Have you read Cold Fusion 2000? Did you have any questions? Maybe you'll find the answers here! If you haven't read it yet then beware of reading on: there are spoilers. I may add to this over time.
What's the novel about?
See the blurb here. It could perhaps be described as a fantasy love story, or a romantic maturation novel. The original blurb I played around with was:
Sometimes we want something that isn’t good for us.
Sometimes there’s a second chance to have it.
And sometimes we surprise ourselves with the decisions we make.
What are the discussion questions for book groups?
Some of these will be answered on this page.
- What happens just before and after the chapter Broken Parities? How does it relate to what happens while Alex is doing press-ups at the start of the novel?
- Why doesn’t Jane appear before or after the chapter Broken Parities?
- What are the themes and concerns of the novel?
- What is the significance of the novel’s name?
- How do the chapter names relate to the events of those chapters?
- What is the relationship between the chapters Superdense Matter and Superlight Matter?
- How many elements of Alex’s behaviour, character and interests label him as geek? What are they?
- Why is Alex such a disaster area at the start of the novel? Has he improved by the end? In what ways?
- Does Alex deserve to be happy? And after the novel ends, will he be happy?
- Do you think Natalie is making a mistake in pursuing Alex?
- What is the significance of Hannah’s casket in the art gallery/museum?
- If you could meet any character from the novel and ask them a question, who would you choose, and what would you ask? Why?
Hold on: the obituary... Lucy Jane Spiers? How many sisters? How could he have met her if she dies in May, and he said he hadn't seen her for years? I'm confused.
It's meant to be a shock. A detail that doesn't match what went before. How could she have died in May if he met her in June? How come he says he hadn't met her for six years when the chapter is only 'five months later'? It doesn't match up. According to the dates, she was already dead when Alex meets her in the pub. Either the author doesn't even know his own story... or it is more complex than it appeared to be!
In the first few pages of the novel we learn that Alex has memory blips sometimes when he's stressed. Afterwards he can't remember what he was thinking. He suspects that more happens in his mind than could really happen in a few seconds, as if time has been condensed. It stands out as an odd event. It is preceded and followed by sections in italics. Clue.
Just before the Broken Parities chapter is a section in italics, when Alex is stressed, and he seems to be having some sort of mental event in the shower. Immediately following the Broken Parities chapter we see the same thing, but at the end of the shower. A casual reading of the novel would lead you to think everything happens in real time, and it is a different shower, a different time, when he gets out. Shortly after that his mother mentions Alex's 'girlfriend' - as if she is talking about Jane. But she isn't. She's referring to Anne, the girl from the first chapter. Because everything that happens in the Broken Parities chapter occurs during a few seconds of mental fugue while Alex is in the shower.
That's the gist of it. That's why Jane doesn't appear before or after that chapter. She only exists for those few seconds in the 'real world', even though subjectively she gets to experience 72 hours with Alex in his 'subjective' world, his overclocked brain.
The conditions were right for that. We know Alex is this geeky guy who’s never been able to move on, and the implication is that the future isn’t necessarily going to improve: he will continue to fail at relationships, to misunderstand people, to be unhappy, to have family problems - and it will get worse, like his dream about the future stretching on and on. Despite his brains he doesn’t know how to get out of it. Enter the fugue.
During that fugue state he experiences 72 hours as if he is with Jane. Things get resolved. After the fugue he can't consciously remember it (the saddest love story never told?) but certain phrases creep up from his subconscious at certain crucial decision points, as if they aren't his thoughts, always in brackets and italics. He acts on them. Things improve. These are always echoes of what Jane said or might have said. It shows how what happened in that condensed bubble of time affects his perceptions - he perceives things in the way of these echoed memories, sees them as more positive, and that helps him to move on. And he finds happiness thanks to the roads they lead him down.
The past heals the present. There’s a lot of mirroring of phrasing between scenes with Jane and things that happen later. Even the final paragraph is almost a word for word reflection of their discussion of one of the paintings in the gallery.
You can pick your own interpretation as to what happens in the fugue. One possibility is that his brain really is good at processing possibilities, like a huge geeky supercomputer. And it runs a fantasy simulation, a 'wishful reality' that tries to resolve his unresolved past, the prime cause of his unhappiness. It runs it as a series of possibilities, finds ideas that could help, and throws them up from time to time.
A second theory is that something happens when the first experiments of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider take place during his shower (yes, that's historically true with regards to the dates and times of the experiments and his shower). We'd already seen some significance to the numbers 72 and 18, numbers which recur during the shower which he switches to cold just as the RHIC is activated. Quantum physics making things go weird. Strange matter indeed. Maybe that enables his brain to process things so quickly. Or maybe it enables something stranger. Or maybe it's a red herring.
There's also the supernatural or spiritual interpretation, possibly connected to both possibilities above. There was a woman called Lucy Jane. From an early age she did what her mother preferred in order to gain favour with her. Her mother always called her Lucy. Along the way it felt as if part of her personality was being suppressed, an impotent observer. The Jane part. The part that wanted to be a nurse, not a businesswoman; the part that wanted to reach out to others rather than be the centre of attention herself; the part that wanted to rebel. She never did. She died. But she couldn't move on. She felt guilty. Instead her personality fragmented into Lucy and Jane. And she was given an opportunity when Alex made a wish - to 'exist' for 72 hours more, a sort of purgatory, in order to attempt to make amends for an act connected to Alex. When she first comes out of the light she’s a bit disorientated, but she soon starts to piece together what’s going on and what she’s meant to do (but she still likes to ask people "Do you ever wonder why we’re here?"). She realises that she can do a good deed, and she can try and help Alex get over that thing from the past. Basically she wants him to see that she did love him but he doesn’t need her and he can move on; he needs to get over his issues and see the bigger picture, see the beauty in things, become a bit more open-minded, so that he can go on and be happy. She gradually realises all this and tries to negotiate towards it, does things, says things, encourages him. The countdown from 72 puts pressure on her but she succeeds, and plants the thoughts, ideas and confidence in Alex's subconscious so that he can be healed and go on to find happiness. Jane pieces things together, and before she leaves she whispers something to Natalie because she could see the possibilities as clues fell into place. She can leave happily because she has planted seeds. The two parts of her personality which were in conflict have found peace and she can 'move on'. So with this theory Lucy Jane's ghost lived in a few seconds of borrowed time to make peace with herself and Alex so they can both move on. The ultimate romantic gesture.
I'd just like to say that the novel was designed it so that people can just read it on one level and assume it all happens, skipping over any problem areas; but it also has a deeper level for those that like to really grapple with possibilities once the red flag has been raised. My biggest worry is that people think the text contains some fundamental error, but I hope that most readers will say think "A-ha!" and be grateful to have something that has extra depth and re-readability (there is so much irony and double-meaning in there that when someone re-reads bits again it should make them grin and say "Ah! It's so obvious in retrospect!") I was tempted to make it more obvious what happened but then it wouldn't provide the same mental challenge.
The specific issues are:
1: The dates imply Lucy is dead.
2: The names tell us there was only one girl, not two sisters.
While we're at it, there is a third question that may have occurred to the reader and been nagging at them:
3: Why doesn't Alex think of or mention Jane after she leaves? Why don't his family mention her?
1: The dates imply Lucy is dead. The obituary says she died in May 2000. The novel begins in June 2000, and in that month Alex meets Jane. Conclusion? She was dead when he met her.
Which would mean she was either a ghost or a figment of his imagination. You could go back and examine her appearance and when she leaves, and the text just before and after that for clues. It could fit, particularly since her last mention is her going into a blinding light. And Alex seems to have some strange mental event just before and after her only chapter, Broken Parities. So we have to cast doubt over the reality of the Broken Parities chapter.
2: The names tell us there was only one girl, not two sisters. The obituary (and Alex's reaction to it) at the end makes clear what the reader may have suspected, that there was only ever one girl, Lucy Jane, not two sisters. Lucy Jane's personality was somewhat fractured. There are a few possible explanations for this but it is good to see it stated plainly.
3: Why doesn't Alex think of or mention Jane after she leaves? Why don't his family mention her? One reason could be that the novel is badly written, but let's give the author some credit.
In that case... could it be that no-one remembers her?
Are there any other examples in the novel related to memory?
The novel opens with Alex having a peculiar mental episode, framed in italics, in which he experiences some sort of condensed time. He says that it happens sometimes, and afterwards he can't remember what his mind experienced or thought. By placing it at the start of the novel, and it being particularly strange in itself, it should be remembered. Therefore, could this be part of an explanation for the apparent amnesia?
Just before and after Jane appears we see Alex in a shower, framed in italics, having some kind of breakdown. Very similar to the fugue at the start of the novel. Therefore it seems logical to assume that the whole of the Broken Parities chapter, framed between the shower bits, is also a mental fugue, in which case everything that happens during it is really just a super-fast mental experience, "all those possibilities occurring in a second of frantic life".
The difference between the two fugues it that the first time the reader only sees a few words; but by the second fugue we know Alex a bit better, and can observe what his mind experiences. Afterwards the reader can remember them, but Alex can't (as we learnt during the first fugue) since the events are not in his conscious mind. His lack of memory, implied by not mentioning Jane again up until the end of the novel, is made clear in the last pages when he says "he hadn't seen her for six years".
It doesn't mean Jane hasn't had an effect on him though, since he gets echoes from his subconscious of her words. His life gets better. So we see that in a mental fugue, during a peculiar set of circumstances (depression combined with a wish just as the grand world-altering physics experiment he is obsessed with begins) Jane unites her personality and helps Alex to move on too.
What is the significance of the novel’s name?
- Both Alex and Lucy Jane have two aspects to their personality which are divided. For Alex it is his love-obsessed literary/artistic/poetic side, which he abandoned along with his PhD; and his physics-obsessed geeky obsessive side, which dominated him at the start of the novel. At the start of the novel physics, not poetry, is his touchstone in the real world. The artistic side only comes to life again with Jane's help during the fugue as the past comes alive. By the end of the novel Alex is balanced - he still has the geeky physics obsessions but he also reads poetry again. The two parts of his personality are united, fused together thanks to Jane and the subconscious events that occur during his cold shower.
- So fusion = bringing fragmented (decaying, radioactive) pieces together, unifying them. It requires heat. Heat comes from passion.
- As we saw above, Lucy Jane also had two sides to her personality. Her caring Jane and less caring Lucy sides. By the end of the 72 hours both of them manage to fuse their personalities into a whole, or at least lay the foundations for that, and she is able to move on into the light.
- Also cold fusion is what scientists want but it is impossible. Alex wants the past, it is also impossible, but the twist is that due to a weird conjunction of events he sort of does get that.
- Death is cold, and the title hints at the bringing together of life and death, enabling people to cross over on the boundary. Alex is kind of cold and numb too, frozen in time, and also needs to overcome that coldness inside.
- Oh, and ice is very cold. Ice skating sneaks its way into the plot. The shower is like cold ice. This enables the shower to act as a a transition, a bridge to death as it gets colder then lets Alex get in touch with Lucy’s spirit, they fuse temporarily. Likewise at the end of novel, a cold day, Alex and Natalie’s lives are entwined, fused.
- Also Alex lives mostly in his mind, not the real world. He misses basic things we would observe. So there is irony that his novel is called Cold Fusion, set during a hot summer - it shows his obsessions with physics over-ride his perception of the world-as-is.
- One reader sent me this thought: “I've only read the first few pages of 'Fusion 2000' so I don't want any spoilers but you use song titles to denote time frames at the start so I was wondering if it was a reference to 'Disco 2000' by Pulp?” That idea, 'let's meet up once more and see if the past can be renewed or improved' is certainly relevant.
Why the obsession with butterflies?
They don't live long. A brief time here, burning brightly, then they're gone. Therefore they are a symbolic connection to Jane. When she first gets off the bus in Manchester she wishes for greenery and butterflies. When Alex lies in bed with Jane he gets butterflies in his tummy. In the art gallery she interprets the abstract image as being butterflies. Alex wrote a poem for her, called The Butterflies. The novel includes the stanza he wrote while fully in love with Jane, but after she dumped him he wrote two more melodramatic stanzas, which don't appear in the novel. The full poem is as follows:
I loved you in cool honest darkness, at night,
When we were together my fire burned bright.
Each day I was reborn, my heart leapt anew,
And then it was night-time and thoughts turned to you.
We lay in near-darkness and your smile set free
All of the butterflies living in me.
The shadows grew longer, the nights grew long too,
The love we made cooled now, the fires were few.
I wondered in silence, in silence I cried,
I hid the tears from you yet each night I died.
We lay in near-darkness, I searched for your smile:
All of the butterflies rested awhile.
My need just grew stronger, so I came to you
Unexpected and cold in the moon shadows blue.
I looked through the window and felt my blood freeze
As you sweated and rutted in Venus’ foul breeze.
You lay in near-darkness, I clenched tight my coat:
All of the butterflies stuck in my throat.
Alex's poem follows the three stanza pattern of Byron’s ‘We’ll go no more a-roving’ which he sings while drunk - a connection not consciously recognized by Alex. He also didn’t recognise his poem's value as doggerel.
Remember the random letters/words of Alex's first fugue, right at the start of the novel? They're actually from the first stanza of The Butterflies poem. As if his brain picked up a radio signal from somewhere else. The past. The afterlife. His memories. Random sound waves interpreted by his brain. Or a promise from Jane.
Where did the 'La Donna della Finestra' postcard at the end come from if Jane didn't really go to the art gallery with him?
What about Jane's flashbacks to the funeral and the meal with her mother and sister?
The funeral was her own (at the same place as is named in the obituary at the end of the novel). That is why she stands apart from the mourners and doesn't interact with them.
"What about the cafe though? A memory of a meal with her sister and mother where they all interact. That wouldn't work if there was only one girl!" True, but it is a reinterpreted memory. Remember, the Jane personality felt pushed to the back, suppressed, forced to watch, never listened to... The scene is how it looked to 'Jane'. In reality Mrs Spiers was just having lunch with her only daughter, Lucy Jane, and the Lucy part of the personality was dominant.
A friend said something really interesting about the funeral scene: "Smelling smoke is associated in patient folklore with a stroke and I thought that the fusion section was the firings of her dying brain, mixing memories and hopes and somehow projecting these into Alex's present. A sort of medical version of your purgatory explanation."
What is the significance of Hannah’s casket in the art gallery/museum?
The theme of hidden secrets so that you can move on with your life and be happy. At the end of the novel Alex is upset about Lucy. He writes a note and hides it in the Tardis Room, knows there’s a gap behind the skirting board, no-one will ever find it. It is because of Hannah Smith’s casket. When he viewed it with Lucy we learnt about his love of hiding secret notes "like talismans of power" to "fortify himself". Hannah had left a note to say “I lived too, once. And this is something to remember me by.” He does the same for Lucy: "On that card he wrote a note to Lucy. Partly to help himself,
but also to make it clear that he remembered her, and that scrap from a newspaper was not the final word. She had lived. She had been loved."
Let's get technical: what was the premise and the guiding thoughts on the characters' desires?
Premise: what if a man couldn’t get over being dumped? And what if he was given help, a second chance? Alex had been scarred by Lucy, because he was unhealthily obsessive, and it had made him bitter and anti-social, too focussed on a failed relationship.
Controlling idea: You can only find happiness if you can relax, not get hung up on the past, instead appreciate what you have.
Alex’s claimed desire in part 1 (up until the meeting with Jane) = getting an article published and escaping. His real subconscious desire = Lucy and the past. Hence when he fixes the second, he’s no longer so bothered about the first.
Alex’s apparent desire in part 2 (the chapter with Jane) = Alex thinks he wants to go out with Lucy again - really he just needs to come to terms with it and move on.
Alex’s apparent desire in part 3 (after the shower, when things develop with Natalie) = Alex thinks he wants to avoid a relationship with Natalie, but really it is the best thing for him.
Jane wants: to reconcile with her sister and Alex.
Obstacle: the complicated situation, limited time.
If she doesn’t get it: can’t pass on, leaves a mess behind.
Alex wants: to be back with Lucy.
Obstacle: she’s dead.
If he doesn’t get it: feels he’ll be stuck in a rut forever.
Natalie wants: stability, Alex, a new life.
Obstacle: Alex doesn’t want her.
If she doesn’t get it: life will not improve.
Some phrases and parts of the novel seemed familiar. Why's that?
I was keen to use resonance, repeating words or phrases in order to link scenes. The most obvious example is that Jane’s thoughts appear in the final sections, always in italics and bracketed on their own lines, her commentary. It only happens when she’s not there ‘physically’, when Alex half-remembers things or she is whispering in his ear almost, and her thoughts cross with his. In the final sections she guides him to success by the echoes of what she’d said. The process begins when he thinks of cremation near the start of the novel: a connection to her funeral, which starts to awaken the possibility of them interacting in a bubble of time.
Some examples of phrases of Jane's that appear again later, or get echoed in some way:
- “Don’t follow all the rules, be spontaneous,” she shouted back. “This is life, y’know.”
- “No. I want to be in the sun. It feels good to be alive,” and “There is so much beauty in the world. Yet it’s too easy not to see that. Not to see what’s right there.” (The end of the novel includes: "There was beauty everywhere. So much," and "It was a beautiful end to a beautiful day, and it felt good to be alive.")
- She didn’t answer, so he added, “What do you think about second chances?” “They’re all too rare. Better to move on, sometimes.” (Much later he hears an echo that says "Nearly blew it. ... But there’s a second chance, sometimes.")
- "You don’t want her to become a stranger in that time, lose the connection." (This is echoed twice).
- "You’re better than you were. You can let go of the past, of me." (At the end Alex has "hidden the card and let go of the past.")
- Alex sees Lucy move her hands quickly when a drunken lad tries to grab her ("she was a warrior, a force, perfection with two pints"); the same wording occurs at the end when Alex prevents someone from tipping chips and curry on him ("Alex, the chip warrior, the curry force, perfection with two hands" is just part of the mirroring). This explains where Alex gains the sudden ability from, his subconscious memory; it is so important because it leads to the final increase in his confidence.
- Alex masturbating himself ("the tiniest eager friction of an enclosed space ... freeing the end, hand enclosing, hard grip, not too quick but eager, yes, eager ... he wanked harder for her, sweltering friction building up for a sticky mess, it was her) and Natalie masturbating him ("freed the end and it was not too quick, hand enclosing in firm grip, enclosed friction ... not enough to stifle the eager sweltering friction, harder for him").
- The whole first chapter Superdense Matter (that descent from optimism to crushing defeat in a day) is mirrored in subtle ways by the final summer chapter Superlight Matter (which resolves many subplots). Some of the encounters are the same but this time with a positive outcome thanks to Jane subconsciously helping Alex. Examples: GSM goes from being an object of fear to a situation where Alex stands up for himself and others, gaining confidence (a prelude to the teenager scene); an argument with Kelly has become a supportive talk; he goes from running away from his teenage nemeses to confronting them; there's more connection with Natalie this time when she's in the shower; and whereas in the first chapter he woke and did exercise, this time he does exercise and goes to bed with Natalie, happy.
- Hannah Smith's casket is discussed in another question above.
- Lucy and Alex linger over a painting: "burning orange and yellow fading into the blue-grey heavens at the top ... It looks like the most beautiful end to a day ever. You can almost feel the cool breeze coming in off the sea, and hear it whispering through the branches of that tree on the left. ... A beautiful ending, because it’s the ending of beauty." The novel ends with: "The streetlights were burning orange and yellow, and Alex thought he could feel a cool breeze coming from somewhere, could hear it whispering through the branches of the tree to his left. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful day, and it felt good to be alive."
- Butterflies have already been discussed above.
- Foreheads touching as a form of intimacy repeats. Jane Morris and Rossetti are discussed in the gallery - an example of a love that was not meant to be, which is why it is important to Alex and Jane. In a later scene with Jane "she leaned her head forwards, eyes closed tight, sighed, and touched her forehead to his. A tingle, echo of the past, the two of them frozen like an art gallery drawing." And in another: "Their foreheads touched, rested. He shuddered. She was his Jane Morris, perfectly drawn in living lines."
- Looking backwards instead of forwards: I think there are six references to Alex doing this. One of them is literal, when he nearly trips up in the park because he is looking back. Between them, Jane and Natalie help him to stop doing that.
- Time being condensed, subjective perception. Alex's mind blip at the start of the novel; cogs grinding to a halt; scenes in the shower etc.
- Showers: where his subjective time travel occurs; where he sees Natalie naked and "dimpled with moisture", a hint of their relationship to come; the memory of Lucy in the shower, also "dimpled with moisture". The past and present collide.
- Rebirth (sometimes including fire). Alex's poem includes this: "When we were together my fire burned bright. Each day I was reborn, my heart leapt anew." Jane thinks: "She could remake herself for a few days. The sun burnt down on her, endless flame. She shaded her eyes and squinted up. Everything has two sides. Fire cremates, but it also supports life. Without it there would be no phoenix." And later: "She could remake herself for a few days. Ignition." Alex thinks of cremation when he ponders the 3,000 ton PHENIX detector (which is real, by the way). Maybe it is no coincidence that Kelly fancies Joaquin Phoenix.
- Pigeons. They signal arrival and departure of a soul from the afterlife, if you adopt that interpretation of the novel.
- Mirroring of Jane and Natalie. There’s a bit of resonance between the love he felt for Jane in those 72 hours, and the love he feels for Natalie. Examples include Natalie touching his fingers during the Blade Runner film (something he did with Jane at the cinema and in the pub). Both Natalie and Jane wrinkle their noses 'girlishly', and "Alex paused, confused as he felt a twitch of memory."
Does the novel contain any Easter eggs?
The novel is about the past affecting the present. The play being put on at the college is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play where the past repeats but with a chance to change things, to do it better this time.
Are there any clues about what Jane really is?
- Jane is really part of a single personality: Jane often has thoughts about reinventing herself, or not being herself, possibly to the point of irony if you read the novel a second time. Also Jane Spiers and Jane Morris have had a number of connections drawn between them; when Alex says of the latter "She looks philosophical, but sometimes I think I see a bit of cruelty in her eyes. But then it’s gone, and instead I see someone loving. Like two people in one,” there is another meaning. Jane herself plays with is a bit when Alex says “It’s easy for you, you’ve always been outgoing and independent,” and she replies “It probably looks that way, but you’d be surprised.” And Alex tells his mother: "I didn’t want to worry everyone. But she’s changed. A lot. Not the same person at all."
- Jane is a sÅrt-of ghost: we learn that Jane "gave him a ghost of a smile"; and when he makes love to Jane the poem he thinks of is "Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost, / And like a ghost she glimmers on to me." There are more clues when Jane says: “I’m not going to live here” and "It feels good to be alive” and "Despite the heat she hadn’t been able to resist going for a run, seeing how much she could push this body, make it live." When drunk, Kelly says of Jane: "You can’t trust her, Alex. I can see right through her," a sentiment echoed by Lucy when she tells Jane "I can see through you, remember?" It's appropriate that Alex should fall for Jane then, since Lucy later points out "It was sometimes like he wasn’t there. Like he was haunted by ghosts and obsessed with the past. At those times I just didn’t exist for him." The final clues are that Jane doesn’t eat and her flat is ghostly, a limbo space.
- Obvious in hindsight, especially if you include the references to rebirth discussed in a question above.
Isn't Natalie rather weak?
What's Alex's weekly timetable?
Some new FAQs answering reader's questions below, added March 2013.
Chapter 1: the funny 'history' of the life of Alex, but I am not sure what I have to do with the info. Remember or is it used for scenery purposes?"
"Why the dots/words in the first pages when Alex is doing press-ups?"
Because something was happening then, a visual example of the fact that he only has a vague recollection, fragments, of what happened. The mental fugue, scattered memories represented by scattered ink dots. It is an important clue because it happens again later when he is in the shower.
"I'm confused about the bits at the bus station when Alex is rushing to stop Jane from leaving. He talks to her but then she's on the bus? Did he daydream this? How come she then goes on to London?"
Yes, it is Alex's "Mills & Boon" hopeful fantasy when it switches into italics. It becomes too far-fetched and soppy, and the reality seeps in. We realise it can't be true when we switch to Jane on the bus. She's left, but he wished she hadn't.
Jane doesn't go back to London. It wasn't a normal bus... It takes her into the light at the end of the tunnel... And she can't come back from there.