Toby Barlow’s “Babayaga” is a novel that asks not to be taken too seriously. This is its most fundamental mistake, from which all its others spring: Even if a novel is a rip-roaring yarn or a bonkers comedy, one can feel whether, beneath all that, it feels it deserves to be taken seriously — and comedies that feel they deserve to be taken seriously are, in fact, much funnier than ones that don’t. Despite all its violence, “Babayaga” is lighthearted and intentionally cartoonish, painted in broad strokes and bright colors. It’s a convoluted and densely populated tale of intrigue, murder and witchcraft set against the backdrop of Cold War espionage in 1950s Paris. It borrows some interesting and surprising history about the CIA’s covert involvement with the Paris Review.
Well, it’s not actually the Paris Review. In the novel, it’s fictionalized with a wink over the characters’ heads as the Gargoyle Press, just as its publisher and a central dynamo of the byzantine plot — the WASPy, bloviating Oliver — is a deliberately obvious caricature of George Plimpton. He is also the funniest character in the book, and perhaps its only morally ambiguous one.
A lot of wacky things happen in “Babayaga.” There are cross-species transmogrifications, Indiana Jones-style convulsions and melting faces, shared hallucinations, gunfights and lots of rules on how the witch-magic works. The novel threads together two (at least) intersecting story lines. The central protagonist is Will Van Wyck, an everyman from humble Midwestern roots, working as an advertising agent in Paris, who quickly gets in over his head when he meets the charming, reckless and well-connected Oliver. Will and Oliver’s story line is an intriguing mixture of Cold War paranoia, literary expats in Paris and advertising.
The other story line has to do with witches. These witches, Zoya and Elga, do not necessarily live forever, but they age very, very slowly. The book doesn’t give their ages, but from their biographies one figures Zoya was born to a Russian serf sometime a few hundred years ago, whereas the elder Elga, her mentor and later her enemy, may be thousands of years old. Both endured girlhoods of terrible suffering at the hands of men, and Elga leads them in their endless cycle of revenge. The beautiful Zoya seduces men, and while the witches profit materially from these affairs, leading men to gory doom seems to be their real goal. But when Elga tries to sell an antique clock pilfered from a plush love nest furnished by Zoya’s most recent victim, it leads the police to her door.
The breadth and bravery of imagination in this book is impressive, but its moral universe is clear-cut and easy, and the plot wants to be called complex, though I think it is just complicated and, moreover, inelegant, as it’s heavily reliant on coincidence and deus ex machina. The familiar clunky tricks of having a character gaze into a mirror, or spontaneously vomit to underscore an emotion, are employed often. There’s even a grotesque villain who suddenly — many things in this novel happen “suddenly” — pops up toward the end to explain everything to our hero as he struggles strapped to a chair in a warehouse. All of this is delivered with a sure-footed lack of awareness of its cliches.
The back story spans centuries, and the front story winds up involving LSD experiments, the decline of Detroit, the tactics and ethics of advertising, a flea circus and black American jazz musicians in self-exile in Paris (a blue-suited trio named Red, Flats and Kelly, cringingly referred to after their introduction as “the jazz boys”). Except when Oliver speaks, the dialogue is bland and often made-for-TV stuff:
“Let the girl go.”
“What’s come over you, White?”
“I love her.”
“Don’t be an idiot, White, you’ve never even met her.”
“All I’m saying is, you have to let her go.”
Barlow’s previous novel, “Sharp Teeth,” is a thriller about werewolves, written, interestingly, in verse. Likewise, this novel includes 12 fairly skippable poems sprinkled throughout, titled “Witches’ Songs” and featuring such lyrics as, “Our choice, we can pick, between sullen disappointments of / impotence or the sorry prodding signals / of poorly timed erections, / and even better yet, a splendid epilepsy / of unending ejaculation.”
This isn’t a book in which one cares much what happens to the characters (we know too clearly who’s good and who’s bad for that), it doesn’t contain much real emotion, and the writing is usually competent but never beautiful. Ben Lerner in a recent interview described much of contemporary American literature as being “essentially very inefficient television.” “Babayaga,” for the most part, fits that description. Some readers might find it fun, but I found myself wishing it would take itself a little more seriously.
Hale is the author of “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.”
On Tuesday, Toby Barlow will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Toby Barlow
Farrar Straus Giroux. 383 pp. $27