EPS Review #169 - Codex

Codex, by Lev Grossman, Arrow, 2005, 376pp.

My friend Joe recommended this thriller, as "entertaining and interesting, but not great literature." I went straight to Amazon, as one does, and was taken aback by the slew of lowest-possible single-star reviews. I confess to a base moment of doubt about my friend, once a professor of English at a women's college. But if you read those Amazon reviews, you will see that they are almost all by people who loved the Da Vinci Code. So it becomes an interesting sociological exercise to read the reviews by people who loved a book that I thought was embarrassing garbage and who despise this book, that I enjoyed, and indeed polished off in a day.

Edward Wozny, the protagonist, is an investment banker several years into a successful career. He has won a prize position that involves moving from the New York to the London office. During his two-week vacation to organise his move, a very rich client gets him involved with her ancestral library, and a search for a codex called A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians, by Gervase of Langford. He reluctantly gets involved, intending to quit the next day, but is drawn in. In a similar way he at first finds Margaret, an expert on Gervase, unattractive, but with enough points of interest to feed a small obsession. The book and the girl both make Edward question how he is spending his life. There is a side-plot about a computer game called Momus, which is handled better than most literary or cinematic takes on computers (but there is still an omniscient gnome). Ruminations on the nature and usage of books and electronic media are certainly beyond anything in the DVC.

The story moves quickly, although the logic behind the urgency of a 700-year old book is flawed. I liked the literary and bibliographic details. I thought I had not heard of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili before, but it was in The Club Dumas, which I read and enjoyed a long time ago. I reckon the Da Vinci-ers did not find enough mystery, fantastical occult secrets and dramatic romance in these pages. Codex's atmosphere is real-life. (The cold-water of power versus fantasy reminded me of Ransom .) There is an unhappy ending, which I found satisfactory.

I agree with Joe.

And who knew that Nabokov had a gay brother? (Found on Grossman's web page).

Scott wrote: This book was OK, for sure. But Club Dumas was way better. And I even have a facsimile of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (and a few books about it), which is pretty trippy, for sure. Have you read The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Spectacular Death of the Medieval Cathars? You'd like it. Non-fiction.

Andrew wrote: I just got Codex out from my local public library, thanks for the recommendation! Speaking of unhappy but satisfactory endings, have you ever read Roderick and Roderick at Random by John Sladek? It's the best example of "robot picaresque" that I've encountered. (Now available as The Complete Roderick, since it's really just one novel that was unfortunately broken in two for the original publication. Not to be confused with Smollett's Roderick Random ...)

I replied: Sounds good. Weirdly enough, I read a lot of Smollett in college, because our house library had several feet of him.

Susan wrote: Have you read The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby? I'm enjoying it very much and am grateful that is such a slim volume as I'm saving major reads for our departure to California. I always enjoy his uniquely English "voice"which I am almost always charmed by. I've never figured if it's a combination of syntax, vocabulary and slang but I'm a big fan. On the other hand I just finished Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country by Joe Queenan and found the mock dyspeptic tone annoying. Sort of Theroux like without the writing chops.

Mark wrote: Here's a fun one I found on Amazon, the best part is the 5 star review by the author: The Master Secret Code.