Over the summer and into the fall, I’ve done a fair amount of reading for pleasure, and have had too many books queued up to write anything about them, and more time, it feels like, to write down my thoughts, than to condense them into anything I could post. Hopefully, I’ll be putting up some of the backlog over the next few months.
I was reading Citadel, a novel by Kate Mosse in which the characters are searching for a Roman-era codex, when I was reminded that I had Lev Grossman’s early novel, Codex, on my to-read-someday list. I’d read and enjoyed The Magicians and its two sequels and was curious to read what Grossman had written that was more based in everyday reality. Codex his first book, but it’s the earliest one that’s still in print.
Anyone taking on the task of writing about Lev Grossman’s novels has to take into consideration the fact that he himself has written quite strong words on the inadvisability of ever writing negatively about anyone’s book. I think by now, however, the staid and occasionally dully stolid narrative style of the Magicians trilogy, especially in the earliest-written of them, is broadly enough known that anyone glossing over it will lose credibility. Codex itself received almost uniformly positive reviews when it came out, probably due in part to the innovative way it wove then-recent literary theory into the narrative. But not surprisingly—especially given the author’s own statements—Codex isn’t quite as accomplished as it could have been. I think it suggests a novelist who has something to offer in the realm of literary fiction, not only in genre fantasy, but who isn’t quite there yet. I’d fear that if I didn’t note its occasional failures to entertain or to seem accurate, my recommendation would instigate a bit of anger, yet it’s very far from terrible.
Now, in 2014, novels about young men who are involved with video and roleplaying games are relatively common, but in 2004, when Codex was published, they were not. Accordingly, the novel is more like Bright Lights, Big City, or even American Psycho, than it is like Mazes and Monsters, Rona Jaffé’s cautionary tale about young people, film and gaming aficionados, who find it increasingly difficult to separate play from reality. It can jolt to begin reading a story with a main character who seems sensitive and imaginative, and a plot that’s clearly going to revolve around fantasy-literature plots and computer gaming, only to find out several chapters in that they’re actually a business-school graduate who never, ever reads and has never touched even an ancient Atari console. This is a pet peeve of mine, and correspondingly, I found it annoying. But it’s not a mortal sin.
The story involves a young man, rising quickly in his career in the investment banking centers of New York, who’s had time for little else since he began in his job. Now he suddenly has two weeks off with nothing to do, except to pack for a new position he’s been promoted into, in London. For some reason, he’s been asked, as a favor, to catalog the private library of a wealthy family who uses the services of his employer. He was an English major in college but (another peeve) knows little about the books he’s to work with, so little that he’s not quite sure what Gulliver’s Travels is. But he’s already adrift, not having had two weeks to himself in several years, and the library is cool while the streets outside are hot, and he becomes drawn in. Similarly, he becomes drawn in to the world of a computer game his friend slips him in an early chapter. And eventually he meets a woman, Margaret, a graduate student at Columbia, who’s able to fill him in on a few things.
This is a straightforward story, with very little characterization: told chapter by chapter. So, it’s very similar to the Magicians trilogy, but again with much less characterization. I feel it necessary to say that it got a little dull around the middle—there are long stretches that could have been shorter, scenes I could have lived without being walked through, step by step by step—and questions left unanswered in chapters that aren’t included. It’s about textual scholarship, which means looking at different copies of old books and trying to find manuscript copies of printed books that are supposed to be older than the first known printed version; and about cryptology, which is the art and science of seeking out hidden meanings embedded in the text and typography of (usually old) books. To my mind, it seems to be informed by literary theory in a way that drains even those hoary topics of their usual interest. It feels like a very controlled novel, which perhaps relies a little too heavily on what the author knows, and too little on the use of craft to create an effect in the reader’s mind. There are some nice images and some interesting ideas in it, but the writer doesn’t develop them at what feels like a “novelistic” length. Like The Magicians and its sequels, this novel describes depression without labeling it as such, as if its symptoms were merely the aftereffects of a spell, or of human vampirism. It interleaves differing levels of reality—investment banking, the world of techies and emergent multi-player games, the internal world of a more traditional computer game, the world of the library and of the past lives it ensconces—in a way that ought to have been interesting, but to me felt cold.
Edward is both too naïve and too knowing for my liking. He seems, implausibly, never to have met anyone who was serious about their work until he encounters Margaret, his eventual love interest, who leads him through the thicket of medieval texts. He’s an awful social climber, and appallingly judgy. Margaret, on the contrary, was a home-schooled early college student from an evangelical Christian background, who’s having problems with her Ph.D. dissertation that she can’t explain to herself. She points out to Edward that the book he’s looking for is a myth and can’t possibly exist—except that she herself, as it emerges, thinks finding it would help her complete her own research.
The person who wants the book turns out to be an English Duchess, and it turns out the book was written by an employee of an ancestor of the Duke. It turns out, also, that the Duke and Duchess are in the habit of buying people. They own, in one way or another, Edward’s own employer and the employers of several of his friends (or rather, the Duke owns them), which is why they can ask him to spend his two weeks’ summer vacation in their personal library, on what is almost certainly a wild goose chase. If he succeeds, perhaps, as his reward they might grant him a personal relationship with themselves, and a salary in return for doing very little whatsoever. He becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea of escape to England’s green land and the restful safety of a quiet bed in the countryside.
At the same time, he spends more and more time in the literally incredibly detailed world of that open-source video game which his friend has slipped him a copy of. He has no feelings for this game except dread and an inability to stop playing it, even when “playing,” for him, consists entirely of watching time pass. (I’m not sure, generally, what the geeks are doing in this novel, except acting as objects for Edward’s severe social judgment, and providing a neat scene where his friend, Zeph, plays Hagrid and scares away a couple of thugs.)
And it turns out that the Duchess thinks the text they’re searching for contains a secret code. Why she believes this is never adequately explained. My own patience with the idea of such a code is so severely limited that when I got to this point I wanted to throw the book across the room, or would have wanted to, if I hadn’t half-sensed what was coming dozens of pages before (and hadn’t been in a car, reading an e-book). Simply put, there are so many ways a text of the length in question could have a fully consistent, but entirely unintentional code found within it, that a search for such a thing—in the absence of a pre-existing, unimpeachably attested question it was a confirmable answer to—would be the biggest possible waste of time that could ever be imagined. And that’s without getting into questions of semantics (which the denouement of Codex most painfully begs). But this novel glances at such problems and immediately solves them by finding an apparently unmistakably significant code in about thirty seconds. That’s not actually much of a spoiler. There was never any doubt what the ending would be.
The women characters in Codex are mostly much more interesting than the men. The high-status, British women, are especially well-drawn. The more down-to-earth, all-American character of Margaret bears comparison to The Magicians’ Julia, as the world of the English estate, Weymarshe, does to that story’s Fillory. But questions about the significance and plausibility of the novel’s McGuffin, which The Magicians eludes by being a fantasy novel, for me, overwhelmed the more mainstream story about a young man learning to make his way in the world.
C.S. Lewis, on whose Narnia series The Magicians is most overtly based, had a parallel preoccupation with the idea of the secret society, possibly an informal one. You might be sitting in a restaurant at lunch, he wrote in his essay, “The Inner Circle,” and you’d be asked to cross a threshold, to take an action you’d normally rather not do. It would be represented to you that if you refused to go along, you’d be forever on the outside, looking in. Those who really know what’s going on, Lewis claims, are always in the “Inner Circle,” and always take steps that no ordinary person could possibly find acceptable. This preoccupation with the idea that one could be tapped, at any time, to work for the Secret Service or its equivalent, is one with which English writers seem much preoccupied. A reader would be forgiven for concluding that M.I.6 is always around the corner, or at the next table in a café. It’s not an idea that much preoccupies North American writers, though, it seems to me. Codex, with its fantasies of being quasi-adopted by the glamorous Duke and Duchess of Down-the-Rabbit-Hole, is probably the closest we will ever get.