Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Review: Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows

Fascinating, well-researched, masterfully crafted Shakespeare pseudo-history. Silly, overly complicated, implausible, downright infuriating potboiler whodunnit plot - but there's a method to this madness.
Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows bears a lot of similarities to Dan Brown's literate mysteries. It's a rare-book scandal unraveled by following a skein of coded messages. In this case, the messages are 17th-century cryptography. The author seems to have a firm grasp on this arcane stuff, but I can't tell. He explains the techniques in detail, but I can't follow them. Then, I was one of those lazy students who skipped calculus because I had heard that it was hard. My loss, I'm sure.
The Shakespeare invented history is amazing and jaw-dropping. If you haven't read Bill Bryson's Shakespeare you might bring that along. Gruber even invents old documents written in Elizabethan argot. Like the cryptography material, these seem authentic, but I couldn't tell you.
Then there's the mystery plot. He gives us two protagonists - intellectual property lawyer Jake Mishkin and film freak Albert Crosetti, each of whom lusts after finding a long-lost, heretofore forgotten play of the Bard's - The Tragedy of Mary Queen of the Scots. This material would have been too hot politically for Shakespeare's time, which Gruber provides as both the reason it was written and the reason it had to be hidden. He does provide a synopsis, and of all the invented stuff in this book, this play is the most intriguing. It would have been one of the greatest dramatic pieces ever written, right up there with Macbeth.
This convoluted plot may cause you to pull out what's left of your hair. But just when you think it's insulted your intelligence one time too many, Gruber begins to hint at what he's doing. Miskin and Crosetti have a series of heated discussions about whether art imitates life or the other way around. Crosetti insists that movies, being our collective subconscious, provide models for all our social interactions. As it turns out, Gruber's plot is so unsatisfying because it both apes and defies movie formulas. The good guys do some awful things, make all the wrong decisions, and are not particularly admirable except in retrospect and apology. And the bad guys make Tarantino's stupid killers look smart.
So - I'll just say that the mystery plot is so badly crafted - and I believe deliberately so - that it more than proves its point.

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