix over it. Finally soak the whole with the mystique and a love of David Bowie, and you’re nearly there if you wrap the whole in physics! It’s a quite a lot SF, definitely spec. fiction too, but there’s also a rich vein of history, and you could almost describe the real science of quantum entanglement as a kind of magic realism giving a fantasy edge – not that you need any knowledge of this to appreciate the book. However, Psalms for the End of the World is perhaps more a thriller than anything else. 

Haddon sets the main story in the early 1960s. It begins with a man called Bobby Jones arriving at the Kellogg’s Diner for his dinner greeted by Grace Pulansky the waitress, who’s a physics student looking for adventure.

Kellogg’s is a white oblong, all irregular angles like a poorly made sheet cake, dropped in the middle of a small square that it and its parking lot are the sole occupants of. Blue and red neon trim its potential, futuristic surface like radioactive frosting, inviting the eye to peer inside its three walls of windows. Right now, Jones can see a waitress in an Easter-yellow dress with frilly white collar and a grease-stained apron standing behind the counter, next to a cash register, face buried as usual in a book the size of a Gutenberg Bible. He smiles, unable to stop himself.

Gracie stops her habitual humming when Jones enters, smiling with all of her heart-shaped face as she is prone to do. ‘Bobby!’ she says. ‘I was getting worried about you.’

Jones smiles, too, as he approaches the counter and its real Formica surface that smells of Top Job – just like Gracie – from the post-supper rush clean-up. But there’s something different about him, something wrong, and she notices it right away.

Their badinage over a portion of pecan pie is interrupted by the arrival of the FBI, looking exactly as you’d expect of 1960s G-men. They’re after Jones, accusing him of having planted a bomb in the city which killed many people just earlier. Jones knows it wasn’t him, and inexplicably Gracie believes him and they manage to escape, going on the run.

Or was it Jones? Is he an amnesiac? Does he have a doppelganger who set the bomb? Is this a slightly different universe that he finds himself in? There is some weirdness at work, there’s certainly the aforementioned quantum entanglement going on, but maybe across parallel universes, or is it something else completely?

Instead of immediately following Jones and Gracie’s story, Haddon jumps back to the 1770s and a chateau in France, where a painter Bertrand has disowned his son Xavier and his wife and shut himself in his attic, steadily going insane. No-one knows why, but something happened, and his paintings became full of horrors, few can look at them and not feel ill. A few pages later, we jump forward to Sydney, where a young Muslim believes Allah is speaking to him through his rabbit and telling him to make a suicide bomber jacket. This routine of short chapters all set in different locations and time-periods is how the story builds up. There is a large cast of characters including an astronaut on a space walk who sees the stars start to disappear, a samurai, a young film director in present-day LA, a pair of Jewish vigilantes hunting escaped Nazis in the Black Forest in 1945, and many more.

Haddon makes you keep your wits about you, as often the different characters’ stories will be told from alternate points of view, and also there will be flashbacks or flash-forwards. Or are they different versions in different universes perhaps?

Naturally, Jones and Gracie’s story is the primary focus, Jones being one of the keys to everything that’s going on. But also running through the novel is the story of Damien Syco, tortured 1970s rock star, aka ‘Moon Man’, now presumed dead in 2016, but maybe not… a posthumous album is due. His story is primarily told via transcripts of newspaper and magazine articles and interviews, although if you keep your wits about you, you will encounter him for real in the novel. The Moon Man’s career closely mirrors that of David Bowie obviously, and is a deliciously sideways look at how he enjoyed acting out all his different characters and how people try to understand and surely complicate the man and his music, however much of a genius he was (and he was of course!).

Amazingly, it all begins to pull together, I don’t really want to say more. If you embark on reading this book, you need to discover its secrets for yourself. Despite the multiplicity of threads, they do entwine to make something that is more than their sum.

Haddon, an Australian-American, now lives in New South Wales. He comes from the world of screenwriting and graphic novels, and each of the character’s storylines is strongly visualised. They’re so disparate, they need to be, and Haddon achieves that well, giving us a real sense of time and location in each short chapter. I don’t often read chunksters, but this book needs its 515 pages and I enjoyed them all.

Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny, and one of the editors. 

Cole Haddon, Psalms For the End of the World, (Headline, 2022). 978-1472286673, 515 pp., hardback.

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