Improbable by Adam Fawer

Believe it or not, what first attracted me to Adam Fawer’s first novel Improbable was the web page. It was interesting and interactive and I thought that if the web page is cool the book might be equally fun.

And this much can be safely said about Improbable: it is a wild ride. It is a unconventional mix of poker, statistics, philosophy, and action packed suspense thriller.

The basic story line, if there is one in this multi-layered plot, centers on David Caine a one time graduate student at Columbia who was forced to leave school due to debilitating seizures. Caine is surviving by playing high stakes poker – Texas hold ’em to be exact. His uncanny ability to rapidly calculate probabilities in his head makes him a excellent card player. His seizures, however, are devastating and disrupting any semblance of a normal life.

The book starts with Caine sitting on one of the strongest hand in poker, four aces, while at the same time fighting off a seizure. As he madly calculates the probability of someone having a better hand, very low, he is trying not pass out before the game is over. Unfortunately for Caine he both loses the hand and passes out. Next thing he knows he is in a hospital and owes the Russian mob a lot of money.

From there the plot thickens, twists and turns, and gets more complex practically with every page. You have un-ethical scientists using human subjects to test wild theories about the unconscious mind; there is a beautiful renegade CIA agent; there is a secret government agency devoted to stealing cutting edge scientific research with a renegade director of the agency out to help only himself. Not to mention Caine’s twin brother who has a history of mental illness; a high school buddy who wins the lottery; and a girl who needs a bone transplant.

All of this centers around Caine. Apparently Caine’s seizures are a result of an ability to tap into the collective unconscious and see the future – or at least potential futures. The book alternates explorations and explanations of the ideas behind probability theory, chaos theory, determinism, genetic biology, etc. to weave a story of how this fantastic plot might be scientifically possible with action packed scenes of Caine on the run from a variety of bad people.

So what is one to make of all of this? Well, if you have no interest in the scientific backdrop (probability, etc.) you might not enjoy the story as much. Fawer does a decent job of weaving the theory into the story by having Caine flashback to lectures he gave or by having two professors discuss the ideas as colleagues might. But even the sections that work best slow the book down and those without an interest in the subject matter might find it a big hurdle.

The other aspect centers around the action packed side of the book. You must be willing to suspend your disbelief and go with the flow. Again Fawer plots out the action rather well and he throws in plenty of twists and turns. But in the end the story line is in no way “realistic.” In this sense the title is apt both in terms of the ideas presented and the story line.

The story line that pulls Caine forward (Is he Laplace’s Demon? Can he see the future) is interesting but as the story moves forward it gets so over-layered and complicated that the characters are no longer people but caricatures. Fawer seems to want to describe and capture every person that touches Caine’s life. But most of the characters have no depth or personality. He manages to tie up almost every loose string by the end of the book but only by further stretching the believability. At some point it seems to move from thriller to fantasy.

Having said all that, I did find Improbable entertaining and interesting. It is basically a spy thriller with a unconventional plot device. But as such, and especially for a first novel, I found it imaginative and fun to read.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).