This is a book which takes place between two worlds, and the conceit of relating them is what the book is mainly about. Klavan writes about Hollywood, where reading books has been relegated to the periphery, where writers go to lose their souls, and where good stories are ruthlessly marginalized. It is a book about the power of a good story, and the navigation of two separate worlds is crucial for that.
Another thing he gets right is the transition from world to world. I have to say that it is difficult to judge a series in progress. Were you to do that with, say, Harry Potter, you may come up very wrong; you have to do all seven books to make the proper judgment there. There are things missing from this first volume, but it is a projected first volume. One of the things missing is a satisfactory sense of the magic involved in moving from one place to another, and so that is not what I mean when I say this is something he gets right. What he gets right is the surprise of the transition from one world to the next, abruptly, often, which gets the reader every time it gets the narrator. That is a skill at timing the events and pacing of the story that Klavan has mastered. If you read the book just for that, you will be very happy indeed.
Klavan seldom lets the pace that he has set for himself drop. There are obviously pauses in the narrative, but on the whole, it reads like a series of uninterrupted chase scenes mostly because it consists of a series of uninterrupted chase scenes. The hero of this story is a scrambler. Let me add that one of the things he gets very right, as might be expected, is also the humor. Klavan is funny. Klavan’s sense of humor is based on good timing and a sense of proportion that always appears when least expected. The wit, the self-deprecation, the banter, all the good things that entertainment has managed to keep for itself in our age, he squanders none of these away.
But many of the things that make for modern entertainment’s cheap illusions also distort this book. Klavan is engaging the culture wars over sex, gender, and traditional roles. He has shrewd insights to offer, and he places them exactly. He is doing the right thing in engaging these through powerful stories: that’s where the traditional side has the advantage, after all. But he squanders some of that advantage by the cartoonishness that he either can’t keep out or prefers to include. Again, the banter, the humor, he occasions in which relationships flower, these things are often yielded to cheap effects. If you are going to write about men and women, about traditional roles, your adversaries advantage is the sentimental, cliched, glamorized, cheaply sexualized approach of movies. I do think Andrew Klavan is in search of better expression, and I appreciate his boldness in taking the subject on: it needs to be. But his imagination is too Disney, too cartoonish, too much visualized in a pornographic age. I don’t mean to say his story is pornographic—though the chaste ecstasy in a pool full of nymphs is the most bizarre attempt at a positive catharsis yet attempted, following hard on the most bizarre and obvious attempt to portray defilement (as a chase scene) ever—but I do mean that this is not a story for your kids, nor is it free of troubling, cheap approaches to romantic love and sexual relations.
Klavan is doing more than just telling about events: he wants to gesture at things, to set up resonances in which meaning is heard. I do not think, however, that what he achieves is enough. There is one thing that he gets really wrong, and that is the complete absence of any real, deep, moving pathos. Dreadful things happen, and they happen like a movie, like a cartoon. It is all on the surface, so much so that even a sword thrust through the body remains on the surface, you might say. Heads are bitten off, and the emotions all pass in a blur, without atmosphere, in good, concentrated, car-chase style. A story should get deep into us, but that is the worst thing that Klavan does, or fails to do. It is all a bit ephemeral. There needs to bet a better sense of place, and by that I don’t mean L.A. The foil for L.A. is not much a foil for L.A., part of it being that the book sometimes seems an long attempt to instantiate the platonic ideal of the car-chase in as many diverse iterations as possible. He does this chase-thing well, but doing that is not enough! The characters are perhaps developing gradually over the course of several volumes, but they are not developing sufficiently over the course of one.
Perhaps I am wrong. The book goes fast. It does go fast indeed, and delivers punches and keeps you reading. Perhaps by the last book, however many are projected, the story will take on depth and luminosity. I hope it does. Perhaps all the chases are from the stage in our hero’s way that requires he escape before earning a pause to rest and think. Klavan knows how to put the parts of his story in order, he knows how to structure the suspense. I hope the other crucial elements of a good story are things his story can get as it goes along.
It is hard to write a good story. I’ve been trying for years and years, without success. I wish I could at least do what Klavan has. But if I had, I would also want people to tell me what is still wrong so that I could get it better. What he is attempting is worth better success.