WALES' WORK. By Robert Walshe. Ticknor & Fields. 277 pp. $16.95.
ALTHOUGH Saskatchewan-born Robert Walshe's first novel is so offbeat that it's tempting to view its author as a literary loner, Wales' Work actually fits neatly into a genre that came into flower in the '60s. Admirers of Harry Mathews' The Conversions or Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 will quickly recognize the basic premise: a character, called upon to satisfy certain conditions specified in the will of a recently dead man of great charisma and mystery, is drawn into a mounting series of puzzling and crazy events. As the tale grows to baroque levels of complexity, the author tries to unsaddle the reader with an onslaught of burlesque erudition and intellectual red herrings, and finally stings him with a surprise or enigmatic ending. Variations of this idea can also be sniffed out in Nabokov's Pale Fire and Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman.
But Walshe approaches the situation in a way that is all his own. His narrator, Robert Racine, is compiling information on the newly deceased Wallace Marshall Wales, until his death the head of the prestigious London publishing firm of Wales and Wales, where Racine works as an editor. This information is being sent to Wales' chosen biographer, Horace Bentwhistle, and will serve as the basis of the official biography of the great publisher. Racine sends the material to Bentwhistle in a series of 20 envelopes dispatched monthly, and it is in this form, with Bentwhistle's annotation, that it appears in Wales' Work.
Even at this, its most basic level, everything in the novel is suspect. "Racine" is an adopted name; the surname on the informant's birth certificate is actually Shrzypek, Polish for "fiddler," and as the novel progresses Racine juices up his revelations by fiddling extravagantly with their factual content. Not that it makes much difference because, as he cautions Bentwhistle on the first page, "think of me as a thumbprint on the doorknob in the corridor leading to the closet concealing the matter locked doubtless in Wales' safe whose combination, we are encouraged to believe, has been immolated with the genetic code of our dearly departed."
Bentwhistle himself, as his name implies, is also unsound, and his notes betray more hostility toward Racine than concern for the truth. Most important of all, it appears that Wales is not actually dead, that his "death" is the latest and most spectacular of the practical jokes for which he is notorious.
This joke is very much at Racine's expense. He has been delegated to remain with the corpse throughout the night previous to its cremation, but only after satisfying certain other conditions stipulated in the document. One ofhese is to fetch a wooden box from Wales' bedroom and ensure that it is burned with Wales' remains. As he sits at his vigil, Racine dozes, is mysteriously awakened, and finally succumbs to the temptation to open the box. Inside he finds a matrioshka -- a hollow wooden doll from Russia inside of which would normally be found similar dolls of decreasing size. This matrioshka, however, contains a note in Wales' hand informing Racine that he must follow all further instructions he receives from Wales -- otherwise an "abominable secret" will be publicized that will ruin his career. While Racine reads the note, Wales' corpse sits up, climbs from the coffin and walks off, warning Racine in passing that he would do well to take the note seriously.
RACINE concedes, and much of what is written in the remaining 19 envelopes of Wales' Work recounts his efforts to obey the instructions sent to him by Wales in a sequence of increasingly small matrioshkas left for him at various locations. The insane tasks he is made to perform seem to have as their goal the annihilation of the publishing firm, which has been transformed by Wales' appointed successors from a literary house into a mill which grinds out best sellers with titles like Find Yourself in Your Face and The Seven Charms of Adolf Hitler. Walshe has great fun documenting these destructive maneuvers. One, for example, involves an order to remove all Greek-derived words from the dictionaries and Bibles published by the firm. The resulting etymological witch- hunt transforms The Bedside Bible into The Bedside Scroll, which is comprised of the Old and New Depositions, while Wales' Work itself exfoliates into a riot of glossaries and footnotes cataloguing Greek derivations of common words as thoroughly as Melville does his whales.
But as Racine proceeds from matrioshka to matrioshka, a second pattern emerges in the tasks Wales forces him to perform: Racine is being made to follow and duplicate Wales' own posthumous activities. Wales himself takes on increasingly godlike qualities of the type possessed by Sunday in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, and elaborate Biblical extrapolations crowd into the text. As Racine follows him, humiliations at the hands of Wales and Wales' outraged new management increase until he is forced to stage a fake death of his own. The novel's mysterious ending will certainly spark arguments among friends lucky enough to enjoy sharing such books.
All of this summarization can give no idea of the art with which Walshe puts this wildly complicated novel together, or of how much fun the book is. The surreal sidetracking and encyclopedic digressions which send the narrative careening in unexpected directions but never allow it to lose focus are clearly labors of love. Walshe himself makes a personal appearance in the novel, "a prunefaced composite of various northern salts" who laments to Racine and his publishing cronies that the "trouble with you Brits (is that you're) incapable of ten seconds of consecutive thought. Result: everything deplorable (is) disguised as a joke." And it does seem that there is much of Walshe in Racine, who is sucked into the Walesian vortex while wishing only to obey Voltaire's injunction to tend his own garden.
Walshe may well have taken some of his cues from the related novels named above (the dead man in Mathews' novel, for example is named Wayl), but there is nothing derivative about the way he develops them. Wales' Work is a startlingly accomplished first novel, and it is tantalizing to try to imagine what its author will come up with to follow it.