Part bildungsroman and part psychological thriller, That Existential Leap is a novel of ideas about the struggle for self-realisation and belonging in the postmodern West.
Claudette Dasgupta is a thoughtful but unremarkable American teenager unenthusiastic about the prospect of college and a conventional life. When she meets the heroically mysterious Siegfried at the New York Public Library, she barely hesitates to throw in her lot with him, but soon finds an unscripted life is scarier, and harder, than she could have imagined. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Siegfried’s home town Glasgow, unconventional police detective Alexander investigates his disappearance. Alexander is soon caught up in still more unworldly affairs as his work spirals out of control and his personal life unravels.
As the two stories wrap around one another, encompassing the worlds of crime and gangsterism, the law and police work, music and the supernatural, Dolan Cummings' novel explores the terrifying uncertainty at the core of all human relationships.
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
Dolan Cummings built his novel around a set of ideas. The prime virtue is individualism, the prime vice conformity. There are two stories — not stories, really, but idea vehicles — loosely connected. One is set in New York and features a narrator who named herself Claudette, and her boyfriend, Seigfried. The latter is the book’s hero because he is supposedly an arch individual, demanding that the world move out of his way so he can define him-self. The other story is narrated by some sort of ephemeral being that examines a Scottish police inspector named Alexander; this arc does have some elements of storytelling due to Alexander’s string of romances. He is the head of the Occult Crimes unit, his self-defined project to negate occult motives and thus demand full perpetrator responsibility.
The philosophical discussion about free will and responsibility for both the good and evil in one’s life is the book’s strongest point. There are moments that are intriguing, such as when Satan tells Alexander how he found it “creepy” the way Jesus’ disciples followed him automatically. This suggests that they were essentially brainwashed and connects to the larger discussion of the hordes of anti-Seigfrieds who voluntarily sacrifice their precious freedom to self-define by opting for conformity. In contrast to the brainwashing rapists who abound in the novel, Seigfried’s group commit victimless crimes that supposedly accentuate their selfhood.
The problem with this novel is that I was able to fit way too much of its whole in my summary above. Aside from the somewhat involving romances of Alexander, the characters all fall flat because the entire book is summary with-out evocative detail. Cummings sacrificed the couching I intended to do by having a documentarian studying Seigfried directly criticize the useful-if-banal writing tenet “show, don’t tell.” On the same page, Claudette made a joke lambasting solipsism and I actually laughed aloud, since she and Seigfried are the most navel-gazing characters I have ever read. If Cummings had shown instead of told/summarized, he would have had to answer in advance my five bajillion plausibility questions and had living characters.
Let Seigfried stand as my example. Seigfried is a genius who can embezzle at will. As with most of Alexander’s police procedure, the mechanics of the embezzling are never explained. Seigfried, who has five or 10 lines of dialogue in the entire book, is also a masterful fighter. There are casual references to other things he’s magically able to do. If you’re going to write a book about humans forging their own identities, don’t centre it around a superhuman human. ~ Norman Feliks Jezioranski, http://www.brokenpencil.com/news/book-review-that-existential-leap
How dreadful the knowledge of truth can be’, says the unfortunate hero of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, ‘when there is no help in truth’. So concludes one of the Western canon’s earliest extant detective stories – a cool rational attempt to uncover the source of a society’s malaise, which, ultimately, leaves us wondering what the point of it all is.
Still, the genre of crime novels and detective stories has flourished in modern times. It seeks to reassure us of the fundamental soundness of society’s laws and institutions, while creating attractively lone, determinedly individual heroes to do so. It recognises the persistence of evil, but provides us with the consolation that it can be temporarily halted.
But why, a reader might wonder, has author (and regular spiked contributor) Dolan Cummings dressed up his debut crime novel, That Existential Leap: A Crime Story, in the esoteric language of existential philosophy? Perhaps it is because almost all crime stories require us to take an existential leap at some point, in deciding, for instance, to side with the criminal or the law, the desire for justice or the appearance of it.
While the majority of That Existential Leap’s action takes place in New York and Glasgow, it would be a foolish TV producer who pitched this novel as CSI meets Taggart. It centres on a detective and a criminal, and features a high enough body count in its 200 pages to keep crime-genre fans happy, but it is far from a straightforward take on the genre. It might just get by as True Detective meets Gregory’s Girl, after a few drinks.
Structurally, the novel sets itself up as a classic struggle between a compelling criminal and a doubt-struck detective. Siegfried is an otherwise unremarkable but supremely resourceful young man who, in one daring act of fraud and another opportunistic act of selfless larceny, flees Glasgow for New York and becomes – in a possible nod to the contemporary TV Sherlock’s Moriarty – a sort of consulting criminal.
Back in Scotland, DI Alexander (we never find out his first name) is stuck investigating a crime for which there is little social benefit in solving – the murder of a petty criminal and thug by a protective older sister – and a series of occult-related deaths for which there is a clear social benefit in solving, but little actual evidence. At work he is facing pressure from an NGO with a strong purpose and sinisterly ill-defined demands. And at home, his head is being turned from a loveless marriage towards an underage schoolgirl through some possibly psychotic visions of the devil.
Our criminal spends the novel not committing crimes but solving problems; our detective manages to solve most of his problems but hardly any of the crimes. Yet the novel neither damns the law nor advocates extra-judicial killing. As an orthodox crime story then, That Existential Leap is an unqualified disaster.
Fortunately, it is clearly not intended as such. Alexander and Siegfried are only tangentially connected; the novel is largely told from the perspective of Siegfried’s girlfriend Claudette, a precocious Indian-American college student. It is predominantly through her conjecture, assumptions and fantasies about the interior worlds of others that the action of the novel unfolds. It is she who eventually develops as the most interesting character.
That Existential Leap gradually reveals itself to be not so much a battle between good and evil, or law versus natural right, as a portrait of the contemporary besieged individual trying to come of age in a world of few clear moral certainties.
Such an approach – evident in its Wagnerian leitmotif and its dark picaresque – may seem a curiously convoluted one. Then again, you only need to spend an afternoon trawling through the demi-worlds of online youth culture to remind yourself how thrillingly exhausting it is to develop an individual ethical framework where your only references are pop culture.
From the social-justice warfare of Tumblr to the bracing cruelties of alt-right trolls, we are never far from the spectacle of young people attempting to make some kind of moral and intellectual sense of the world with few traditional institutions to guide them. It is an often grisly sight, especially as the unresolved intra-generational culture wars move increasingly into the real world.
In many ways, That Existential Leap is a sincere attempt to grapple with and articulate that struggle between the individual and society, and perhaps find a way to transcend it. Siegfried initially appears as a kind of ultra-individualist Übermensch ripped straight from the pages of Ayn Rand: resourceful, pro-active and hyper-rationalist. Alexander is the self-reflective guardian of the social good, whose work has come at the cost of his own life and those closest to him.
Yet while Sartre’s oft-misunderstood claim that ‘hell is other people’ may be every teenage existentialist’s maxim, That Existential Leap gives other people a much better hearing. It is left to the most infuriating and well-rounded character to suggest there may be a third way between the rugged individual and society’s sacrificial lamb:
‘Somewhere between individual self-mastery and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is, or ought to be, real life. That is the human world of possibilities and constraints that make sense because even if we are not individually responsible for them, we are in some sense connected to them, complicit in them…Isn’t the point of human society to diminish contingency, or at least to render it human? To make us all, collectively if not individually, the authors of our own destiny?’
This is the door that That Existential Leap prises open for the reader.
That is not to say there aren’t problems with That Existential Leap. It can be overly episodic and suffers at points from being poorly structured. But it can also be very funny and, in showing how self-alienation suffocates attempts at human connection, it is beautifully observed. This is a debut of genuine promise.
Like all fiction, That Existential Leap is not much of a manual for living. Yet it does start to provide a glimpse of how you could start. Hopefully we’ll get to see where Cummings leads us next.
David Bowden is a writer and reviewer based in London. ~ David Bowden, http://www.spiked-online.com
That Existential Leap: a crime story by Dolan Cummings is the kind of book you just want to be immersed in, hoping it doesn’t end.
The two male protagonists, one primarily in New York, one in Scotland, both flawed and engaging, allow the reader a thought-provoking exposure to two minds that stimulate your own existential thoughts as these characters navigate their worlds. Most interesting, That Existential Leap:…does not hit you over the head with heady academic philosophy. Rather these young men of working class roots take you into their insights and struggles with just the right amount of intrigue of character and quirky uniqueness without being annoying—a feat not easily attained.
We are introduced to Siegfried, who seems to be a cross between his idol, Raskolnikov, from Crime and Punishment and Ignatius J. Reilly, from Confederacy of Dunces, through the insightful eyes of his young girlfriend as she attempts to manage her own existential questions of how to enter adulthood. She notes that according to Siegfried:
"The narrow and predictable biography of the average human being is really quite disturbing. What is more disturbing perhaps is that this is no secret. Everybody who has ever bothered to think about it can see that there are infinite possibilities in life, and yet still they plow that same furrow, or at least choose their furrows from the same field, so to speak. Siegfried wouldn’t have objected if they were talking about a good field, but really it isn’t a good field at all. The deliberate choice of a dull and miserable life seemed to Siegfried to be inexcusable, and yet it was the norm, the reality."
And Alexander, our brilliantly dysphoric detective from Scotland presents his own existential musings that are less heady yet equally intriguing and seductive.
"Alexander realized that his love was dead. But he began to see something new in Laura. Something that suggested the relationship might be worth pursuing after all. Not the promise of happiness that he had never really wanted anyway, but something far more in keeping with his personality, and indeed his ambition. As the love that had become lust turned finally to resentment, it hit him. Laura would make an excellent wife."
I found that I was highlighting and re-reading many lines or full paragraphs, looking up to ponder the narrative, smiling to myself about the places it led me, or reading to whomever was near—this is a sign of a novel that challenges without overwhelming. I highly recommend The Existential Leap: a crime story, and look forward to the next novel by Dolan Cummings.
I received this novel as an Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. As you can see from my review, I very much appreciated the opportunity. Publication date is May 26,2017. ~ Nancy Burkey, www.nancyburkey.com