So you loved the Da Vinci Code and you are starving for more?Â There are an abundance of historical thrillers available, including many new titles published in the wake of Dan Brown’s monster.Â I don’t think anyone does the genre better than Umberto Eco, but even he encounters some of the inevitable traps that keep these books from appealing to a wider audience.Â
The biggest trap is verbosity.Â Historical fiction wants words.Â It needs words.Â There are a million little details from which to choose, and sometimes too many actually appear in the final draft.Â In the attempt to create authenticity, authors sacrifice readability and lose potentialÂ consumers who are not already devotees of historical minutia.Â Although on some levelsÂ the publishing industry likes to think it is too highbrow for the tricks that other media use, genre fiction needs people to identify themselves as sci-fi or romance fans in order to make a buck.
Related to the problems of crossing genresÂ is the incompatibility of the historical novel and the mystery novel.Â Â Â While the first is build for comfort, the second is built for speed.Â A novel that spans hundreds or thousands of years must have the bulk to lift that much time.Â All those verbal calories add pages to its waistline.Â In contrast, the mystery is a sprinter.Â It needs to be tight and fast andÂ unfettered by years in between.Â Sparse details must flash by the reader moving quickly to the resolution’s finish line.Â I think Dan Brown was so successful with the public because he found the middle ground.
And so I come to the book I have just finished, The Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman.Â If you enjoyed the Da Vinci Code and like the historical mystery hybrid, odds are you will like this book.Â If you are not a fan of the genre, and even though Fasman has not totally overdone the length, I think your odds are less good.
The book is slow in the beginning, and tookÂ thirtyÂ to sixtyÂ pages to grab me.Â I think this novel could easily lose 100 of its nearly 400 paperback version pages and be even more effective in telling the story.Â The book follows one story line that is interrupted on a regular basis by a series of stories and artifact descriptions.Â The plot is interesting and the prose shows moments of real talent.
“… just visible around the side, was a backyard with a large grill next to some Dumpsters and a sad-looking, broken swing set behind them: Norman Rockwell seen from the bottom of a bottle, a view that could kick you sweetly in the chest like a poem.”
The problem lies in the development of the main character of Paul Tomm.Â That kind of insight seems silly coming from this main character.Â It doesn’t ring true.Â Developing a cohesive internal dialogue over the course of the novel is very hard, and Fasman isn’t there yet.Â This is his first novel, however, and while it doesn’t really work on all levels, there is enough solid writing and good plot work to make me read number two whenever it comes out.
Below is a excerpt from the novel:
True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true.
For a journalist at a weekly paper, especially one as small as the Carrier, The Day the Paper Comes Out is a day of rest. I usually strolled into the office around eleven, caught up on correspondence, read all of the magazine articles I hadn’t been able to read during the week, made some long-distance personal calls, pretended to start thinking about next week’s pieces, and left at five sharp. If I was feeling virtuous, I’d file some of my week’s notes and clear a landing strip on my desk, but usually I saved that for when I was on deadline and needed mindless industry to clear my head. Not that a deadline really mattered all that much: Lincoln, Connecticut, like many small towns, specialized in news with a long shelf life. Anyway, nobody was going to lose a job if an article detailing the controversy over the high school’s mascot — the Fighting Sioux: culturally insensitive, respectfully traditional, or traditionally respectful? — didn’t make it. First of all, the debate would recur next year, probably in the fall, right about the time ambitious seniors wanted to polish their agit-cred for college. Second, we had an endless supply of ads, announcements, notices, and just plain filler we could recycle or resize if the cub reporter couldn’t quite ride without training wheels.
And the times when I couldn’t were getting more and more infrequent. I had been working at the Lincoln Carrier for almost a year and a half, ever since graduating from Wickenden University. I had friends who had slid seemingly without thought from college to med school or law school, or to fancy consulting jobs or some sort of literary underling work in New York, as though those things were just what you did. I had no such prospects, nor did I much want to go back to New York, where I grew up. Actually, I had a vague plan to attend graduate school and eventually settle down to live the cloistered, quiet life of a history professor in some picturesque little college town (steeple, main street called Main Street, movie theater with a marquee), someplace where I could get all of my aging out of the way in my early thirties and live without crises or surprises, changing only incrementally for the rest of my allotted threescore and ten.
I hadn’t really thought of becoming a journalist, mostly because I didn’t really understand how one did it. I had turned out a few music and book reviews for my college paper, mainly for the free books and CDs; I would read or listen to something, write a couple hundred words about it, and a week later I’d see my name above some prose that bore a passing resemblance to what I had written. A racket, not a career.
After graduation I had just stayed on in the same apartment I lived in during the year: I had no reason to be anywhere else. A month into that stagnant summer, I declined my father’s offer/mandate to work as a paralegal at his friend’s law firm in Indianapolis, where my father had moved after my parents finally split. He made me feel so guilty about not having a job that I went, for the first and only time, to Wickenden’s Career Promotion Center. There I filled out questionnaire after questionnaire, and I talked to chipper recent grads with sweater sets and pearl necklaces, loafers and the beginnings of beer guts. I looked through job ads that made no sense. My favorites were from the consulting firms: “You will learn to implement strategic management protocol decisions,” et cetera. I worried that I would turn into some sort of cyborg after three weeks at one of these places; I would return home for my first Thanksgiving and communicate via streams of ticker tape issuing from my mouth.
After a couple of hours of Career Promoting, I felt certain that I would live a long, lonely, useless life and die alone and unmissed (did I mention that I never bothered filling out any grad-school applications?). It’s self-indulgent, I know, but this is what happens to the overachieving but essentially useless children of parents who raised their children to do well on tests but failed to equip them with the poison-tipped spurs of true ambition.
Art Rolen called Career Promotion as I was getting ready to trudge home and maintain a full schedule of feeling sorry for myself. I remember watching the face of my Career Finder become radiant, just beatific, as she nodded with increasing excitement and finally said into the phone, “Sir, I think I have someone for you sitting right across from me. He’s not from the college paper, but his Gibson-Montaneau scores indicate that he might be a rilly, rilly good fit for you.”
She winked twitchily at me and handed me the phone with one hand while making a 1983-vintage thumbs-up sign with the other. I said hello, and this drawly growl in the earpiece said, “Well, I hear those Gibbon- Martindale numbers of yours are really adding up. But here’s what I want to know: What do they mean? And can you write?”
I tucked the phone into my chest and turned away from my Career Finder’s blinding enthusiasm. “Well, I don’t really know what they mean, to tell you the truth. They seem to put some stock in them here, I guess. And technically I’m not from the college paper: I wrote for them every so often. I guess I can write well enough. Where is it you’re calling from?”
“Lincoln, Connecticut. About two hours west of Wickenden. I run a small weekly paper here, about sixteen pages. What I need is another fulltime, little-bit-of-everything kind of person. Right now it’s just me and a columnist, and we got an ad lady. The other full-timer we had just left, got a job in Storrs. Greener pastures, I guess. Anyway, you’d do a little reporting, little writing, little editing, little paper shuffling, some office work.” I heard the muffled hoosh of a cigarette being smoked. “Some phone answering, but no more than anyone else. Nothing fancy. No Woodstein stuff. Maybe a way to see if you want to do something like this or not.”
I shrugged, then remembered that shrugs don’t translate over the phone. “Sounds interesting. Sure. You want me to send you my rÃ©sumÃ©?”
“Yeah, do that. But do me a favor: send it by mail. My new fax machine’s having some trouble making it from the box to the desk, and I’d rather see a hard copy than something on the computer screen. You do that?”
“Sure, no problem. Should I come out and see you? Do you want to interview me or anything like that?”
“I thought that’s what we were doing. For now just send your stuff up here. My name’s Art Rolen, by the way; send it to my attention. RÃ©sumÃ© and a few writing samples. We’ll go from there. Sound okay?”
It sounded fine, and sixteen months later, here I was in Lincoln, hauling myself out of bed at the crack of ten on a chilly Tuesday morning. I had stayed at the printing press until all the papers rolled off at 3 :00 A.M. Art liked one of us to stay at the printers’ until the job was done, and technically the duty was supposed to rotate among the four of us on staff, but as I was the youngest and the only one who wasn’t married, it fell to me more often than not. I didn’t mind, really: the drive back from New Haven at that hour was always fast and peaceful, and I liked the smell of the air late at night. Strange to think of what was happening back in sleepy Lincoln during that particular drive. I suppose I won’t ever know, exactly.