Book Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch


Rating: A-/ Occasionally I have dreams where I wake up in someone else’s life, or a changed version of my own. In these dreams, I decide I need to play along although I have no memories of how I got here and don’t recognize the people around me. Telling them I was someone else just hours ago, I realize, will just make me sound unhinged and crazy. Sometimes I know it’s just a dream but I feel a weird kind of responsibility toward them, these people, whether they are slightly altered versions of my loved ones or complete strangers my subconscious makes up.

This opening might sound tangential and irrelevant to some, but this book reminded me of those dreams I’ve had, the confusion and frustration of them. The book’s protagonist and narrator, Jason Dessen, is a physics professor at a small university who is happily married to Daniela, an aspiring artist, and the proud father of a fourteen-year-old son, Charlie.

Despite his overall sense of comfort and satisfaction with his life, Jason sometimes wonders what would have happened if he had focused doggedly on quantum mechanics without life getting in the way.  Although he doesn’t feel regret for how things turned out,  Jason can’t help but feel a little jealous when his friend Ryan becomes a extremely successful theoretical physicist. He visits Ryan after Ryan has made a spectacular step forward in science and tries to keep his feelings of bitterness in check.

On the way home to his wife and child, Jason is abducted by a masked man and to his shock and wonder, transported to a separate reality where he has achieved all his dreams. The abductor, a copy of Jason himself who Jason calls Jason2, has been wildly successful for years in his parallel universe and has done all the things Jason wishes he had done, but he blew his chance with Daniela so he travels into Jason’s reality in the multiverse machine he built and essentially switches place with Jason.

Jason discovers that in a parallel dimension, a more focused, more driven version of himself created a machine that makes it possible to jump between realities. While Jason tries to figure out this conundrum, walking between worlds in search of his own, Jason2 has taken over Jason’s life and is sexing up his wife. The idea of the multiverse suggests that for every choice we make there is a different reality. Went to the prom? Didn’t go to the prom? Got married? Stayed single? Somewhere there is a world where every possible decision came to be. A lot of choices, an infinite number of realities.

Dark Matter is definitely not a book of hard science, and I found it to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time. I don’t usually read science fiction, but this book is a invigorating page turner, a novel that leaves you at the edge of your seat wondering what Jason will do to deal with his unusual problem. Jason’s relationship with his wife, Daniela, and his son, Charlie, were at the heart of this novel, so I wish they had been developed a little more so we knew what was so special about them in the first place.

However, I can’t tell you how many times I sat in my seat riveted by the seemingly insurmountable odds that constituted Jason trying to get  home to his original family. The idea of having a doppelganger is scary enough, but wrestling with the idea that it might actually be a more attentive lover to your wife and father to your son is absolutely terrifying. The plot is crazy, as Jason kind of hops from reality to reality in search of the life his duplicate has taken over, but somehow, even in the apex of what could have been kitschy and absurd, the book just works.

I went through this book thinking that it would make a good movie, and I was not surprised at all to hear that the movie rights had already been bought. But now that I think about it, I’m not sure making a movie out of Dark Matter would be the wisest choice. I think events that worked within their context in the book as they unfolded in their head would seem ridiculous playing out on screen. This book is written in a very matter-of-fact style, with very little frills.

I initially found Jason’s narration pragmatic to the point of being dull, but I soon found myself sucked into this book’s problematic world. I don’t generally read plot-driven novels, preferring often to read books that focus more on the main character and their inner world. Dark Matter was a book that reminded me that being among the mainstream is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly a book that wastes no time at all getting started. And it doesn’t let up until the final pages.

I realized while reading Dark Matter what an exciting, intense experience reading a book can be. I liked the character of Jason, and the more unsurmountable I found his situation to be, the more I felt the burning urge to turn the next page. I told my mom that I get so into the book I’m reading sometimes, when a protagonist is faced with a daunting task, I feel it in my stomach, my chest. The best books put ourselves in the characters’ shoes, whether or not we share anything substantial in common with them. This is one of those books.

I don’t share much in common with Jason Dessen but I empathically felt his frustration, his disappointment, his fracturing sense of reality. For a book as thematically out there as this one, Jason’s character seemed grounded and his feelings seemed believable. He handles an outrageous situation with his logic, intuition, and a kind of down-to-earth rationality that would have been thrown out the window by most people dealing with this kind of scenario.

Instead of writing Jason to make spectacularly dumb decisions that aren’t consistent with his intelligence level to make the story move forward, Blake Crouch has Jason use his brain and his God-given talents to cope with an extraordinary situation. This book is a little more mainstream and a little less literary than the kind of books I’m used to reading, but I picked up Dark Matter every chance I got, dead set on seeing how the novel’s protagonist would get out of the craziness and back to his wife and kid.

It’s not a badly written book, just different from the kind of novel I’m used to picking up. It tells the story in a very straightforward way, which is sometimes a nice break from writers who write prose bogged down with lengthy metaphors. When I started the first chapter, I wasn’t crazy about it and thought about putting the book down. Now, I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t know how well this book would translate to screen, but I hope they make a film that does it justice.

I’m also thrilled that I finally read a novel before the film adaptation even comes out. Even people who aren’t science fiction aficionados should check this out. The plot points relating to physics are not particularly hard to understand  for the average person, and the book itself is like a rollercoaster ride; alternately invigorating, frustrating, and emotional, it avoids difficult scientific principals and jargon to create a story that just about anyone can read and enjoy. There’s so much imagination at work here that it’s virtually impossible to not be pulled in by this book’s fascinating premise.

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