The New York Times
Schrodinger's Ballby Adam Felber
“Tender, hilarious, and packed with delightful surprises . . . If Einstein and John Cleese had written a novel together, this would be it.”–Joseph Weisberg, author of 10th Grade
Four friends set out into the night in Cambridge, Massachusetts, undeterred by the fact that one of them might actually be dead. Deb has perfected the/i>
“Tender, hilarious, and packed with delightful surprises . . . If Einstein and John Cleese had written a novel together, this would be it.”–Joseph Weisberg, author of 10th Grade
Four friends set out into the night in Cambridge, Massachusetts, undeterred by the fact that one of them might actually be dead. Deb has perfected the half-hour orgasm. Grant, a geek, desperately desires Deb. Depressed Arlene has just improbably slept with Johnny, their leader, who recently and accidentally shot himself to death.
But is he (or anyone) alive or dead until he’s observed to be by someone else? Maybe not, according to Dr. Erwin Schrödinger, the renowned physicist (1887—1961) who is, strangely, still ambling through the Ivy League town, offering opinions and proofs about how our perceptions can bring to life–and, in turn, reduce and destroy–other people and ourselves. And what does Schrödinger have to do with the President of Montana, who just declared war on the rest of the country, or the Harvard Square bag lady who is rewriting the history of the world? What’s the significance of the cat in the box, the “miracle molecule,” or the discarded piece of luncheon meat?
Answer: All will collide by the end of this hypersmart, supersexy, madly moving novel that crosses structural inventiveness with easygoing accessibility, the United States with our internal states of being, philosophy with fiction. In Adam Felber’ s dazzling debut, science and humanity collide in a kaleidoscopic story that is as hilarious as death and as heartbreaking as love.
The New York Times
–The New York Times
“Felber has done the impossible: he’s made quantum theory seem hysterically funny and Cambridge, Massachusetts seem like a place of strange magic. Schrödinger’s Ball is a great read that will blind you with science and laughter.”
–Chris Regan, writer for The Daily Show and co-author of America (The Book)
“[A] crackling comic novel…[Felber] frolics in the fields of science....His wit and linguistic acrobatics make this clever mind-bender worth the ride.”
“It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s got heart. All this and an umlaut too! Schrödinger’s Ball is thoroughly lively.”
–Roy Blount Jr., author of Roy Blount’s Book of Southern Humor
“If Einstein and John Cleese had written a novel together, this would be it. Felber creates a world that is both completely real and totally enchanted. Tender, hilarious, and packed with delightful surprises, Schrödinger’s Ball is even more original than other really original books.”
–Joseph Weisberg, author of Tenth Grade
“There’s no uncertainty about it. Schrödinger’s Ball once and for all proves the Adam Felber theory of comic novel writing: a book can be rollickingly funny, sharply satirical, romantic, and endearing–and involve quantum physics.”
–Mo Rocca, author of All the Presidents’ Pets: The Story of One Reporter Who Refused to Roll Over
”Schrödinger’s Ball is as funny as hell, charming and kind, and perceptive and moving. Adam Felber has an amazing feel for the interior lives of his characters, even while using the shifting points-of-view of a David Foster Wallace.”
–Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!
“[A] raucous, willfully absurd debut…designed to expose the beautiful randomness of existence….Felber has embraced postmodern fiction's favorite themes…and turned it into a work of broad comedy instead of a fit of fatalistic handwringing.”
“Few novels attempting a deliberately bad explanation of the uncertainty principle could surpass this inspired romp….Felber's debut is illogically, warmly entertaining.”
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Read an Excerpt
There’s a cat in a box in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s about three-quarters of a mile from the firehouse in Central Square, which means that if someone launched a rescue operation now, the trucks could be there in half an hour. Or so.
Boston’s roads started out in the colonial days as tracks and paths, routes for people and horses and cattle to travel from All Over to certain Important Places. In the fullness of time, the roads widened, lengthened, and were finally paved for the automobile, that newfangled machine whose basic operation still confounds most Boston natives.
So it’s pointless to speak of Boston’s “grid.” Boston’s roads were never meant to be urban thoroughfares—they intersect at odd, often precipitous angles, with frequently interesting results from an urban-design standpoint. Often, three or four roads will intersect in more or less the same place.
When this happened in an area unburdened with history, landmarks, or valuable real estate, the twentieth-century Bos- tonians created enormous disks of pavement where the roads collided, which they called “rotaries.” The traffic laws governing how you enter and exit a rotary are poorly understood and rarely followed. Fortunately, the fact that a rotary is at the intersection of many roads ensures that there will be easy access for emergency vehicles, which spend a great deal of time cleaning up the messes that happen inside rotaries.
However, when many roads intersect in places that are historic, landmark-laden, or filled with valuable real estate (a set of conditions that can be best described as “almost everywhere”), the planners and pavers of Boston opted to create Squares. From a design standpoint, this roughly means, “Do nothing and name the place after the principal reason why we can’t have a rotary here.”
In a Square you will find nothing that resembles an actual geometric square. In fact, the predominant shape is the triangle, as the intersection of many randomly generated roads would dictate. For drivers, Squares are nightmarish; because the roads rarely intersect at the exact same place, motorists can expect to encounter a confusing battery of traffic lights and signs every twenty yards or so. After running this gauntlet, Bos- ton drivers can expect smooth sailing for roughly the next quarter of a mile, at which point they will come to another Square.
Harvard Square, Inman Square, and Central Square, the areas that we’ll be primarily concerned with herein, all exist quite close to one another in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They are, naturally, made of triangles. Taken as a group, they form something of a triangle themselves (as is the wont of any three points). Not an isosceles triangle, mind you, but a stable and powerful shape nonetheless. Inman and Central are a bit closer to each other, linked by Prospect Street. Harvard is slightly farther off, to the west, linked to Inman and Central by Cambridge Street and Mass Ave, respectively.
On a map, if you look at the triangle formed by these three Squares, you might note that the shape they describe is a tri- angle with one dramatically acute angle, the one emanating from Harvard Square. The angle is sharp enough that the tri- angle looks very much like an arrowhead. If you owned a map of the entire United States big enough and detailed enough to depict the street-level configuration of this tiny section of Massachusetts—a map that would by necessity be approximately the size of your living room—you would be able to see exactly what this arrowhead is pointing at.
It’s pointing, more or less, directly at Montana.
The President of Montana slumps low behind his desk and waits for the gunshots to stop. No doubt about it, the assassin’s dead out there, but there’s still a whole lot of risk from friendly fire. Dixon probably won’t stop until he pumps thirty rounds into the pile of flesh that was a man thirty seconds ago.
There’s a small corner of the President’s mind that wonders if all the assassins that have come around here lately were actually assassins at all. By the time the President sees them, there’s really not that much that can be done in the way of interrogation. They could be just ordinary visitors, couldn’t they? Salesmen and milkmen and such. But why would Dixon shoot the milkman? the President wonders. No reason that he can see. Dixon likes milk.
Dixon comes in and sits in front of the President’s desk. The President looks at his Secretary of Defense, watches him without moving. Dixon watches back. They spend a long while watching. The President is aware that Dixon is looking at a fiftyish “white” man whose lean, youthful pallor has given way to a fleshy, mottled, embarrassing red—the kind of red that lets everyone know that all efforts to lay off the salty fried food have been unsuccessful. The President also can’t understand why Dix seems to look the same way he did when they were twenty-five.
It’s not a good moment, from the Chief Executive’s point of view. Finally, the President speaks.
More watching. They’ve been friends since they were small, but the President feels like these quiet staring times have been getting longer lately. Hell, friends don’t need to talk. That’s how you know it’s a friend. But these silences have been getting . . . tense. Ever since he took the Oath of Office.
“Damn, I’m hungry! Could you ask Retta to fix me a big bowl of cornflakes with bananas? Could you do that for me, Dix? I got a lot of paperwork to do. . . .”
“Can’t do that, Mr. President.”
“We’re out of milk?”
Now, suddenly, the President of Montana is scared.
Johnny’s first thought after the noise and the blood started was how incredibly cliché it was to have one’s gun go off while one was cleaning it. Then he bled to death, realizing all the while that that, too, had been done before. Done to death, he thought. Ha-ha.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, no one came down to the basement for three days after that, so Johnny Felix Decaté didn’t actually die until his grandmother opened the basement door three days later. Well, really, he was dead long before that. But not really. It’s hard to explain.
Dr. Schrödinger was trying to explain quantum physics.
“Imagine if you will,” he said, “a cat in a box with a vial of deadly gaseous poison which may or may not have been bro- ken by a trip-hammer before you open the box.” Everyone imagined this. “Now let me tell you that, in terms of particles, the cat is neither alive nor dead until you open that box, but it is in fact simultaneously alive and dead AND neither alive nor dead until a human observes it!” Everyone was thrilled. Captivated.
“Only in terms of particles and waves, of course,” continued Dr. Schrödinger. “I’m not talking about a real cat, of course. And this is somewhat of a counterexample.” No one was listening anymore, the idea was too grand. “Really,” plied the doctor, aware that he was losing his audience, “we’re talking about subatomic particles here, not cats. Not cats. Please, let’s forget about the cat, okay?”
By this time, Dr. Schrödinger had pushed everyone a bit too far, and he was given his coat and shown to the door, still grumbling something about being misunderstood.
In a small one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Deborah Johnstone is having an orgasm.
Johnny Felix Decaté was in a bar. This was several hours after he accidentally shot and killed himself. But he hadn’t been found yet, so he wasn’t actually dead—he was both alive and dead, and neither alive nor dead, and he was drinking a beer. Being dead wasn’t a problem at the moment; it was just an eigenstate.
We called Dr. Schrödinger on the telephone to find out about these eigenstates. He was eager to oblige us. Frankly, he seemed a little lonely. He started to talk about subatomic particles, but we played dumb so that he would talk about the cat and the box. He then explained it like this:
“When I say that the ‘cat’ is both alive and dead before human observation intervenes, I mean it. It has the properties of both a dead thing and a living thing. At that point, it is said to exist simultaneously in two opposing eigenstates: alive and dead. At the moment of observation, it retains all the properties of one of the eigenstates and loses all of the other’s. The cat becomes either truly alive or truly dead.”
Then Dr. Schrödinger let us know that this only applies to subatomic physics, that we should substitute “particle” and “wave” for “alive” and “dead,” that, tellingly, complex physical systems don’t behave with the same indeterminacy.
“How would you know?” we ask, and he gets very quiet for a moment. Just enough time for us to hang up on the tiresome old codger.
Deborah Johnstone is still having an orgasm in Cambridge. The same orgasm. She is sitting upright, straddled across a man, her head is thrown back, and rivulets of sweat are running down her neck. Her eyes are closed, her jaw is clenched, and her body jerks and flails spasmodically.
Deborah has been having this orgasm for three minutes, and it’s a very powerful orgasm, and it shows no sign of abating. In fact, it’s intensifying, all of her soft but strong nether muscles convulsing in an uncontrollable spastic rhythm as a low, open-mouthed moan dances around the very back of her throat. Bear all this in mind.
Arlene ordered another cognac and tried to cry again. No dice. It’s too soon, she thought. It’s not real to me yet. I still expect to come home and find him waiting for me.
The Abbey was still in the frozen sobriety of pre–nine o’clock drinking. Within an hour or two, Arlene mused, alcohol will help us create a consensual reality in which all of us here believe we’re entertaining, intelligent people who really like each other. Depressed though she was, Arlene couldn’t quite swallow the thought. She knew there was at least one truly intelligent, entertaining person in the bar, who just so happened to be having a bad day because none of her real friends were here and her fucking cat just fucking died for no fucking reason at all. She suddenly noticed the tear running down her cheek and over her lips and she had to smile at it, and her toothy grin and moist eyes made her look like a newly crowned Miss America in the smoked glass behind the bar. She licked up the tear just in time to feel another one rolling down the other cheek, and her smile grew wider. “It’s about time,” she said softly. “I’ve been waiting for you fuckers.”
Deborah Johnstone’s orgasm is at six minutes and counting.
She’s leaning forward now, her moist palms pressed against the chest of her supine lover, a fine sheen of sweat highlighting her extended neck and swaying breasts. Her pale blue eyes are wide with wonder, and her smile is beatific. If you’re a man, you’ve never felt anything quite like what Deborah is feeling right now. If you’re a woman, you probably haven’t, either. That’s why it’s so important. Take note; she is moving purposefully atop her lover, to milk every last drop of ecstasy from her exhausted body. Easily, though, as if she’s done this before. In fact, she has done this before. Many times.
In the bar, Johnny Felix Decaté was feeling curiously light. Couldn’t pin it on the beer; he wasn’t even finished with mug number 1. Come to think of it, he’d felt pretty, uh, light ever since he’d finished cleaning his dad’s old gun this afternoon. A funny feeling—like when he broke up with Stephanie, but without the pain. Like when he told Men’s Nipples to find a new bass player, but without the second thoughts. He let his hair fall like a bronze curtain over his face as he stared directly down into his drink and instantly fell in love with the golden facets of the beer-filled mug. He thought: This is the beauty that the commercials want us to see. They film the pouring of the beer in slow motion to make you feel the moment, to help you forget who’s pouring the beer and who’s drinking and why, and just appreciate the simple beauty of beer in a mug.
Johnny slowly poured more beer from his bottle into the mug, even though it was mostly full already. Light danced in the little cylinder of falling beer, and Johnny realized that he could follow the stream as it plunged into the standing liquid in the glass. He could see the stream slow down as it sank and then divide and splay like an octopus and then curl like smoke, and then, for a tiny instant, Johnny understood that there was an extremely good reason why octopuses and smoke behaved like beer, and the understanding made him laugh, even though it was gone in an instant. He thought: I’m sitting here at the bar staring at a beer and laughing like a stoned moron, and I’m not on anything! What’s up with that? What do I usually do when I drink alone at the Abbey? he asked himself.
Oh, I dunno, Johnny, you usually just think about stuff.
Oh, you know, John-man—your life and stuff.
Oh. Yeah. But I don’t feel involved with that shit tonight. I’m watching a different channel, y’know? I feel . . .
. . . light?
We just received a letter from Dr. Schrödinger. He might be angry or he might be apologetic, as near as we can figure. We haven’t opened the letter yet. Being sensitive, we call him on the telephone to ask him what the general tone of the letter is so we can be prepared to read it. “How should I know what the tone is?” he asks. “It won’t be either apologetic or angry and it will be both until you open the letter, right?” He hangs up. If we didn’t know him better, we might suspect that there was a note of sarcasm in his voice just then.
She’s still coming! Nine minutes have passed, and Deborah Johnstone’s monumental orgasm is still going strong. Now she’s sprawled across her lover, her face buried in his neck, as she sobs and moans and laughs and writhes against him. It is necessary that you appreciate just how wonderful she is feeling right now. Deborah Johnstone has been on a plateau of ecstasy for a long, long time.
Deborah Johnstone has a life, of course, full of friends and ambitions and hobbies and concerns. But those don’t matter right now. In the operating system of her brain, this climax is the only open application. There are no other open windows in the background consuming RAM and providing distractions. This is full-screen, a singularity of consciousness that takes contemplative monks a lifetime to perfect.
It is a feature that comes standard with Deborah Johnstone.
That is Johnny at the end of the bar, Arlene thought. He looked . . . different, somehow. But in what way? Well, for one, he was looking straight down into his drink and giggling, which was admittedly a new thing for him, but that wasn’t quite it. He looked—dangerous, like a hyperactive boy with a grenade in his belly. No, that wasn’t it at all, Arlene realized, though she took a moment to congratulate herself on the imagery and hope briefly that she’d be able to recall it later, when she had a pen and paper and a less emotionally fraught moment. She shook her head to refocus her mind. Johnny looks different tonight, she thought slowly and carefully, because my cat is dead.
She was almost right about that.
A few facts about Deborah Johnstone:
1) She is twenty-four years old.
2) She is disease-free.
3) Everyone who meets her instantly likes her.
4) She genuinely cares about her friends and family.
5) She is capable of experiencing astounding amounts of ecstasy.
6) She’s always at least as happy as you were on the happiest day of your life.
It was a dark and stormy night. A knock on the door awakened us. Unbelievably enough, it was Dr. Schrödinger. He was soaking wet and looked kind of desperate, water streaming down a face too frantic to be handsome, hopelessly unfashionable glasses fogged and partially obscuring those disconcertingly wobbly blue eyes. He was too pitiable to turn away, so we let him in. Just for a minute.
“The thing you must remember,” he says as he huddles under a blanket and sips from his miserable little thermos of hot cider, “is that quantum theory is not the theory of relativity, though they are of course inextricably interrelated. Relativity talks about how you look at things. Quantum theory depends on whether you look at things.”
“Meow . . .” we suggest hopefully.
“Oh, very well!” he snaps. “If no one opens the ‘box,’ the ‘cat’s’ fate remains not just unobserved but really undetermined— it honestly behaves like a ‘cat’ that is both ‘alive’ and ‘dead’ until you look at it.”
This is great stuff, as long as you ignore the sarcastic quotation marks that the doctor makes with his fingers when he says words like “cat” and “alive.” Which we do. Pointedly. Then he lapses into his usual blather about particles and waves, and we leave him there to sleep on the couch.
Before Johnny Felix Decaté could get bored with his revelatory beer glass, he sensed something looming to his left. He didn’t look up immediately, because the sensation of something looming was so delicious, and when you look right at a loom- ing thing it ceases to really loom properly. Eventually he heard his name spoken, and in a sunburst of flashing connections he identified the loomer as a person, a woman, a friend. Arlene. This is the conversation that followed:
“What’s so funny?”
“Was I looming? I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Nothing wrong with looming. If more people loomed, less people would be getting directly in your face.”
“Am I in your face now?”
“Are you, like, oversensitive today?”
“Do you wanna know why?”
“Can I help?”
“The past is a total burden. I have enough trouble forgetting my own without having other people’s to forget.”
“And stop that!”
“You don’t smile lovingly at someone who just said ‘fuck you’ to you. It’s rude.”
“I like you.”
“My cat died.”
“So did Winston Churchill.”
“What is wrong with you tonight?”
The most active part of Deborah Johnstone’s orgasm is over. It is now eleven and one-half minutes since she sat bolt upright and, well, squeaked through her suddenly constricted throat. Now, as she sprawls and stretches over her lover, she begins to feel that she is floating, and she thinks to herself: Now here comes the really good part.
The bathroom was actually much nicer than one would expect, especially for a place like the Abbey. The black tiles on the floor and halfway up the walls were as shiny as the white grout between them was white. A streamlined sink curved up from the floor like a black porcelain cobra poised to strike. The very large mirrors accurately reflected that there was no one in the room.
It was obvious that Schrödinger had nowhere to go. He spent the whole morning puttering around, drinking herbal tea, and trying to get us to talk about physics. He was none too subtle, either, trying to disguise his intent through “idle chitchat.”
“Bit of a drizzle falling this morning,” he observed slowly, watching us out of the corner of his eye.
We agreed, warily, that there was.
“Do you see,” he began, with bone-crunching nonchalance, “how the rain appears not as a series of plummeting drops but, rather, as a set of flickering points as some droplets happen to refract photons into your eyes?”
We tried to tell him that we really didn’t want to get into this. . . .
“What I meant to say,” he corrected himself hastily, “is: See how the rain sparkles?”
The rain did indeed sparkle, we allowed.
“Well, oddly enough, that effect can be replicated in a lab by directing a beam of—”
We rushed to the door and headed off to work, telling this one-hit wonder of popular science to please be gone when we returned, and that the door, independent of any observer, would lock itself.
“Let’s do something.”
“We are doing something, Johnny. We’re drinking. This is what we do.”
“Well, let’s do something else. I’m going to—”
“No, wait. Hang. Everybody will be here by ten.”
“And I would dearly love to see my friends, with whom I’ve shared so much. . . .”
“What are you—are you high?”
“I think that friendship is just a habit. A good habit, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it has any other power on you besides force of habit.”
“Well, that’s a pretty strong force, isn’t it? I mean, Furble died today, and I still feel him, scratching the couch with his little claws and begging for food and—”
“It’s only strong because you say so, Arlene. You decide how strong things like that are.”
“Yeah, but I don’t consciously decide. It just happens.”
“We’ll come back in an hour and a half.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Are you coming?”
“Why do you want me along?”
“And I clearly remember that I’ve always liked you. . . .”
“Oh . . . thank you, Johnny, really. I’m sorry I’m crying. . . . I guess I just really needed to hear something like that, weirdly put or not. . . .”
One half-hour after Deborah Johnstone first began to climax, she finally comes back to herself. First she becomes aware of her heartbeat and her limbs, slightly cramped. Soon the body underneath her begins to take form and gains an identity: Colin. She feels a surge of gratitude toward Colin, who has waited so patiently for her to return. But a quick look at his face tells her that thanks are not necessary; he is awestruck and proud, now convinced that he is truly the most remarkable lover the city has ever known. So everybody wins, Deborah thinks. She rises off him gently and watches him stifle a slight twinge of fear and loss. Deborah doesn’t say anything about it—such comments are never well received, being taken for emasculating at best. Instead, she stands above him, stretches, looks at the clock. It’s eight thirty. Perfect. “Just enough time for a bath or a shower,” she thinks aloud. She’s out of the room before there’s any reply from Colin, who actually was waiting for a round of applause.
At 8:55 p.m.:
1) We are in the corner of the Abbey, watching Dr. Schrödinger bore an old barfly. We’re hoping he doesn’t see us.
2) There’s this box going meow. And it’s not going meow, too.
3) Deborah Johnstone is showering and thinking about tonight, slipping her life back on like a comfy sweater.
4) Arlene is screaming.
5) Montana, in most people’s opinions, is still a state in the Union.
6) The bathroom of the Abbey is really quite nice. And empty.
7) Colin is wishing he’d gotten everything on videotape.
8) Johnny Felix Decaté is on fire.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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