Thursday, October 28, 2010

An extraordinary book

Elizabeth Zelvin

I almost never blog about a book and always decline any invitation to review one. But Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows, which my husband passed on to me because he thought I might like it, is so good that I have to talk about it. I’d call it literary crime fiction in the best way. There’s an element of caper, and it’s certainly a whodunit. Both the bio on Gruber’s website and Publisher’s Weekly classify him as a thriller writer, and he’s a New York Times bestselling author, which I guess makes him mainstream. He ghostwrote somebody else’s bestselling series before starting to write under his own name. And man, can he write.

The Book of Air and Shadows has as its McGuffin a completely unknown Shakespeare manuscript, a play about Mary Queen of Scots. There are two point of view characters, the first person protagonist, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property, and an aspiring young film maker who works in a bookstore and discovers contemporary documents indicating that the play exists, along with other matters of Byzantine complexity. So what’s so great about this particular thriller? For one thing, all three of the essential elements of the novel—storytelling, craft, and characterization—are brilliantly executed. The plot is twisty and clever, and the tension never lets up. The writing is superb, and the characters are vivid, complicated, and memorable. The reader can’t possibly get them mixed up.

Then there’s voice, that mysterious element of the writer’s craft that distinguishes a master. The voice is delectable. I read page after page with a big grin on my face. He’d treat the reader to a literate sentence filled with educated vocabulary and felicitous turns of phrase—and then pop in a zinger, some colloquial term or trendy reference, to remind us that we’re in the real world and not some ivory tower. Or sometimes he’d drop an apposite apple reference into a grove of oranges at just the right moment.

Here’s an example. Jake, the first person narrator, is talking about a literary forger who almost got away with faking a new bad quarto (don’t ask) of Hamlet.

“And it might have become part of the critical canon had not L.H. Pascoe delighted in delicious young fellows with smoky eyes and pouting lips, and having such a taste, not promised one of these a trip to Cap d’Antibes, and a new wardrobe with it, and having so promised, not reneged, causing the young fellow, naturally enough, to drop a dime on his patron.”

The whole passage is delicious, but it’s that “drop a dime” that makes it sublime.

Here’s another, as Jake describes what started as an ordinary day in the practice of intellectual property law.

“Quiet meetings, billable hours, the marshaling of expertise, and the delicate suggestion that lawsuits in this business are largely a waste of time, for Chinese piracy of rock album cover images is an unavoidable cost of doing business in our fallen world.”

The zinger in this sentence is “fallen world,” a reference, if I’m not mistaken, from born-again Christianity.

Jake is a philanderer. The one aspect of the book that annoyed me slightly was how sexualized most of the female characters were. In my world, you can live an active, well-populated life for years and years without the men and women jumping into bed with one another. (Unless I’ve been missing something about Bouchercon? Or MWA meetings?) But as the story unfolds and the characters develop, Gruber gradually reveals that the charming bon vivant image Jake presents of himself in his narrative is not the whole truth about his character. In one third-person scene, we see him behaving abominably to Crosetti, the young film buff. And when Jake resumes the narrative, we don’t feel quite the same about him or trust completely what he tells us about himself.

But I’d already forgiven Gruber for the sex scenes, because his descriptions are so perfect. Here’s the end of one such passage.

“In the end she made a sharp single cry, like a small dog hit by traffic. Then she rolled over without a word and seemed to go to sleep, in the manner of a guy married for years.”

Believe me, those monkeys with the typewriters could not come up with lines like these, not in a million years. And while he’s writing up a storm and entertaining the reader with this fantastic voice, he’s unrolling the twisty, twisty plot, keeping that feather in the air by blowing it steadily and gently.

This Gruber is a very, very smart guy. He includes a lot about ciphers, which I always skim when I encounter them in fiction because my brain is not equipped to follow that stuff. He also has his fictional 17th-century character describe the unknown play in such a way that you can tell it could have been written by Shakespeare at the height of his powers. The playwright’s commission is to make Mary Queen of Scots a sympathetic character and make Queen Elizabeth look bad. Instead, he shows the nuances and ambiguities of both women’s characters.

I could go on. This is the kind of read that makes me want to say, “Listen to this!” But instead, I’ll say, “Read the book!”


Paul said...

Thanks for this review!

Sheila Connolly said...

Dang, now I want to read the book. You've done your work well, Liz.

Voice. Sigh. You know it when you see it. Why is it so hard to achieve? It looks so effortless--on somebody else's page.

Sandra Parshall said...

Some people say "voice" can be consciously produced, but I think if you try to do that it will always sound artificial. "Voice" is the way the writer communicates naturally. Some writers have memorable voices, others don't.

Julia Buckley said...

Sounds great. We should do more "book chats."

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree with you more about Michael Gruber. Simply put, he's a master.