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Review: Codex by Lev Grossman

codex grossman Review: Codex by Lev Grossman

Codex is featured in our list of books about books.

Its a sad fact that most child prodigies sink into mediocrity by the time they reach adulthood, when everyone else catches up to them. This is the case for Edward Wozny, whose talent for chess as a pre-teen was momentous, but which fizzled as puberty beckoned. Edwards hunger to be great once more has led him to a stellar career as an investment banker, and after mere years toiling at the grindstone, Edward is offered a lucrative overseas posting that will do wonders to mitigate the inadequacy he feels. But faced with this impending change, the usually industrious Edward finds himself drifting into a lethargic malaise. His outlook is further thrown into turmoil when asked to perform a favour for the inconceivably wealthy Went family. The task? Cataloguing a collection of dusty tomes, something in which Edward has no expertise, and which he feels is beneath him. But things are never as simple as they seem, and what was ostensibly a mere administrative task suddenly turns into a search for an ancient codex that may well prove the undoing of the Wents. Edwards life slowly divides into twain as he tries to deal with the sense of dissatisfaction he realizes he is feeling: he whiles away his free hours playing an oddly realistic RPG, and spends the rest with a bookish Mediaevalist in his ongoing quest to hunt down the mysterious codex. But Edward soon finds that the various elements of his life are more closely intertwined than he might have imagined

My thoughts

I picked Codex up for two reasons: first, to flesh out my list of books about books, and second because Id heard Grossmans name bandied about in review circles (Grossman is the literary editor of Time, and is the author of the bestselling The Magicians). Having zipped through it last night, I have to admit that Im still rather ambivalent about it. With Codex, Grossman initially positions himself as a thriller writer rather closer to the Dan Brown end of the literary-thriller spectrum than than the Umberto Eco one. His style is flat and staccato, his characters equally so, and the setting is very much just the facts, maam. He takes liberties with plot and motivation, inserting characters for little purpose other than as plot machinations, and others again simply so that he can comment on their weak chins or bony shoulders (women with bony shoulders are in rather creepy abundance throughout this book). Theres a sense of speed and urgency, particularly throughout the first two-thirds of the book, but at the same time, all of this urgency is internally motivated, and the reader begins to wonder whether theyre dealing with something that aspires to be literary fiction instead. Wozny is ostensibly off in search of a mysterious codex, but theres no pressing reason for him to do so. His failure to do so would result in nothing more than a bit of disappointment from someone whos not even his employer or even someone with whom hes particularly close, and indeed, Edward has no particular interest in bookish stuff in the first place. Rather, we have to believe that Edward is undertaking his search in the name of some sort of self-discovery, which definitely doesnt fall neatly under the thriller umbrella.

This genre-related ambiguity crops up time and time again throughout the book, and the reader almost feels see-sawed between the thriller side of things and the literary side of things. Theres the introduction of MOMUS, the RPG to which Edward becomes firmly addicted, for example. MOMUS devours Edwards time, and is clearly his way of escaping the reality of his career and his abjectly lonely place in life, and there are overtones of some sort of redemption as well as the opportunity to relive parts of his life in a more meaningful waya way that requires him to take notice of the world around him, and to engage with it in far more depth. Despite the slightly hilarious way in which the MOMUS scenes are written (think something out of an early 90s hacker movie), this is all well and good enough, but its where MOMUS is inexpertly integrated into the codex part of the plot that things really start to struggle. Its just too neat and too coincidental, and I cant for the life of me believe the awkward series of events that not only lead to MOMUS falling into Edwards hands in the first place, nor its true purpose (and really, an easter egg thats larger than the rest of the game that can only be reached through utter incompetence? Really?).

There are other issues that crop up, too, and most of them are to do with motivation and logic. Edward is inordinately mundaneso mundane, in fact, that I rather expected him to go on some sort of Brett Easton Ellis killing spreebut he is also flatly drawn, with little depth to his character. This makes it challenging to suspend disbelief throughout much of the novel, even if one is attempting to cling to the fact that he is searching for internal renaissance. I can believe the fact that Edward is suddenly so desirous to find the codex, as at least he has something of value to give to the world (although believing that one of the worlds wealthiest individuals would hire someone profoundly ignorant when it comes to books and literature to catalogue a series of priceless antiques is something else again). But the rest is so much more difficult to stomach. His relationship with bookish Margaret is never more than lukewarm, and yet, towards the end of the book, he makes certain decisions that would suggest otherwise. Similarly, though he has a single encounter with the Duchess of Bowmry, this seems to be enough for him to make some rather drastic life changes (and lets not even get started on the Duchesss letterone can only hope that its an example of steganography or somesuch, because as it is its rather concerning). If there had been more space given to these other characters with whom Edwards interacts, then all of this might have been more believable, but as it is people seem to slip in and out of his life to no great effect. This, I suppose, drives his loneliness, and if one sloughs off the thriller trappings of this novel, and tries to read it as a literary work instead (which admittedly is hard to do given the prose style), then one can argue that this loneliness drives all of his weird and sometimes self-destructive actionsparticularly those at the very end of the book. Edward, it seems, simply wants to belong, which is all very well and good if were reading Umberto Eco, but not so much if were reading Dan Brown, where things ought to happen, darn it!

Still, while Codex rather treacherously walks the line between thriller and literary novel, and sits rather unambitiously between the two for the most part, its surprisingly readable (once one gets past the choppy sentences and occasionally amusing efforts at metaphor and simile). The arcana about books and history are a nice touch, and though I cant vouch for its verisimilitude, its good fun to read, even when it is 'blurted out on to the page as part of a huge verbal info-dump. Theres a quietness to this novel that, while your more rabid thriller reader will struggle with, I quite enjoyed. One particularly interesting element is the approach taken at the novels denouement. If you like a climax that is, well, climactic, youd be best placed to stop reading in the final few chapters and make up your own ending. But if bittersweet, understated endings are your thing, then you might well appreciate this quiet conclusionpersonally, I did.


Codex aspires for a place somewhere between the literary and thriller genres, but doesnt quite succeed. Still, its surprisingly readable, and therere are enough bookish factoids to keep the bibliophile reading, although casual readers might struggle, particularly towards the end. The characters are wooden, and the plot at times painfully predictable (although in an oddly illogical way), but Grossmans efforts to effect internal change in his main character are quite intriguing, and the quiet ending seems to emphasise that Edward has grown beyond an individual needing to make his mark in a brash traditional way to someone who values internal awareness and knowledge insteada curiously lofty suggestion for a book of this kind, but one that I quite like.

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