Monday, November 29, 2004

Fall reading

My modest binge of quasi-academic thrillers (or academic quasi-thrillers) has come to an end. There was nothing pre-planned about the sequence of books, three in total -- different things turned me onto each one. But in retrospect the underlying continuity is interesting to think about, if only to note the discontinuities.

First up, a true modern masterpiece, The Shadow of the Wind, an exquisitely written first novel by the Spaniard Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Set in Barcelona in the latter days of Franco, Zafón's story of readerly and romantic passions (almost no difference here!) has the immediacy of a children's book mixed up with convolutions of a Gothic romance. It is at once macabre and witty, sinister and innocent, provincial and cosmopolitan. The setting is nominally a 'historical' one, but like all great fiction the novel creates a world completely unto itself, despite or because of the Kafkaesque, decadent atmosphere of post-war Spain under a shadowy dictator. (This might lead one to think 'magic realism' but the style and tone is more reminiscent of Edwardian novelists like Ronald Firbank, the main 'Latin' note being a Borgesian tendency for books to be the real 'reality').

Next, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl -- also a first novel. Maybe not quite as magical as Shadow of the Wind. but you can't argue with the verve and intellectual authority of this book by a 20-something winner of the Dante Society Prize and graduate of Yale Law School. It's a special writer who can craft such a rich, entertaining and (for the most part) convincing book from the unlikely pretext of four aging Boston intellectuals tracking down an Inferno-inspired murderer, himself the victim of the Civil War and a 19th-century case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Pearl's publisher must have been banking a lot, to be sure, on readers drawn by the current vogue for "mystery" or crime novels with a historical setting and historical characters. But unlike many of these books -- where either the history is a crude prop for the mystery, or the mystery a hook for clichéd history -- The Dante Club gives us both vivid historical re-imagining and compelling intrique, as well as a genuinely engaging novel of manners, morals, and psychological plotting. Not to mention, along the way, an eloquent and sustained piece of literary criticism. At times it can seem a bit of a balancing act, but watching Pearl keep this mixed assortment of novelistic impulses in the air at once is among the more enjoyable aspects of reading the book.

Last but also really and truly least in merit and interest (if not revenues) is The Da Vinci Code. My first impression, after just two pages, was of a literary version of professional wrestling, with all the chest-beating, florid decor and fake melodrama of the WWF. Like fans of the WWF, who enjoy matches they know are staged (and partly for that reason), I gave myself up to Brown's overheated intrigue of Harvard 'symbologist' (oy) and a sexy French cryptographer caught in the conflict between two secret societies, pulled alternately into and out of trouble by a dead scholar's always more convoluted clues. But even while this side of the book kept me turning pages, I became increasingly irritated with Brown's trite and tendentious historical fantasy about suppressed mother goddess worship, and the book's contempt for truth even as it trumpeted the revelation of truth. Blaming a novelist for making things up is, of course, absurd, but then pandering is not the same as creativity. Not that Brown's responsible for the people -- and there are many apparently -- who take this side of the book seriously. (Or is he? See Brown's interview with makers of a National Geographic special, as reported by Laura Miller in a Salon article. )

Protagonists who are more than overwrought clichés might kept my stomach from growling even as I gobbled down this clever whopper of a story -- but then this is a book where the most humanly interesting character is a homicidal albino monk. Fortunately, the monk and one or two other intriguing figures -- e.g., a crass, ambitious and ruthlessly conniving French police inspector, who just might be the arch-villain -- hung around till almost the end of the narrative, which had enough clever twists to hold me to the final smackdown and even through the treacly epilogue (guess who fall for each other after nearly getting killed together?), which is more a shrewd setup for a sequel (guess what secret society hasn't been crushed?) than sentimental flourish.

Conclusion? I just started blogging, but I already know that one of its advantages is that conclusions are highly optional. If you want to know the truth, I think I just needed an excuse to get that World Wrestling Federation image on the record. Now that's literary criticism!

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