When Mr. Mee, the unworldly octogenarian book collector who gives Andrew Crumey’s comic novel its name, encounters a reference to Rosier’s Encyclopedia, a mysterious text offering bizarre theories about life and chance, he becomes obsessed with tracking it down. His quest leads him to discover the Internet, abandon his books, and lose his sexual innocence with a young student named Catriona.
Meanwhile, A. B. Petrie, a middle-aged professor of French at a university nearby in Scotland, schemes to seduce a student named Louisa. Petrie has written a book about the relationship between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Minard and Ferrand, two copyists mentioned briefly in the philosopher’s Confessions. A nude woman can be seen holding a copy of Petrie’s book on a Web site that Mee discovers, convincing him that Minard and Ferrand hold the key to explaining Rosier’s Encyclopedia.
Mr Mee alternates the voices of Mee, Petrie, and Minard in an intricate divertissement that manages to be both witty and silly. Crumey makes of Minard and Ferrand, bumbling lackeys who may have been the inventions of Rousseau’s paranoid fantasy, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Frenchman’s illustrious life. Out of this amalgam of a hyperbolically innocent old man, a lascivious scholar, and a couple of inept copyists, he has fashioned a playful meditation on the relationship between autobiography and fiction.
A book about books and about the threat to reading posed by electronic technology, Crumey’s novel, like those of Umberto Eco and Milan Kundera, reaffirms the vitality of the printed page.