Crown, 336 pages, $27
“Groundhog Day” was cute, charming, romantic. “Recursion” is grim and scary. “Recursion” is about events that happen over and over again, with differences, sometimes with a phase of mere minutes and sometimes of years. It’s “Groundhog Day” on steroids. Blake Crouch’s story starts off small, if very dramatically. The insistent, repetitive nature of the central idea of the book could be dreary but Crouch makes it exciting and heart-breaking.
Barry Sutton is a detective who has caught an unusual case. A woman is teetering on the edge of the top of a tall building, threatening to jump. Barry gets her to tell him her story as he awaits specialists to help him rescue her. She says she is Ann Voss Peters and her husband is married to another woman. But that woman died many years ago by jumping off the very roof Ann occupies. She was her husband’s first wife. Ann is his second wife. They have children. Suddenly, she says, she awoke with a different life. Her husband was not her husband any longer. She had no children. The first wife had not died. Ann fears she has FMS — false memory syndrome — a disorder that seems to be increasing in occurrence. She and others are convinced they lived lives that no longer “exist.”
Barry is a morose kind of guy, still smarting from his divorce from Julia ten years ago. That was a year after their teenage daughter died. His life has been spiraling downwards ever since. After Ann kills herself, Barry becomes intrigued by how convincing Ann was about her alternate life. The intrigue turns into an obsession, one that replaces his obsession over his daughter’s death.
Helena Smith has invented a “chair.” She is not a carpenter or a designer like Eames (although an Eames chair does appear in the latter stages of the book). She is a scientist driven by the advancing Alzheimer’s disease of her mother to find a device that will help her. Helena is interested in mapping memories and playing them back for someone with a memory disease. Helena is hoping her chair will be that device.
At this point, you have to be thinking, Aha, these events are related. It is true that when Barry meets Helena, hell on earth breaks loose. But Crouch’s book is not strictly a science-fiction thriller or even a horror novel. It is genuinely touching to read of Barry and Helena’s struggles and how they must deal with frustrations over the course of their lives. “Recursion” is the butterfly wing that beats and opens up an unpalatable look at the repulsive tendencies of humans but also a hopeful glance at their transcendent and self-sacrificial ones as well.