One of the more difficult tasks a book reviewer has is to distinguish between the subjective and the objective; between what I like and what is good or bad. I don’t want to get into the whole is objectivity even possible or whether it is relevant to the arts. But it is an interesting debate.
What brought this to mind was my recent reading of The Geographer’s Library the first novel of writer – currently an online writer and editor for The Economist – Jon Fasman. In reading the book, and some of the reviews, it struck me that a reader’s particular taste and style preference would be critical in how they respond. Now, obviously this is a rather ubiquitous situation, right? A reader’s preferences always impact how they react. Yes and no. Certain unique styles or structure produce what might be called the risk reward component. A traditional story line or structure entails a lot less risk as most readers are familiar and comfortable with it. The more you deviate from convention the more risk you take of turning off readers. Maybe you bring in different readers, but there is still a risk involved.
Fasman, however, doesn’t take the convectional route. One part of the Geographer’s Library is in most aspects a conventional mystery. You have a mysterious death and a lead character that seeks to uncover the truth. The other part of the book describes, or catalogs, fifteen objects that were stolen from the titular library and how they are being brought together in the present – or near present.
How you react to these two different styles or approaches and their interaction will determine your response to the book. Below you will find some examples of how reviewers reacted and my own reaction as well.
David Liss, writing in the Washington Post, found Fasman’s work an intelligent take on what he calls the arcane thriller category created in the wake of the Da Vinci Code:
The Geographer’s Library, by Jon Fasman, absolutely falls into the category of the arcane thriller, but it is a much more interesting and creative book than many of those making up the marketing wave on which it will no doubt attempt to ride. Yes, the story features obscure books in forgotten tongues, secret brotherhoods, exotic locales and clever puzzles, but Fasman comes across as a novelist genuinely interested in unraveling the convention of the thriller, and he gives his tale a delightfully and successfully postmodern flavor. And rather than presenting obscure knowledge as valuable only because it gets you things, he is far more interested in showing how physical things lead to knowledge.
[. . .]
Unlike most arcane thrillers, which are ultimately mundane thrillers gussied up with the occasional info dump, The Geographer’s Library makes an effort to get readers off their intellectual duffs by presenting the artifacts in catalog format, separating them from the narrative and demanding that they be seen as elements of a puzzle rather than props in a set piece. The solution to the intellectual game may ultimately rankle with some readers, who might not feel that the rules have sufficiently prepared them for the conclusion, but maybe this discomfort is right too. The Geographer’s Library, in other words, is not only a genuine celebration of intellectual effort, it is also jarring in all the right ways.
Patricia Storms at Pop Matters has nothing against the genre but doesn’t think Fasman pulled it off:
Fasman obviously knows a great deal about history, alchemy and the former Soviet Union, which are all key elements in the story, but he lacks that magical, elusive gift — the ability to spin a seamless, gripping narrative that sustains a reader’s interest over nearly 400 pages of text.
The novel travels back and forth between two key stories: the first is the story of Paul Tomm, a reporter who discovers that there is more to the death of an odd Estonian professor than meets the eye. The second narrative gradually instructs the reader on the history of fifteen rare artifacts, and how these relics eventually come to be in the hands of the now-dead professor. It’s an ambitious technique, but it doesn’t work; slogging through this detailed documentation is a tedious exercise, reminiscent of a cataloguing class in library school.
And unfortunately, the story of Paul Tomm’s quest for the truth offers the reader no respite. Each character in the story is a banal study in the art of the cliche: the young cynical reporter who hails from the big city, but is stuck working for a small-town paper; the mysterious lady love interest with the deep dark secret; and even the brash local policeman who breaks all the rules to get to the truth. All that seems to be missing on first glance is the curmudgeon boss with the heart of gold — no, wait — Fasman even has that, too!
After outlining the plot, Publishers Weekly offered an interesting and succinct reaction:
Appealing more to the intellect than to the emotions, the book is slowed by the catalogue-like descriptions of precious objects that close many chapters, while the protagonist, however likable, is often too nave to be entirely credible.
In the San Fransisco Chronicle David Lazarus also faults the structure:
The material is uniformly interesting, but the structure of the book keeps the story from ratcheting up to a more exciting pace. Every time things get going, we take a break for yet another history lesson.
But here is where preference comes in. What if the point isn’t to ratchet up the pace? What if Fasman didn’t set out to write a conventional thriller? I think it can be argued that what Fasman was trying to do was paint a pointilist portrait of sorts; use a series of short stories and item descriptions and catalogs to slowly build up an image of how these objects and ideas moved through time impacting people and places right up until the present day. Just as the various objects add up to the “geographer’s library” so to the stories put together help unravel the mystery. The story is not direct or explanatory but diffuse and impressionistic.
If for you every aspect of the story must contribute directly to the plot, and further the tension and action, then this kind of novel won’t appeal. But if for you the journey of reading is just as important as the destination you might enjoy Fasman’s technique. One of the reviews at Amazon noted that her “my favorite part of the book is the background on the fourteen objects that were once part of the famous scholar al-Idris’ library in Sicily.” What for some slows the story down and is distracting, is for others the most enjoyable part.
So where am I in all of this? Somewhere in the middle. I did enjoy the historical chapters. I though the little vignettes and descriptions were interesting and enjoyable. I wouldn’t call the book a thriller, however, as the pace never really picks up as others have noted. That isn’t necessarily a problem, not all books have to be fast paced thrillers. A mystery can develop slowly and unwind in circuitous ways. But if you like tight and well paced mysteries this one is not for you. PW is right to note that Fasman’s style is more for the intellect than the emotions. As Liss notes, the point is not to offer readers a comfortable and recognizable plot device but instead involves “separating them from the narrative and demanding that they be seen as elements of a puzzle rather than props in a set piece.” In other words, your millage may vary.
The problem with Fasman’s attempt to build a mystery out of snippets of history and fascinating objects is that it prevents the building up of stronger characters. There are many intriguing characters touched on throughout the book, but none are fully developed. Even the lead character is a little too ambiguous to really grab your attention.
I also think that Fasman is obviously a skilled writer and that the glimpses of talent found in his first book bode well for his future career. It would be interesting to see what he could do with a more traditional historical mystery; one that builds on the fascinating historical chapters. I found enough of the pieces contained in The Geographer’s Library enjoyable to feel the book as a whole was worthwhile. But I think a more focused and less diffuse plot might put Fasman’s talent to better use. But hey, that’s just me.