Dan Brown is not the world’s greatest writer. The Da Vinci Code, as Anthony Lane said, is “baloney“. We know this.
But truth be told, I’m not sure Umberto Eco’s Holy Grail novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, is any better. It’s mortadella to the baloney, fails because it’s the perfect inversion of Da Vinci Code – too smart, too precious, drowning in self-conscious intricacy. Eco is one of those guys who can’t stop tapping you on the shoulder with all the obscure facts in his head. At times – most of the time – he seems more invested in trying to bamboozle you than storytelling.
That’s why I’m so grateful for The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington, an undeservedly obscure painter – probably because she was a she – tragically lumped in as a footnote in the Surrealist movement. She died in Mexico City in 2011. The Hearing Trumpet is her only novel.
The story begins the outskirts of an unnamed town in Mexico, where a deaf elderly English woman, Marian Leatherby, receives a hearing trumpet from her only friend. Suddenly gifted with hearing, Marian learns her no-account son plans on sending her off to an old folks’ home.
Marian’s adventure starts off with a droll, almost sitcom-like tone – and I mean that in the best possible way. But something magical happens midway through: a story-within-a-story unfolds, and so does the wider novel, into something truly glorious and cosmic, a grand, apocalyptic quest involving a Spanish abbess, the Holy Grail, the myth of Cupid, and series of riddles involving, well… you’ll just have to read to find out.
Which you should. There’s no better book on the Holy Grail that I’ve ever encountered, nor do I think I will. The Hearing Trumpet perfectly captures Leonora Carrington’s enigmatic, magically-imbued paintings in story form. It’s a fresh sprig of parsley from the garden, at a time when so much of popular culture is recycled, re-hashed, re-heated, and re-regurgitated.
One of the best side effects of writing The Band of the Crow is that it’s forced me to start reading – not just my usual hit list of obscure pulp fiction from the 20s and 30s, but contemporary books by “legit” authors. And of all the titles I’ve read in the past year, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply really stands out from the herd. Gets the blue ribbon, in fact.
Neo-noir – that’s the best way I can describe the story. It reads like a great movie, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. And yet, adapting it for film would require a lot of finesse, because the writing is so brilliantly calibrated to the medium of prose. I could go on and on, but Reply’s brilliance comes down to three things:
1. Simple writing. George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is, for me, the Holy Bible of English writing, and Chaon faithfully adheres to the gospel. He doesn’t try to razzle-dazzle with sesquipedalian words, obscure facts or convoluted syntax. It’s a sign of supreme confidence, as if to say “My writing stands on its own.” Which it does.
2. Zero gratuity. Some of the characters in Reply have sexual relationships, but Chaon stays away from explicit details. Of my biggest gripes about contemporary books/film is the amount of garbagey shock-value sex and violence passed off as “sophisticated”, and the Guardian’s Bad Sex Awards are as close as it gets to calling the emperor naked. There’s one big exception in Reply, and I know why Chaon included it – the ever-present pressure for a “hook”. That’s contemporary writing for you: hook ’em on the first sentence, and don’t you dare stop, bucko. I understand completely – gotta write stories that people want to read, after all! – but there’s something lost, too.
3. It’s about something. Await Your Reply makes a powerful observation about personal and online identity – even a very clever person’s ability to disguise and reinvent themselves is, in the long run, pretty circumscribed. Eventually, someone somewhere will find you, as Ross Ulbricht and Eric Marques know. In fact, the real-life cases of Ulbricht and Marques – both of which came to light a few years after the publication of Await Your Reply – make the book feel all the more relevant and meaningful.