One of the aspects that makes a novel 'literary' for me is that you can read it for the words as well as read it for the plot, and that therefore reading it with knowledge of what comes next can provide an enhanced, or at the least alternate experience and not a diminished one. In this way novels can be both genre and literary at the same time. This is probably not news to anyone, but it is important in talking about the two books I want to talk about, having recently re-read both of them.
Mobius Dick and Human Croquet are both about parallel worlds, contain (sometimes cheesy) meta-fictions and sit firmly within often derided genres: Science Fiction and Family Saga respectively. They are also both about particular reaches of darkness, but more on that later. These two genres are, despite their surface differences, similar on a very deep level, one which somewhat precludes re-reading and infuses everything written within their auspices with the air of the throwaway. (The fact that many of the stories so included actually are written to be such is possibly inconvenient to my argument, but generally should be seen as irrelevant.) This connection is revelation, and specifically the revelation of secret knowledge. In sci-fi the revelation is technological: what can this knew technology do and what can be done with it; how will our lives all change when it is free? In the family saga the revelation is historical and personal: what is this secret that holds us back and binds us together; how will our lives all change when it is know? When the truth has already been revealed once, what is there to keep me reading a second time?
Different books answer that last question in different ways, but these two do so with a similar conceit. They do so with loops of meaning and, ultimately, of time - by showing us things early on that won't make sense until we know what happens at the end. This is in some ways a standard technique, but usually it is artificial to the characters - it is a conceit enabled by the narrator denying information to the reader. Crumey and Atkinson's characters are themselves slipping through time, and so what has been hidden and placed out of order is not a deliberate obfuscation between them and the reader, but a true description of their experience. However, even that may be considered a conceit, since these time slips can only happen within fiction, but it is crucially no more of a conceit than the existence of any of these fictional entities we choose to invest our own time in following. This playful honesty is I think again part of the reason these two books lend themselves to being re-read. (There is more that I could say on this front, but I don't want to spoil the stories.)
Then there is the darkness. There is always the darkness. And this is actually where the two books differ. Following on from some previous themes I've taken up on this blog, there seems sometimes, anecdotally at least, to be a general sense that books written by and for women are not as dark, and therefore not as real, as books written by and for men. I mean, this is just so wrong on so many levels it hardly bears discussion, but it sort of colours perceptions. Maybe even it is doing so here, and the best thing would be to ignore it, to not give it the chance to change the way I think or write about things, but I, even now, even after this, can't help myself from doing so.
The thing about the darkness in these two books is that that in Human Croquet is so much darker. In Mobius Dick, which is sci-fi, the darkness is itself speculative, paranoid. It is a possible darkness, a darkness of forces around us, of motives we can't always understand, of people who are doing things that they may well think of as right. It is also about a heroic resistance to that darkness - of standing up and maintaining one's self in the face of it. Human Croquet's darkness is more personal, it is hidden not by external forces, but by the complicity of those affected and even when it is uncertain it is a probable darkness.
This probable, or possible, darkness is the crux of both books; for me the reason both use the parallel world motif. The other worlds visited, mentioned or passed over may not, in the end, exist. Or alternatively, they may be the things edited out of official histories, but the knowledge of that which happened but now didn't happen remains and its impression cannot be erased. This knowledge proliferates into all sorts of fluid possibilities: multiple pasts and multiple futures all jostling with reality, all likely because the present itself cannot be observed just now - it has been held, artificially, in Schrödinger's box.
And resolution comes when the waveform collapse, when the present is fixed again; when the book is put down for the last time. But the parallel worlds, although they never were, do not go without a trace. The idea of them, the passing of them, leaves an impression and changes who we are. We all occasionally dream of the lives we might have lived, but even those idle dreams affect the lives we live now.