Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall

Maxwell’s Demon is a kind of weird literary mystery crossed with philosophical questioning, as struggling writer Thomas Quinn tries to work out if the world really is falling apart thanks to hypertext. Five years ago, Andrew Black wrote a bestselling book, a perfectly crafted mystery, and then disappeared. Now, Thomas thinks he might be being stalked by the hero of Black’s book whilst his wife Imogen is away. Black is tied up with Thomas’s past, both from their acquaintance and through Thomas’ father, and Thomas might have to look deeper than expected to find out what Black’s been doing and whether he can be followed by a literary creation.

Hall mixes metafiction, Biblical scholarship, Don Quixote, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics in this unusual novel about finding order in the world and making sense of what is happening (having not read Hall’s debut The Raw Shark Texts, I can only imagine that it probably contains a similar postmodern distinctiveness). The pictorial elements in the text feel quite House of Leaves, though less embedded in the narrative, but it is the questioning over the characters and narrative that occurs later in the novel that really brings out an unnerving sense as you read it. The focus on entropy is intriguing and the Biblical parts are perhaps best for the occasional jibes at Dan Brown (there’s a lovely sense that the book is very aware that at the beginning it could go down the direction of a Dan Brown novel instead of the much weirder narrative it takes). The self-consciousness, not even in terms of the narration but in terms of the book itself and the focus on writers only having one novel and whether they’ll create another, is enjoyable and it feels like a clever way to engage with ideas about authorial creation and looking for meaning.

Maxwell’s Demon is a novel for people who like to occasionally have no idea what just happened, but recognise that literary reference on the way. It is a philosophical mystery about family, writers, and narrative that some people will devour and probably others will wonder what the point was (and maybe that’s the point).