March 22, 2009

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

I haven't posted a review in well over a month. At first, this was because life caught up with me and I didn't have the time to sit down and read for several weeks. Then things slowed down and I picked up a book I'd been intending to read for over a year - Michael Cox's debut novel, The Meaning of Night, and things slowed down even more. As in, I have been trying to strong-arm myself through this book for three weeks, and it feels like I've been at it for months.

That said, I don't want to imply that The Meaning of Night is not well-written, because it is. Cox is, in fact, a noted Victorian scholar with a special interest in the gothic. This man knows his material, which I believe is the biggest problem. Cox knows the literature of the period so well that he is able to thoroughly imitate, in minute detail, the styles and tropes of those masters who created the ghost story and the Victorian gothic novel, but when Dickins and Collins and Henry James did it, they were treading new ground, they were innovating existing literary molds. Cox's debut novel, on the other hand, does not contribute anything new to the dialogue. Rather, it very self-consciously follows an already well-beaten path.

Cox uses standard tropes (obsession, unreliable identities, lost heirs and doomed love to name a few) in a purely standard way - the narrator/protagonist seeks revenge against the man who deprived him out of his education, his love and his rightful place in society, etc. etc. etc. This would be fun (no innovation required), if Cox didn't present the material in such a ponderous, self-indulgent way, quoting Donne at random intervals, interrupting the narrative with interminable flashbacks and foot-noting everything from the Latin chapter headings to hotel and restaurant locations. This might read as clever to some, but to me it was interruptive and precious, and worse, it didn't serve the story in any tangible way. The result was akin to Cox standing at a lectern, interjecting minutia, while Anthony Hopkins tried to read Bleak House to an audience of undergraduates.

Now, one might argue that the tiresomeness of the prose is deliberate - the novel is written in the first person and is meant to be the confession of a bibliographic man who is far too intelligent for his own good. But Cox sets up a separate problem there. Although the narrator/protagonist Edward Glyver, has a very legitimate reason to hate his enemy, Phoebus Daunt, Cox destroys the reader's ability to truly and deeply sympathize with (or even like), him before the end of the novel's first line: 

"After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper." 

Now, I don't object on moral grounds - several of my favorite books have morally reprehensible protagonists (see I, Lucifer and Use of Weapons) and because it is natural and appropriate for those narratives, I'm totally good with that. I object because Cox throws this out there and then expects the reader to trust and like and invest in Glyver's ponderous narrative without question. 

In the end, I'm a reader who likes questions and conflict and psychological interest, and my greatest objection to The Meaning of Night is that Michael Cox had a great opportunity to plumb some very intriguing depths, and he chose instead to show us all how terribly much he knows. Given that, I would recommend that if you're looking for a gothic romp, give it a read, but if you expect more, or would like a gothic romp with substance, pick up Tipping the Velvet or Affinity by Sarah Waters, Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, or the real, original deals by Wilkie Collins, or Charles Dickens or any of their contemporaries.