Everything really, really old is new again: The defining multiplex event of the millennium so far is a medievalist fantasy trilogy, and the juggernaut publishing phenomenon is a pseudo-historical conspiracy theory that purports to blow the lid on a thousand-year-old secret society. (How long before the VH1 special I Love the Middle Ages?) Lev Grossman’s literary thriller Codex transcends the current vogue for the archaic—explicitly linking the 14th and 21st centuries by considering the respective, and not entirely dissimilar, powers of parchment and PlayStation. It’s an artful, populist, conceptually ambitious exercise in what Umberto Eco has labeled “postmodern medievalism” (a microgenre pretty much dominated by the Italian semiotician’s own The Name of the Rose and Monty Python and the Holy Grail). An addictive meditation on narrative addictions, the book toggles between the disconcertingly lifelike virtual environment of a state-of-the-art video game and an increasingly dreamlike dusty-stacks search for a lost, possibly apocryphal Chaucer-era manuscript.
Codex is steeped equally in the arcana of medieval lit and the rituals of gaming; not least for the sake of uninitiated readers, its protagonist, 25-year-old Manhattan I-banker Edward Wozny, is very much a novice in both areas. He can’t remember the last time he read a non-detective novel (despite an English degree that he prefers to keep secret) and is openly scornful of his dorky Atari-weaned friends (though as a former chess prodigy, he possesses something of a latent gaming instinct himself). With time to kill before he moves to London for a new job, on the cusp of burnout but too passive to do anything about it, he agrees to uncrate and catalog a personal library of rare books for ex-clients, an eccentric, aristocratic English couple with scads of money and ambiguous motives. Pure drudgery at first, the task quickly turns obsessive when the duchess instructs Edward to track down one particular volume: A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians, an existential travelogue written by a nobleman’s servant in the mid 14th century that apparently contains an encrypted message.
Concurrently, Edward becomes hooked on MOMUS (as in the Greek god of blame, not the eye-patched British pop singer), an open-source video game recommended to him by a programmer friend. His adventures in VR grow out of a dazed, virginal bemusement with the format—he begins by testing various methods of killing off his screen self—but after a few sessions of clumsy experimentation, he finds his game persona oddly immortal, and transported to a New York City utterly unmoored from earthly rules of time and space. Back in the real world, at a rare-book library, he meets Margaret, a snippy, know-it-all Columbia grad student who, like most scholars, believes the duch-ess’s coveted grail to be an 18th-century hoax, but is sufficiently intrigued to sign on as expert sidekick.
Grossman, a book critic for Time, impels Edward’s biblio quest and gaming reveries along improbably convergent paths—there are a few eerie, vertiginous moments when an element from one realm inexplicably materializes in the other: What is the Viage‘s stag-headed knight doing in MOMUS? Before it’s wrestled down to earth by the plot machine, this free-floating, through-the-looking-glass sense of volatility and porousness evokes Grossman’s larger point about the manifold forms and purposes of narrative. Do video games, constantly refining notions of escapism and verisimilitude, serve a similar function today as fiction did seven centuries ago? The Viage, if it indeed exists, would be a revolutionary work for a time when, as Margaret puts it, “a fictional narrative written to be read alone in your room, for pure enjoyment, would have been considered immoral and unhealthy, if not positively satanic.” (Edward’s general reticence and reliable ignorance of the matters at hand are schematically offset by Margaret’s tendency to speak in densely informational paragraphs.)
Despite its oneiric drift, Codex insists on the unpretentiously aerodynamic shape of a page-turner. (Grossman’s efficient prose is faceless and propulsive—clipped, bestseller rat-a-tat with occasional detours into muted lyricism.) That said, the book is somewhat withholding in terms of genre payoff—the cracked code proves disappointingly primitive and the double-crossing machinations are almost perversely low-stakes. If anything, there’s a modest, slackerly charm in the manner Codex fulfills its thriller obligations. You can sense the author’s sheepishness about stepping on the suspense pedal. The closest to a brush with danger is a brief, awkward confrontation on the sidewalk; there’s no car chase, just a climactic cab ride over the Manhattan Bridge to nowhere more sinister than brownstone Brooklyn.
The deflationary approach has its advantages (the ending’s minor-key ambience is haunting and lovely), but the tidy, risk-averse plotting can seem like an undermining of the novel’s rich central ideas on narratology—which might have been more profitably sown in a garden of forking paths, or left to ricochet off each other in an Eco chamber of intertextuality. (Compare Olivier Assayas’s demonlover, a phantasmagoric vision of new media and big money that midway abandons linear storytelling for nightmare logic and a poetic hypertextual syntax.) Still, Codex is unusually generous metafiction. Never better than when its protagonist (and by extension the reader) is in a fugue state of narrative immersion, the book wonders what it means to truly get lost in a story—and keeps an admirably open mind about the numerous ways that can happen.