I’ve mentioned Lev Grossman a few times on this blog (most notably here and here): so when I recently stumbled across a copy of his novel “Codex” (2004), I jumped at the opportunity to read it. (Thank you the charity shop by Virginia Water station).
Though (strictly speaking) Codex isn’t a cipher novel per se, its protagonists stumble uncertainly through a historical / codicological fug that should be strikingly familiar to anybody with an interest in the Voynich Manuscript. Yet at the same time, Grossman counterpoints that whole manuscript-detective strand with a completely parallel narrative that is set inside a vividly virtual multiplayer online game: and it shouldn’t spoil anything much if I note that he has deft enough plot construction technique to bring the two worlds together at the end of his book in a reasonably satisfying way.
For me, the biggest disappointment was the main character Edward Wozny, who – for all the action and potty plotty twists – remains a bit of a cipher, a blank canvas. He comes across as tweedy (if not actually just plain dull), so it’s hard to see what all the achingly-bright young things who sashay in and out of his orbit really see in him.
Where “Codex”‘s central plot conceit most sharply departs from the real world is (for me) the notion that Certain Powerful People would have some kind of interest in controlling whether or not a lost ancient manuscript’s secret story is revealed – and (according to this kind of worldview) where Power and Knowledge collide, you get Heresy. Yet (back in the real world) heresy, like wine, lasts only a few decades (however well you make it), and quickly yields to the arbitrary ravages of time: (capital-H) ‘History’ is just an apologist’s gloss placed on that prolonged turmoil, trying to salvage theories of continuity (lineage, cycles, revolutions, longue durée, etc) in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Heresy, basically, is pretty much as short-term as any politician’s promises. Having said that, there’s an entire modern novel-writing industry premised upon heresy’s being a long-term phenomenon, so what do I know?
As to the book in general, Grossman writes briskly yet engagingly: even his British characters have tolerably OK voices (which is quite a pleasant change). I enjoyed it, but at times (with my editorial hat on) the lack of internal dimension to the characters did make me wonder whether for Grossman it was an exercise more in novelized screenwriting than in fiction writing. Still, lots of book buyers continue to have an appetite for that kind of geometrical surface plottery, so who am I to judge?
A final thought for the day: could it be that modern novelists who aspire to mass market sales too often succumb to the notion of pre-writing the film-of-the-book, perhaps to try to spin money from selling the film option (even if nobody buys the novel itself)? The problem is that screenwriting (with a few honourable exceptions) is largely about the external logic of a story (its “event topology”, if you like), while literature is mainly about the story’s internal logic (its “emotional dynamics”): trying to serve both masters simultaneously is a thing that few writers do really well. So: perhaps writers should collaborate more? Oh well…