When high school junior Tommy Smythe goes missing, everyone has a theory about what happened to him. Tommy was adopted, so maybe he ran away to find his birth parents. He was an odd kid, often deeply involved in his own thoughts about particle physics, so maybe he just got distracted and wandered off. He was last seen at a pull-out off the highway, so maybe someone drove up and snatched him. Or maybe he slipped into a parallel universe. Tommy believes that everything is possible, and that until something can be proven false, it is possibly true. So as long as Tommy’s whereabouts are undetermined, he could literally be anywhere.
Told in a series of first-person narratives from people who knew Tommy and third-person chapters about people who find the things Tommy left behind—his red motorbike, his driving goggles, pages from his notebook—Particles explores themes of loneliness, connectedness, and the role we play in creating our own realities.
A few weeks ago I tweeted about that feeling you get when you finish a book that you know is going to be a pain and a half to review. This is that book. Whether the book is good or not seems irrelevant at the moment, because I don’t know how to get you through what this book is to make any kind of value judgment. I will say that it is definitely unlike most books I read.
The heart of the book, technically, is Tommy Smythe, a boy obsessed with quantum physics and parallel universes who abruptly goes missing right before prom. I say technically because while Tommy is the subject of practically every page, he never actually appears on the page. He is one of our many narrators through the found scraps of his journal, but his writing is a discussion that he has with himself, not with us the audience.
If you include Tommy, this book follows a total of twenty-two people. Roughly half are told in third-person POV as we follow them through their lives, while the other half are first-person as the narrators give their accounts of Tommy to the local Sheriff. I guess, now that I think about it, the Sheriff could be viewed as another contributor, though he is never seen or heard in the book. The sheriff acts as our portal into the investigation, a window linking us from our world to the inner workings of the town after Tommy’s disappearance.
Huh. I think Tommy would like that, seeing the Sheriff as a portal. That’s the thing about this book. Once you get into it, you start making connections everywhere. Everything links back to physics and universes, to perception, possibilities, probabilities, and reality. Some of this effect comes from deliberate calculation on the author’s part. We only ever meet each character once, but they flow in and out of each other’s stories like the tide through a grate. Once you spot the lines spiraling through each narrative, it almost becomes a game to spot familiar faces in the oblique asides of the current narrator. As the characters dance in and out of view, we get a unique amalgam of facts and opinions that we can then use to shape our view of them, much as we must do to get a picture of Tommy, our absent subject.
Of course, I suspect some of the eagerness to make connections simply comes back to being human. Human beings are notorious for drawing conclusions and finding patterns where there are none. Then again, Tommy might argue that everything is connected—if not here, then in another universe where our choices have spun off into radically different outcomes. In the book, Tommy’s classmates posit that Tommy’s obsession with parallel universes may have allowed him to cross over into one, and that’s why he’s missing. The authorities take the more traditional view that Tommy was kidnapped and/or murdered. What he is is, in fact, irrelevant until his state is proven. The science was a bit murky for me (it’s quantum physics, after all), but from what I gathered, Tommy was Schroedinger’s cat. Until someone could prove where he was and what happened, he was simultaneously in all places and in all states of being. And once someone does narrow down his state to one defined outcome, then all of the probabilities and possibilities of the universe converge into a single point that we call reality. But only in this universe. In the other universes, Tommy is alive/dead/in yet another universe/riding his motorbike with Rachel/at prom/at home with his parents, etc. It’s a trippy concept, I know, but also surprisingly beautiful.
Once you get partway through this book, I stopped making assumptions entirely. I mean, how can you assume one particular outcome when all of the possibilities are still in play somewhere in the multiverse? Yes, in this universe, in the universe inhabited by a grieving Mr. and Mrs. Smythe and questioning Sheriff Caldwell, some probabilities are much higher than others. But I mean, honestly. I can’t even decide what genre to classify this thing as. Is it magical realism? There are talk of ghosts, disappearing kids, and plant whisperers who “see things.” That seems like magical realism. But quantum physics… that’s science. So are parallel universes and probabilities and Higgs-Boson particles. So is this sci-fi? At what point is magic really science? Is it magic because we don’t understand it? That’s a commonly held sci-fi trope, that magic is really science we just don’t understand, but some things might be truly unexplainable, right? So which is this? Is it science or magic?
As you can tell, I was pretty fascinated by the premise of this book, but that’s not to say that the execution was without its flaws. For one, it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who with such scene fluidity. The text makes an effort to keep us in the loop, but characters will naturally refer to other characters by different names (first name, last name, description, nickname, “that guy,” etc.), which can make the people hard to follow. Within the narrations, there was some sloppiness as well. For instance, at one point we follow a student named Marshall in his plan to woo his friend Leann. Within a paragraph, we’re jolted from Marshall’s perspective to Leann’s and back again with no warning or even an acknowledgement that the shift happened. In all the other narratives, switches in perspective are rare and clearly defined. Also, since we never heard the sheriff’s side of the conversation, the first-person narrators had to do all the heavy lifting. This lead to awkward, unrealistic sentences where they would repeat back chunks of what the sheriff just said, like actors giving a scripted interview.
My biggest problem is that some of the segments were flat-out gross. Abusive parents, an on-page rape, a joke about having sex with fruit, a teen hooker, murder, incest, drugs, drinking, suicide—this book has it all. Some may argue that this is “realism.” After all, we’re following people, and these are real things that happen to real people, so why not? My arguments are as follows:
1) Just because something is real doesn’t mean I want to read about it. I really, really, really do not want to read about a girl whose mom Fancied her out at age 13, okay? And as a reader, I am totally allowed to say nopety nope nope.
2) There is such a thing as too much. A person can have dramatic, fiction-worthy problems without being disgusting, you know.
3) To me, some of the scenes genuinely had no point. What was the point of that hooker? What did she contribute to the narrative? Her only tie to Tommy was that she found one of his belongings. She had never met him. She had no insight to give. And though her actions affected others in later narratives, the cause of her actions could have been easily changed. What was the point of Izzy and Alex’s tete-a-tete? Or the conversation between Alvin and Jake? BLECK. At this point, some may argue that there is no point to reality because reality is the point and it all just issssss, to which I call crap. This is not reality. This is fiction, which means those who create it make deliberate choices regarding what enters the world, and they are choices that need to be justified.
So do you see my dilemma? I came out of this book in two frames of mind. On the one hand, I was blown away by the author’s talent. The way the narratives and plot worked together so cohesively is fantastic. This is the kind of book that you can chew on long after you put it down. It’s literary and deep and beautiful. Fantastic. Four stars. On the other hand, my brain can’t chew indefinitely because it keeps getting a mouthful of the unnecessary ickiness floating throughout. Bleckity bleck bleck. One-half star.
Huh. How interesting that a book all about probabilities would push me into such an uncertain position. Since LibraryThing and Goodreads require a rating, I suppose I’ll have to settle eventually, but for you, dear reader, the possibilities are endless.
Favorite Non-Spoilery Quotes:
Looking at the birds together in the same moment was the conversation. I mean, if you’re with a guy who is thinking that each person, each thing contains waves of possibilities and those possibilities might exist in alternate dimensions, then you can kind of see how being together seeing the same thing at the same time is a pretty big deal.
He would get tripped up in simple conversation. When I’d leave the art room and I’d say something like, “See you next time.” Instead of saying, “Okay,” he’d say, “What next time?” It’s like he had to be superliteral about everything because he was thinking in so many different dimensions. So if I said something casual or unspecific, it caused like static in his brain and he had to stop and tune the channel.
Tara looks up at the blanket of stars. She wonders, if one exploded, would all the other stars wobble in their orbit? … That’s how death is. It turns your world up side down. It makes what was real seem unreal. It pulls you out of normal. Makes you do things you’ve never done before. Like sit outside in the middle of the night with a bag full of your dad’s ashes. When someone dies, your whole orbit changes.
Points Added For: Some really on-point observations regarding an abuser’s claim that they “couldn’t help it,” quantum physics, beautiful prose, connections.
Points Subtracted For: Some sloppiness within the narratives, a slow start, nastiness.
Good For Fans Of: “Issues” contemporaries, magical realism, possibilities, philosophical musings.
Notes For Parents: Language, incest, making out, sex, rape, murder, pedophilia, child abuse, drinking, drugs, domestic abuse, suicide.
Note: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher for review consideration.