Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Book: The Anti-Code

Codex by Lev Grossman, Harcourt, 2004.

There are no albino holy assassins in this book. No cryptographers who resemble Harrison Ford. No convenient Land Rovers parked in the barn, no private planes for hopping the Channel surreptitiously, no grand tour of famous sites, no conspiracy theory cribbed from decades-old paperbacks. In short, this is no Da Vinci Code, and those that enjoyed Dan Brown’s book will be angry at this one. After my own experience with Da Vinci, though, I found this book to be a tonic.

I came to this book roundabout – I read a review on Salon, then saw another mention in the Seattle Times, and then a friend in New York mentioned he had read it in manuscript form, and scored me a copy. And now I’m seeing Codex being offered from the Quality Paperback Book Club in the “If you enjoyed the Da Vinci Code, you will like this” category. That statement is understandable but wildly incorrect.

And at first blush, you see the similarities: Edward Wozny is an investment banker taking his first vacation in years. He is rooked into sorting out the library of one of his firm’s powerful clients, the Duke and Duchess of Bowmry. Oh, and if you find an old book by the medieval author Gervase of Langford, tell us, would you? This old book is the codex of the title, a lost text hunted by rival factions.

Now, in the genre-universe that Da Vinci Code belongs to, this initial event would be immediately followed by threats against Wozny’s life, a frame-up, a desperate flight, a beautiful assistant, intricate clues, random killings, and the realization that this is a quest the protagonist has lived his life for, which challenges and transforms him. Instead, we see Wozny trying to get out of the assignment, and slowly being seduced into participating. Instead of action following action in a page-turning extravaganza, Wozny starts, stops, changes his mind, despairs, gets sick, recovers, and generally stumbles his way through the mystery, in much the manner that most mere mortals would.

Indeed, if anything, Wozny seems a little denser than most mere mortals. He misses clues, he reacts from emotion as opposed to logic, and often chooses the less-heroic but more-pragmatic path. While Da Vinci’s hero is four steps ahead of the reader (and won’t share the information with you), Wozny bumbles his way through, and his motivations are altogether human. Grossman stays grounded in a real-world, to the degree that his protagonist is flawed, his journey is personal, and his quest is ultimately doomed.

One weakness in the book is the description of MOMUS, a MMORG that Wozny starts playing, which turns out to have connections back with his experiences in the real world. Just like when the media shows a lack of knowledge when it reports on something you know about, the description of the online game sounds off, and seems to switch from one type of game to another without consideration, throwing me out of the book at times. The purpose of MOMUS within the novel, of course, is not to be a game, but a counterpoint for Wozny’s own life (and the fact that he screws up the game form the onset is both a reflection of that life and a big plot point for the future), but the lack of accuracy works against the book.

In the end, we are not granted full answers – there is no cosmic reveal, no “Will Gibson Phone Call” that explains what’s been happening behind the scenes, no revelation of why individuals did what they did – only hints and statements of relative truth, which the reader has to weigh and determine as to their worth.

In the end, I enjoyed this book, though I’m not sure if others would. Particularly if they came into the book thinking it was another Da Vinci Code. Its better than that.

More later,