This second novel by richly-talented German wunderkind Juli Zeh arrives to considerable fanfare and simultaneous publication in 17 countries. One can see why. Like the characters it portrays, In Free Fall is very clever (sometimes a tad too clever), mystifying and thought-provoking, and the language and images it deploys are never mundane and often astounding.
Itís hard to summarize the plot of a book that is ultimately about the unreality of reality and the possibility of separate realities. On the surface, it has all the bells and whistles of a traditional crime book. Below the surface, nothing is as it appears.
Oskar and Sebastian are two brilliant physicists who meet and fall in love as students. Whether their love is purely intellectual or also physical is left unstated. They dress alike like dandified Victorians and dazzle classmates with their brilliance. On one fatal day, they are called on by a professor to offer a particularly complex mathematical proof. They approach the blackboard together, Sebastian writing down equations from left to right while Oskar does the same from right to left. As they meet triumphantly in the middle, Sebastian realizes he could never have accomplished what Oskar just did, writing the proofs out backward.
Flash forward: Sebastian has married beautiful Maike and has a 10-year-old son, Liam. He has abandoned cutting-edge physics and abandoned Oskar apart from a monthly dinner with his family. So we have overlapping triangles: Oskar and Sebastian and Maike; Sebastian and Maike and Liam; Maike and Sebastian and her possible lover, although weíre not sure he is her lover.
To Oskarís disgust, Sebastian has begun toying with weird theories of alternative realities. Oskar challenges Sebastian to a TV debate, which overflows into a shouting match during which a crucial word is uttered Ė and utterly misunderstood. Sebastianís theory that our reality is shaped by mere coincidence is about to be tested.
The book proceeds to play with the idea and implications of alternative realities. Liam is kidnapped Ė or perhaps he isnít. The kidnappers demand that Sebastian murder one of Maikeís colleagues Ė or perhaps they donít. Enter Detective Superintendant Schilf, recently diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, who wants in this last case to mend at least one small part of a broken world.
In Zehís view, the idea of alternative realities, attractive though it may seem, opens the way to a world without morals Ė a world in which nobody is held accountable for their actions. Schilf wants to hold one of the protagonists accountable for his actions, but the only way to do so is to let the other one off the hook.
Reading this book is a bit like studying an Escher print. It can be beautiful but a little mind-boggling. Zeh is obviously brilliant Ė and like Oskar, she canít resist showing off. Like a piece of deconstructivist criticism, the book deconstructs itself.
There are some loose ends and some characters who donít come to life and donít seem to know their place in the book, but overall this is a wonderful exhibition of bravura novel writing.