Sam Leith: The Coincidence Engine

Is the mad mathematician Banacharski really building the weapon to end all weapons, a coincidence engine that would make impossible things possible? If so, Red Queen, who runs the Directory of the Extremely Improbable, wants it, and so do the ruthless operatives of the arms trading firm MIC Industrial Futures. And it’s bad luck for guileless young English mathematician Alex Smart, who’s just driving across America to propose to his American girlfriend, that they seem to think he has the device. So begins a chase along endless highways and through featureless motels and fast food outlets, Alex pursued by the thuggish Davidoff and Sherman of MIC, and by Red Queen’s team of the overweight ex-drunk Bree and the apsychotic Jones, who’s very good at his job because he can’t see the future and so doesn’t make any assumptions about anything.

That’s the scenario, but can we believe anything Red Queen says or anything the narrator says about him/her? The DEI, after all, is a Rumsfeldian organisation whose job is to assess threats to national security that we don’t know exist, using methods that we don’t know work. This produces results we generally can’t recognise as results, and when we can recognise them as results, we don’t know how to interpret them. (31)

The DEI’s staff of tea-leaf readers, distance seers, chaos magicians and tarot tellers, dicemen, catatonics, psychokinetics, psychic healers, lunatics, haruspices, illuminati, idiot savants, hypnotists, bearded ladies, oracles (32) may not even know they’re working for DEI and some of them think they’re spying on it. As for MIC, all they know is that the device somehow affects probability and its effects can be seen particularly in iPods. So their operatives have to spend long hours listening to the likes of Neil Young, hoping to pick up – what exactly? Nobody, least of all Davidoff or Sherman, knows.

Clearly we’re all in the realm of extreme improbability. In keeping with that, the loose, fancy-free style of the narrative takes us along on a what-the-hell ride that has some very funny moments and some unexpected depths, particularly in the character of Bree and her relationship with Jones.

She dropped him off, took the car back, found her way into another of those rooms. It had low yellow light, like all the other motel rooms in America. There was a bedspread that made you feel sad, and the sort of mirror that turned even a young face into a landscape of pits and pocks and defeated skin. Bree could feel her DNA fraying, the cells ticking down and closing in. She looked at herself in the mirror and wondered what it was like to have fun, not to be scared… (193)

Bree is in flight from her ruined past, and Jones has only the past. Bree constantly struggles to keep an apocalyptic imagination under control and Jones has no imagination. Our imagination is a ‘coincidence engine’ that throws us together with other people in ways whose outcomes we can’t predict. There are, the book concludes, any number of versions of each of us, and the solid version of reality we live in can be blown apart at any moment, unfamiliar light streaming into it as if through the walls and roof of a bombed building.

Alex’s sense of reality is suffering too as he drives across America. He’s being mugged, not so much by Davidoff and Sherman (they do their best, but let’s just say things don’t work out well) but by America itself, which is a character in the book as it’s been in any number of road-novels and movies. America with its highways, superstores and brown motels, its deserts and scrubs and car dealerships out in the middle of nowhere, its burgers and Pontiacs, its fake Elvises, its girls in bikinis and eyepatches and pirate hats. The scene in Las Vegas where Alex finally meets up with his girlfriend Carey is a tour-de-force. And if we needed evidence that the coincidence machine really does exist, look no further than the death-by-billiard-table that befalls one character.

Not my usual sort of read, but I’m always looking for good comedy and I found this in previous shortlists of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Comic Fiction Prize. This, Leith’s first novel, (he’s written some non-fiction that sounds intriguing) was shortlisted in 2011. Well worth your time.


5 thoughts on “Sam Leith: The Coincidence Engine

        1. Well they don’t call it a coincidence engine but to my simple mind that seems to be what quantum physics is all about!
          The business paper here does a weekly competition between a group of people with varying degrees of stockmarket knowledge as against a dartboard, and quite often the dartboard wins.

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