THE GEOGRAPHER'S LIBRARY
By Jon Fasman. Penguin Press. 374 pp. $24.95
One of the more interesting trends in contemporary publishing is, for want of a better term, the arcane thriller. These are novels (Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind, for instance, or Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's Rule of Four) in which an academic, or someone in an academic's circle, must race against time to uncover a mysterious truth held by secret societies and/or locked away in dense and foreboding tomes, accessible only to improbably dashing specialists. Naturally, many of these books owe their ISBN to the publishing phenomenon of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but the continued success of thrillers with academic heroes or intellectual cores points to an interesting contradiction. Intellectuals, after all, have never done well as American icons. We prefer our heroes to be people of action, not scholarship or contemplation, and we like our knowledge to have immediate and tangible use. Witness, for example, Hollywood's recent entry into the Dan Brown craze, "National Treasure," which rests on the premise that the value of the Declaration of Independence lies not in its provocative enlightenment philosophy -- now there's a silly notion -- but rather in a secret treasure map encoded within the physical document. The true worth of this seminal American text, in other words, is not the ideas it espouses, but rather the material wealth to which it can lead.
The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman, absolutely falls into the category of the arcane thriller, but it is a much more interesting and creative book than many of those making up the marketing wave on which it will no doubt attempt to ride. Yes, the story features obscure books in forgotten tongues, secret brotherhoods, exotic locales and clever puzzles, but Fasman comes across as a novelist genuinely interested in unraveling the convention of the thriller, and he gives his tale a delightfully and successfully postmodern flavor. And rather than presenting obscure knowledge as valuable only because it gets you things, he is far more interested in showing how physical things lead to knowledge.
The book contains two primary narratives -- one conventional, the other far less so. The first revolves around Paul Tomm, a recent college graduate who has landed a job as a reporter at a weekly newspaper in a small and depressingly stagnant New England town. Tomm is clever and charismatic, though largely devoid of ambition until one of the locals, an elderly Estonian immigrant, dies and Tomm is charged with writing the obituary. The dead man turns out to be Jaan Pühapäev, an aloof professor from the same prestigious Connecticut university that Tomm himself attended. With the help of another former professor -- as polished, unhurried and generous with his time as only fictional academics can be -- and the professor's policeman nephew -- as wise-cracking, unhurried and generous with his time as only fictional policemen can be -- Tomm sets out to reveal the genuinely bizarre truth of Pühapäev's identity and the cause of his mysterious death. You know, after all, that when the town coroner announces that there's something strange about the body, but dies before he can tell anyone the specifics, there's something going on. As it happens, there's quite a lot going on, including a menacing Albanian, decayed body parts left hammered to doors and a beautiful woman with a secret, but in Fasman's capable hands these conventions have the kind of narrative power that keeps the story from feeling trite and contrived.
The other aspect of The Geographer's Library is a collection of interlinked tales that spans several centuries, beginning with medieval Iran and ending in more modern times and roaming through various parts of the former Soviet Union. Each of these sections, told with a variety of distinctive voices and tones, fixates on a particular artifact -- a key, a flute, a deck of cards -- with unique properties and sought by determined and ruthless agents. Fasman's method here approaches David Mitchell territory (Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten), and if he lacks Mitchell's powerful skill in hopping seamlessly from character to character, he does, ultimately, make clear how these different objects and stories come together.
Unlike most arcane thrillers, which are ultimately mundane thrillers gussied up with the occasional info dump, The Geographer's Library makes an effort to get readers off their intellectual duffs by presenting the artifacts in catalog format, separating them from the narrative and demanding that they be seen as elements of a puzzle rather than props in a set piece. The solution to the intellectual game may ultimately rankle with some readers, who might not feel that the rules have sufficiently prepared them for the conclusion, but maybe this discomfort is right too. The Geographer's Library, in other words, is not only a genuine celebration of intellectual effort, it is also jarring in all the right ways.
David Liss is the author of three novels, most recently "A Spectacle of Corruption."