Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Lord Byron's Novel (really John Crowley's!)

I posted previously about John Crowley's new novel, released in June. While I would have loved to read it for summer vacation, all in one fell swoop, I fit it in over several weeks instead, with all the pesky work and chores to distract me from it. It was as different from The Translator, as from Little, Big, and it is only one of the many reasons I love this author, who manages to pull out something completely unexpected from his box of marvels each time (and I still haven't read his earlier fantasy/sci-fi suffused fiction).

Crowley creates the rumored, lost Gothic novel of Byron (initiated, perhaps, on the night of the famous contest with Mary Shelley, who began Frankenstein). The novel portion is doubly framed with annotations of Byron's novel, by his daughter Ada (who never knew Byron--but in this fiction, has preserved her father's secret work by enciphering it and hiding it from her fire-breathing mother) and by the contemporary young scholar who has come into posession of Ada's coded text. The scholar Alexandra, working to unravel the mystery, is similarly alienated from her father, a former professor, who is guilty of a sexual crime that caused him to flee America when his daughter was still a toddler. The Byronic and contemporary plot parallels are obvious, but not shallow. Crowley plays with the two stories like images in a mirror. He cleverly uses the 18th-19th century format of the epistolary novel to convey the contemporary frame--told entirely through Alexandra's e-mails. The funny thing is, the epistolary style--so often used in the days when the posts took weeks and months (making such novels quaintly stylized, if not preposterous), makes perfect sense when messages can be sent around the world in seconds. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that Crowley writes beautifully, slipping from one idiom and voice for the 1800s to others, befitting the "naughties," with seeming ease. He evokes emotions subtly and gracefully--the most touching parts of the novel are often embedded in Ada's annotations which reveal much more than her limited knowledge of Byron's authorial intentions.

I am not so naive as to think this kind of layered, highly eccentric, post-modern novel is going to be a big hit with the readers who rarely range far from the NYT Bestsellers' list. For one thing, a little background knowledge, or a lot, makes the experience much richer. English majors, admirers of Romantic poety, and other such nerdy types, however, should be all over it! It offers many pleasures, not the least of which, it is fun to read in the good, old-fashioned way, not just good for you.

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