The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel strikes me as a bit First-World-problemsy. This relatively privileged 35-year-old woman from 21st century England has infinite possibilities, but is that essential to the human condition? Would a person whose race made them prone to capture and enslavement in 18th century culture have infinite possibilities? Would a woman from a present-day conservative, poor nation have infinite possibilities? There’s really only certain ways the world can go once the broader structures of physics, biology, and sociology are set. Possibilities exist in that framework. But they are limited. The slave could have a life in which he isn’t enslaved and becomes a great warrior in his home village. The woman could become a nun instead of a housewife. But neither has a possibility in which they become Vice President of the United States. Not in any individual-choice-of-these persons variation of our world.

Which also brings up another problem I have with Midnight Library–the way popular culture has taken the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics and run with it, adopting the conceit that a particle being in all-states-at-once can be applied to the category we call “the human self” or “a human life,” as opposed to, well, quantum particles. They forget, or overlook, that Schrödinger’s cat is only both alive and dead in the box simultaneously because the box was rigged up with a lethal gas pellet whose release was dependent on the state of an actual quantum particle that was part of the box’s experimental design. There was nothing about the category “cat” or the cat’s “life” that was innately quantum. And to the extent that “a human life” is subject to the vagaries of quantum mechanics, it is about randomness (see above re: cat), not “choice” much less “choices I made that sent my life in one direction or another.”

So let’s treat the quantum physics and alternative universes stuff as what it is—a literary metaphor. The novel takes you through an attempted suicide, then a journey into life’s regrets, and explores what taking the other path would have resulted in. This leads the protagonist to gradual lease her regrets one by one, then slowly realize that what matters was the effect she had on other people just by making the choices that she did in that life she wanted to throw away. Towards the end, there is a repetition of “This really is a wonderful life” in regards to one of the alternative lives she believes she wants to stick with. Put all that together, and suddenly Bedford, England becomes Bedford Falls, USA, and that little dropped detail about a protagonist with ears that stick out sharpens into resolution.

…Leading quickly to an ending the resembles a movie we already watch every Christmas.

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