At this point, I’ve read a handful of books that Blake Crouch either wrote or co-wrote, and by and large, I’ve enjoyed them. Crouch is undeniably a pulpy author, and his prose is basically fine but unexceptional; for all of that, though, his ideas are rich and compelling, and Crouch has a knack for zigging when you think he’s going to zag (a talent that served him incredibly well in Pines, but less so in Eerie). With all of that being said, it’s been surprising seeing Dark Matter gain a more mainstream success – much more so than any other Crouch book, as far as I know. Crouch has always seemed like a fringe figure, a cult favorite, but never someone who could attain big, mainstream success.
But having read Dark Matter, I get why this has been his breakout novel. Between the gripping idea, the rich characterization, the surprisingly strong prose, and the emotional ideas that Crouch is playing with, it’s undeniably his most successful, intriguing, thrilling, and inventive novel, and one that makes the best use of his talents. It’s mind-bending, exciting, unpredictable, but best of all, it’s emotionally and thematically rich, delivering a surprisingly thoughtful tale out of a pulp premise.
Exactly what that premise is should best be learned slowly (although if, like me, you know the basic idea, don’t worry – Dark Matter has some surprises still coming your way). Suffice to say that the book opens in a typical night in the life of Jason Dessen, a physicist turned college professor who has a satisfying, if unexceptional, life with his wife and teenage son. But as he’s leaving a bar after celebrating a colleague’s success, he’s kidnapped and drugged, and awakes in a strange place where his life seems to be entirely different from the one he remembers. Was he dreaming? Is he dreaming now? What’s going on?
Again, I don’t want to dive too much into the basic premise of the book; if you’re an avid reader or science-fiction fan, you may have a good idea where this is going. But rest assured, even if you think you know, you don’t know exactly how Crouch is going to run with this premise, pushing it way further and more inventively than I’ve ever seen an author take it. More than that, though, Crouch uses his idea not as an end – as he did in Pines, whose primary fun came in its bizarre revelations – but as a means to explore his characters, letting it all play out like some nightmarish version of It’s a Wonderful Life, where Jason gets to see how his life could have turned out had he made one critical decision differently. Crouch invests us enough in Jason that we’re right there alongside him as he debates the merits of this new life, and we find ourselves exploring the same heady questions as he does – the way our decisions shape us, the way our priorities and experiences can make us into the person we are.
Mind you, this is still undeniably a Crouch book, which means it moves at a breakneck pace, keeps you guessing, and constantly evolves in front of your eyes. Dark Matter is as much a thriller as it is anything else, and although it’s rich with subtext (and text, really), that doesn’t mean that it’s not exciting and thrilling. It’s one of those books that’s going to be incredibly hard to stop reading once you start it – I basically read it in two sittings, and that one break was just because I had to force myself to go to bed. And while I was reading, I was absolutely riveted; Crouch knows how to keep a reader hooked, and manipulates you into keeping on turning those pages well past the point when you should stop.
The result is a real treat, and a deserved breakthrough for Crouch – not just in terms of success, but in terms of his talent. It’s easily the richest, best book of his that I’ve read, and the first time I’ve seen him push beyond the pulpy roots that have defined most of his works for me. And yet, Dark Matter keeps those pulpy roots – a great hook, an exciting plot – intact, all while marrying them to more thoughtful, intriguing material. It’s a really fun, engaging book; a fun thriller that’s got some substance to it, some genuinely shocking moments, and a willingness to go for broke that results in at least one of the most memorable reveals I’ve read in a thriller in recent memory. It’s a blast, and I can’t recommend it enough.