Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Book of Air and Shadows

William Shakespeare was born and died on this day.

It seems appropriate that I just finished reading Michael Gruber’s 2006 adventure/mystery/quest The Book of Air and Shadows since Shakespeare is the subject of the book’s search. Avoiding spoilers, let me say that the book is cross between The DaVinci Code and The Maltese Falcon. Three main characters, a weightlifter intellectual properties lawyer, a wannabe filmmaker bookkeeper, and a blonde bookbinder with a past all search a lost and unknown manuscript by Shakespeare, alluded to in letters from a Jacobean gunner/adventurer/spy. The letters are given to the lawyer and then the owner of the letters is found tortured and murdered. The plot abounds with red herrings, Russian gangsters, Polish spies, classic chases, plenty of film noir plot twists, lots of enjoyable characters, and a literate narrative which utilizes three different perspectives. The book also plays some with time sequence. Gruber understands that inherent in the adventure/mystery/quest genre is that while the characters may have to face danger and violence, ultimately the good guys win. And our sense of harmony and order is restored.

One thing I found myself enjoying about the book was the examination of the role of religion in a Roman Catholic’s world past and present—whether it’s Shakespeare who is spied upon because of his Catholicism or several of the modern characters struggling with understanding the place of the church in their lives.

The second idea I particularly liked was Gruber’s argument that we have learned how to deal with things by watching films—and our response to many situations is just like the movies because they have taught us how to respond. In the book the two main characters are discussing this idea. The lawyer and the wannabe filmmaker are talking. The lawyer says:

“… Surely it’s the other way around—filmmakers take popular ideas and embody them in films.”

“No, the movies come first. For example, no one ever had a fast-draw face-to-face shoot-out on the dusty Main Street in a western town. It never happened, ever. A screenwriter invented it for dramatic effect. It’s the classic American trope, redemption through violence, and it comes through the movies. There were very few handguns in the real old west. They were expensive and heavy and no one but an idiot would wear them in a side holster. On a horse? When you wanted to kill someone in the Old West, you waited for your chance and shot him in the back, usually with a shotgun. Now we have a zillion handguns because the movies taught us that a handgun is something a real man has to have, and people really kill each other like fictional western gunslingers. And it’s not just thugs. Movies shape everyone’s reality, to the extent that it’s shaped by human action—foreign policy, business, sexual relationships, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. It used to the Bible but now it’s movies. Why is there stalking? Because we know that the guy should persist and make a fool of himself until the girl admits that she loves him. We’ve all seen it. Why is there date rape? Because the asshole is waiting for the moment when resistance turns to passion. He’s seen Nicole and Reese do it fifty times. We make these little decisions, day by day, and we end up with a world. This one, like it or not.”

While I’m fascinated with the character’s idea, I’m not sure it fully pans out. Look, for example, at this tintype of Billy the Kid, who stands with rifle and gun strapped to his leg. But, I do agree that movies have taught me how to respond in many situations, among them how to be in love. (See one of my earlier posts regarding what literature has taught us about the same.)

If you enjoyed Chinatown or The Maltese Falcon or The DaVinci Code or National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, I think you'll enjoy Michael Gruber's book.

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