Book Review: “Schroedinger's Ball”

by Robinson L

A comedy with a quantum physics theme? Robinson L smells a winner
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Schroedinger's Ball is a 2007 comedic treasure written by Adam Felber, a regular panelist on the American comedy news quiz Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me. Clocking in at just 244 pages, Schroedinger's Ball is a quick read, and a rewarding one.

The book opens with protagonist Johnny Felix Decaté blowing his own face off while attempting to clean out his aunt's gun. Only, he's in his aunt's basement with the door closed at the time, and nobody hears the gunshot. So the possibility that he's alive exists alongside the possibility that he's dead until somebody opens the basement door and observes that he's dead, 'cos of Schroedinger, y'see.

In the vein of such humorists as Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, Felber thus takes what we might refer to as the Hollywood version of real world concepts (primarily but not exclusively related to quantum physics) and plays them reductio ad absurdum. The result is a laugh-out-loud farce and an utterly unique story. Felber pushes the envelope to the breaking point, throwing in a metafictional feedback loop which requires rebooting the book here, a scene comprised entirely of Shakespearian dialogue there, just for the fun of it.

There is, in fact, a plot to the story, but we don't really see it coming together until the end. Not that it matters, as the plot isn't anywhere near as important as the off-the-wall humor, which is the novel's main strength.

Schroedinger's Ball is not without its irritants. A major subplot involves one of Johnny's best friends, Grant (whose name I always imagine pronounced in the British fashion, despite the story being set in Massachusetts) having the hots for their mutual friend Deb, but being too damn shy to do anything about it. Realistic? Probably. Entertaining? No. It irks me when an author shoves in such a transparent roadblock for the sole purpose of drawing out over two hundred pages a plot line which could otherwise be resolved in twenty pages or less. (And considering the resolution to this subplot, I think Felber may be afflicted with Nice Guy Syndrome ...)

While there's a fair amount of both men and women getting undressed and into awkwardly sexual situations, the narration seems to linger on the female characters in a way which felt to me uncomfortably embedded in the male gaze. On the other hand, this may've just been my mind lingering on the parts which I find most exciting, and deflecting the rest.

The climax also gave me pause. Jonny is doing his own thing, so Felber has to use someone else for the big rescue. He has three supporting characters to choose from, one male and two female, all about equally important to the story. One female character he leaves out, one becomes the victim in need of rescue, and the male character becomes the rescuer. Because boys exist to rescue, while girls exist to be rescued.

Still, I found the story quite fun, and I was genuinely unsure going into the climax whether the ending would be a happy one. That's no small feat.

A basic grounding in quantum theory probably adds to the reader's enjoyment, but the book is not restrictive, and even someone with next to no understanding of quantum physics should do just fine.

If you're ever in the mood for a rollicking tour de farce of physics, human relationships, and some of the stranger aspects of American culture, Schroedinger's Ball is an excellent choice.
Themes: Books
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Comments (go to latest)
Jamie Johnston at 17:55 on 2010-08-28
The book opens with protagonist Johnny Felix Decaté blowing his own face off while attempting to clean out his aunt's gun. Only, he's in his aunt's basement with the door closed at the time, and nobody hears the gunshot. So the possibility that he's alive exists alongside the possibility that he's dead until somebody opens the basement door and observes that he's dead, 'cos of Schroedinger, y'see.

Aaaaah, nifty. I'd never thought about whether someone could collapse the wave function of their own death: presumably not, since your actual moment of death is presumably something you can't personally observe. Clever.

But — sorry if I'm being dense — is Johnny's being simultaneously alive and dead the framework of the whole plot (i.e. does the rest of the book happen while he's dead-and-alive in the basement), or is just the first of a number of amusing incidents? Or would it be spoilerish to say?

Felber pushes the envelope to the breaking point...

I suspect that may be logically impossible, since the envelope is the set of conditions and variables within which one can operate safely (i.e. without anything breaking).
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2010-08-30
Jamie: is Johnny's being simultaneously alive and dead the framework of the whole plot (i.e. does the rest of the book happen while he's dead-and-alive in the basement), or is just the first of a number of amusing incidents? Or would it be spoilerish to say?

Yes Jamie, the plot takes place over the space of just those three days. In fact, one of the sources of tension in the book is that three-day time limit (which Felber establishes on like page one) and how it will fit in with the rest of the narrative.

Re: Pushing the envelope
Well Jamie, I don't see how that's a necessary conclusion from the link you provide (or at least from the short definition - i.e. the only part I read), but yes, I will admit I was indulging in a bit of hyperbole with that bit.
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