“He imagined another life for himself as one of these silent scholars, buried in his research like a guinea pig in its wood shavings.”
Codex is a little way out of my usual reading fare: I bought it in a second-hand bookshop in Blandford, Dorset, partly because Grossman’s The Magicians had already been recommended to me, and partly because it mentioned a library on the back and despite the depredations of The Da Vinci Code I am, still, a sucker for a good fictional library.
Published a year after Dan Brown’s slightly mendacious mega-ultra-bestseller, it’s obviously quite heavily indebted to it. Edward Wozny, a hotshot New York banker, is on his first vacation ever, about to move to England for a more prestigious job with his firm. He’s approached by the mysterious and not unsinister Went family (also, coincidentally, from England) who ask him to catalogue their mysterious and not unsinister private library. They are looking for a codex (Academic for “book” – I’m 95% sure Grossman only uses this technical term for effect, which irks me more than it should) which may not even exist, a bizarre Arthurian romance which encodes a Terrible Secret somehow connected to the Wents. Things get twisty when it appears that the Duke and Duchess Went are actually working against each other: the Duke wants to destroy the book, and the Duchess wants Edward to save it.
What’s mildly interesting about Codex (but only mildly) is the way it seems deliberately to deflate the Brownian cliches it sets up from the beginning. Edward is, like countless protagonists since the dawn of time, made to see that There Is More to Life than Capitalism, and that there is more mystery and promise in the world than is dreamt of in his workaholic philosophy: the hunt for meaning among the dusty relics of bygone ages leads him not only to greater satisfaction in his day-to-day life but also to True Love in the form of Margaret, a researcher he hires to help him in his search. Having located the codex, Edward travels at the end of the book to England, to pass it over to the romantically flighty Duchess in confident hope of a reward and a comfortable life working for the Wents.
That’s what the story should look like. Instead, Edward reaches England only to discover that his True Love has betrayed him for considerably more than a handful of silver, and the Duchess casts him off, leaving him jobless and prospectless in a strange country. The twisty narrative has thrown up nothing more mysterious and interesting than a power play in an old aristocratic family that remains distant from the action; the great secret of the codex is that the Duke may or may not be illegitimate and therefore not actually a Duke at all. The narrative is depowered; the book becomes a kind of exercise in futility, the myths that capitalist entertainment peddles – if you are lucky enough and hardworking enough you too may be favoured, you too may find fulfilling work – revealed as sleights of hand the aristocracy use to control and manipulate the less fortunate.
But, for me, Codex still fails, mostly because none of the characters have any kind of personality, and partly because it’s actually a very sexist story. Consider: Edward is betrayed by two women, the flighty and romantically unknowable Duchess Went, and the prickly and also unknowable Margaret. They have confused him and ruined his life through their treacherous feminine wiles; they are fundamentally Other, and you can’t trust them.
Also, Edward does that male-gaze thing where the first thing he notices about women is their breasts, which, fine, breasts are not a problem, except that what this strategy encodes is the fact that this book is not for women.
Because white, wealthy men are the great losers in capitalist society. Yep.
My advice? Avoid.