Psalms for the End of the World by Cole Haddon

When a friend of mine, Theresa, mentioned a friend of hers had written a book mostly during lockdown in Abingdon (where I live), I winced, as you do. Then I thought I recognised the title and realised it was a big autumn title from Headline and that I had a proof copy on my shelf already. By the time I’d read 1962 and physics in the PR sheet, I didn’t need the rest to know it’d be a book for me. And indeed it didn’t disappoint, but I do have a problem! I absolutely loved it, but it’s one of those near impossible books to write about for many reasons; spoiling the plot is only one of them.

It’s one of those sprawling, virtually uncategorisable novels. If I said take David Mitchell’s history-hopping Cloud Atlas, add a dash of the Man in Black and world-hopping doors of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, sprinkle with a bit of Westworld and The Matrix and infuse liberally with a love of David Bowie, you’re nearly there if you entangle the whole lot in a quantum sense! It’s a bit SF, a bit spec fic, a bit historical fic, a tiny bit fantasy, and there’s a love story, but Psalms for the End of the World is perhaps more a thriller than anything else. You can appreciate my dilemma in how to describe this novel now.

Haddon sets the main story in the early 1960s. It begins with a man called Robert Jones arriving at the Kellogg’s Diner for his dinner greeted by Grace Pulansky the waitress who’s a physics student looking for adventure.

Kellogg’s is a white oblong, all irregular angles like a poorly made sheet cake, dropped in the middle of a small square that it and its parking lot are the sole occupants of. Blue and red neon trim its potential, futuristic surface like radioactive frosting, inviting the eye to peer inside its three walls of windows. Right now, Jones can see a waitress in an Easter-yellow dress with frilly white collar and a grease-stained apron standing behind the counter, next to a cash register, face buried as usual in a book the size of a Gutenberg Bible. He smiles, unable to stop himself.

Gracie stops her habitual humming when Jones enters, smiling with all of her heart-shaped face as she is prone to do. ‘Bobby!; she says. ‘I was getting worried about you.’

Jones smiles, too, as he approaches the counter and its real Formica surface that smells of Top Job – just like Gracie – from the post-supper rush clean-up. But there’s something different about him, something wrong, and she notices it right away. (page 6)

Their badinage over a portion of pecan pie is interrupted by the arrival of the FBI, looking exactly as you’d expect of 1960s G-men. They’re after Jones, accusing him of having planted a bomb in the city which killed many people just earlier. Jones knows it wasn’t him, and inexplicably Gracie believes him and they manage to escape, going on the run.

Or was it Jones? Is he an amnesiac? Does he have a doppelganger who did set the bomb? Is this a slightly different universe that he finds himself in? There is some weirdness at work, there’s certainly quantum entanglement going on, maybe across parallel universes, or something else completely?

Instead of immediately following Jones and Gracie’s story, Haddon jumps back to the 1770s and chateau in France, where a painter Bertrand has disowned his son Xavier and his wife and shut himself in his attic, steadily going insane. No-one knows why, but something happened, and his paintings became full of horrors, few can look at them and not feel ill. A few pages later, we jump forward to Sydney, where a young Muslim believes Allah is speaking to him through his rabbit and telling him to make a bomb-jacket. This routine of short chapters all set in different locations and time-periods is how the story builds up. There is a large cast of characters including an astronaut on a space walk who sees the stars start to disappear, a samurai, a young film director in present-day LA, a pair of Jewish Nazi-hunters chasing down escaped Nazis in the Black Forest in 1945, and many more.

Haddon makes you keep your wits about you, as often the different characters’ stories will be told from alternate points of view, and also there will be flashbacks or flash-forwards. Or are they different versions in different universes or something?

Naturally, Jones and Gracie’s story is the primary focus, Jones being one of the keys to everything that’s going on. But also running through the novel is the story of Damien Syco, tortured 1970s rock star, aka ‘Moon Man’, now presumed dead in 2016, but maybe not… a posthumous album due. His story is primarily told via transcripts of newspaper and magazine articles and interviews, although if you keep your wits about you, you will encounter him for real in the novel. The Moon Man’s career is minutely influenced by that of David Bowie obviously, and gives us a delicious sideways look at how he enjoyed acting out all his different characters and how people try to understand and surely complicate the man and his music, however much of a genius he was. And he was of course!

Amazingly, it all begins to pull together, I don’t really want to say more. If you embark on reading this book, you need to discover its secrets for yourself. Despite the multiplicity of threads, they do entwine to make something that is more than their sum.

Haddon, an Australian-American, returned to New South Wales after lockdown. That’s a shame as if he’d remained in Abingdon, I’d have loved to discuss this book over a beer or two with him! He comes from the world of screenwriting and graphic novels, and each of the character’s storylines is strongly visualised. They’re so disparate, they need to be, and Haddon achieves that well, giving us a real sense of time and location in each short chapter. I don’t often read chunksters, but this book needs its 515 pages and I enjoyed them all.

Source: Review copy – thank you! Headline hardback, Sept 2022, 515 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

4 thoughts on “Psalms for the End of the World by Cole Haddon

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    How fun for you to read something by a (formerly) local author — and love it. We have a local author who wanted to come speak to our book club, but I don’t think her Arthurian time-slip romances would be to my taste!!

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