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What is “identity?” In the words of physics professor Jason Dessen, “If you strip away all the trappings of personality and lifestyle, what are the core components that make me me?”

Conventional wisdom asserts that the choices we make shape our destiny and, perhaps, our identity. The surreal, “multi-verse” context of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter presents a far more complex concept of identity: one not just comprised of multiple destinies but multiple selves across quantum states, each living in “alternate realities at the same point in space and time.”

Are there truly other worlds, “just as real as the one we know,” where we exist but the circumstances are different because we’ve made different decisions? Crouch’s new thriller poses that possibility, using a very twisted form of identity theft as the central problem Jason faces.

A routine Thursday night flips into a living nightmare when Jason, walking home from a bar to the Chicago brownstone he shares with his wife Daniela and 15-year-old son Charlie, is kidnapped at gunpoint by a menacing man in a geisha mask. As the offender forces Jason to drive across town, he reveals excessive knowledge about Jason’s life and routines. Upon arriving at their destination, the kidnapper injects Jason with unknown substances and weirdly softens his tone as Jason fades into temporary oblivion…

…and wakes up as a revered physics celebratory in a strange laboratory surrounded by a team of people he’s never met. Jason has apparently just exited a large “box” he invented, one that permits inhabitants to make compound-induced visits to those parallel, present-day universes.

In the words of the kidnapper, “every thought we have, every choice we could possibly make, branches into a new world,” and the immeasurable and invisible force that physicists call “dark matter” is the gravitational force that holds such countless, “roads not taken” universes together. The kidnapper turns out to be none other than Jason himself, referred to by Crouch as “Jason2,” who’s spent his particular “version” of the past 15 years of Jason’s life accomplishing all the success of which protagonist Jason could only daydream.

Jason2, it turns out, craves the more simple family life enjoyed by protagonist Jason. But how can he obtain it? Just build and use the “world-branching” box to show up in protagonist Jason’s parallel environs, kidnap him, and essentially switch places with him.

Disoriented and scared, the victimized Jason realizes he must learn how the box works and try to return to his own universe. The heart of the novel is this Jason’s visits to dozens of alternative Chicagos, which run the gamut from utopian to post-apocalyptic, all characterized by one depressing fact: it’s not the same universe where Jason lives, works, and loves Daniela and Charlie.

Meanwhile, back in the “real” Chicago, Jason2 is enjoying life with a wife he never married and a son he never fathered. “I got everything I ever wanted, except you,” Jason 2 tells Daniela once she realizes what’s happened. “And you haunted me. What we could have been.” Daniela’s response? “Life doesn’t work that way. You live with your choices and learn. You don’t cheat the system.”

Will the “real” Jason manage to claim the life and people that belong to him from the clutches of his own alter ego? That’s the central focus of the last half of the book, and Crouch’s plot twists keep the reader off guard and frantically turning pages.

Protagonist Jason comes to see himself as “one facet of an infinitely faceted being called Jason Dessen who has made every possible choice and lived every life imaginable.” As he races through dark matter toward Daniela and Charlie, Jason breathlessly notes that he is “playing not just a game of chess,” but “a game of chess against myself.” And the reader is left wondering, after the startling conclusion, “Just who am I, exactly?”

See our Reading Guide for Dark Matter.

 


John Michael DeMarco
In his novels, John explores the strengths and flaws of suburbanites seeking purpose and passion in a world of constant flux. In his non-fiction—and as a Certified Executive Coach—John helps individuals develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual potential. Visit John’s website.

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