by Lev Grossman
I really don’t remember when I’ve read a book that irritated me this much. I’m generally a sucker for old manuscript-based thrillers. Possibly it’s because I collect old books myself, but for whatever the reason, a search for old documents will generally find me coming along for the ride.
So it’s no surprise I bit on the premise here: a man is contracted to catalog the book collection of a wealthy family, looking in particular for a specific book. The book is one of those mythical beasts, the only evidence for its existence is what is generally accepted as a forged printing of it. The book doesn’t exist. Or does it?
The plot and the pacing go well enough, though we are expected to swallow several rather large presuppositions to get the story started, such as that the man contracted to catalog the collection knows next to nothing about books, and even less about cataloging them. We’re never given an acceptable reason why he was offered the job in the first place (the closest it gets is the old “I knew I could trust you when I saw you” kind of thing) and worse, we don’t have a good reason for him to accept the job. He seems to have no real interest in books, old or new, he’s due at a top-paying job across the Atlantic in two weeks and he’s spending the time with eleven crates of musty old books and playing what sounds like a prettty boring computer game, rather than preparing for the trip. Yeah, right. That really makes sense.
If you manage to swallow plot setup points like those, the pacing moves along fairly well, and the story develops as the Duke wantshim to drop the search while the Duchess wants him to continue). Then, abruptly, it ends. No climax, no ultimate struggle. Nothing. It just ends. Our hero shows up, breathless, with the codex in his hand, the crypto solved, and nothing whatever comes of it. Nothing changes, nothing is rescued or destroyed. We don’t even know whether our hero gets to start his new job (he was threatened with its loss during the quest for the codex) or what happens to the software company of his friend/acquaintance (which was also threatened with destruction by the Duke’s men).
This non-ending reduces the book to triviality. Why did the author even bother telling the story? What was the point? Basically we have a passably well-written book with nothing to say to us. If all you want to say is that everything is futile, and nothing can be achieved, then be consistent and shut up; if everything’s futile, then your story is as well, so don’t bother anyone else with it.
The structure of a thriller calls not only for a real ending, which Grossman fails to propvide, but for a brief “cooling-down” period after the climax, in which we are given the opportunity to recover our breath while the author fills us in on what finally happens with many/most of the sub-plots that were introduced along the way to keep the suspense building. Here, the author shirks his duty to his readers completely. We get nothing in return for our investment in the characters. No satisfaction at all.
Avoid this book. I can’t think of any circumstances under which I’d support buying it. Counting the speckles in the plaster on the ceiling will pass time more enjoyably. There’s no joy in this read, and if you’re a masochist, there are several other more efficient ways of inflicting pain on yourself, most of which will cost less.
Egad, a consecutive string of turkeys. I need to read something good to get this bad taste out of my mouth.