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Douglas Pitt is a man obsessed. Laughed at, mocked, and dismissed at every turn, Pitt has dedicated the best part of an unremarkable academic career attempting to prove the genius of Samuel Highgate Syme (b.1794, Baltimore; soldier, geologist, inventor). Pitt’s postulation is simple enough: Syme, through some fault, wrong-doing, conspiracy or mischance, has not been credited with the recognition he deserves for hitting upon a key discovery in the advance of modern science – the theory of continental drift.
Lacking the crucial last piece of the puzzle to convince his peers and normalize his family life, Pitt’s emotional equilibrium is stabilised in a magical stroke of fortune when he uncovers a contemporary manuscript written by a fledgling German scientist, Friedrich Muller, which recounts a year (1821) in the company of the irrepressible Syme.
Switching between these beguiling and colourful narratives, The Syme Papers takes the reader on an odyssey into the heart of Maryland and Virginia in the 1820s by way of London and Texas today. An epic stew of intellectual procrastination, early nineteenth-century picaresque and late twentieth-century angst, it is a novel of genius and failure; of a man who thought he could prove the world was hollow, and in the glorious process of discovery, broke his own heart.
Teeming with comic detail and fierce intelligence, The Syme Papers recreates a time when to question the world and the origins of creation was the greatest project a scientist could undertake.
The Syme Papers is the most obsessive novel I've read. No fact is too minor to uncover, no avenue too small to explore. The book's language is so compulsively rendered (and incidentally beautiful) that by the time we reach the epilogue, it has taken to repeating large chunks of its own earlier Proust-length paragraphs. This is a book so obsessive it quotes itself... Practically every sentence elicits a gasp of surprise or pleasure... there is truth and beauty here and a lovely story of loneliness and obsession.
Comedies about academia tend to confine themselves to campuses and sexual misadventure. The Syme Papers is a much darker entertainment, concerned with lives squandered and the loneliness of the long-term student... The reason why the novel works so well is that Markovits has an exquisite sympathy for his characters and writes beautiful, dryly humorous prose, revealing an incredible breadth of reading. It is a dense read, but one of delightful clarity, and should be perused by anyone who has ever considered a career in academia.
the young American writer Benjamin Markovits has established himself as a formidable voice... grandiose, vaunting, impressive... He rarely writes a dull sentence... the bastard son of Philip Roth and A. S. Byatt
Markovits' debut novel explores the link between academic and human obsession. The question mark over Syme's character (genius or joker?) and the self-deluding need for Pitt to believe, against all the odds, makes for an interesting parallel.
'[A] remarkable first novel... the observation of fallible humanity is unflinching, the portrayal of academic obsession illuminating, and the subject matter is thought-provoking. This original, ambitious book demands full concentration - and deserves it.'
'[A] remarkably confident debut novel... A formidable achievement and truly a book to get lost in.'
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