What mysterious ingredients are necessary to create an outstanding novel? An intriguing title, a captivating cover design, and a unique storyline are all essential components, and Jon Fasman’s The Geographer’s Library certainly has all three. First, the word ‘library’ is in the title, so book-nerds like myself will rush out to buy the novel, since this sort of thing is practically embedded in our DNA. The cover design is rich in mystery and history — an aged, tattered map is folded over on the top right corner of the book, revealing a portion of an unknown hand, crouched like a tarantula, ready to do — what? And finally, the story itself: a young, cynical reporter working in a small New England town sets out to write a banal obituary for a reclusive professor, but instead ends up pursuing a murder mystery involving an international smuggling ring, the secrets of alchemy, and even the hermetics of eternal life. With such a mix, how can a writer fail? In this particular case, it turns out to be quite easy.
Mind you, Fasman is no scholarly slouch. He’s an educated man (he studied at both Brown and Oxford), as well as an experienced journalist at The Times Literary Supplement, Slate, The Moscow Times, The Washington Post and now as an online writer and editor for The Economist. Fasman obviously knows a great deal about history, alchemy and the former Soviet Union, which are all key elements in the story, but he lacks that magical, elusive gift — the ability to spin a seamless, gripping narrative that sustains a reader’s interest over nearly 400 pages of text.
The novel travels back and forth between two key stories: the first is the story of Paul Tomm, a reporter who discovers that there is more to the death of an odd Estonian professor than meets the eye. The second narrative gradually instructs the reader on the history of fifteen rare artifacts, and how these relics eventually come to be in the hands of the now-dead professor. It’s an ambitious technique, but it doesn’t work; slogging through this detailed documentation is a tedious exercise, reminiscent of a cataloguing class in library school.
And unfortunately, the story of Paul Tomm’s quest for the truth offers the reader no respite. Each character in the story is a banal study in the art of the cliché: the young cynical reporter who hails from the big city, but is stuck working for a small-town paper; the mysterious lady love interest with the deep dark secret; and even the brash local policeman who breaks all the rules to get to the truth. All that seems to be missing on first glance is the curmudgeon boss with the heart of gold — no, wait — Fasman even has that, too!
It’s been suggested by some, that books like The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four, which have reawakened the public’s interest in arcane thrillers, are deliberately packaged as ‘high-brow’ books that are clearly written for a ‘low-brow’ crowd — or the not-so-affectionately dubbed the ‘illiterati’. This judgment does seem a bit harsh, but obviously even I’m a bit of a book snob, as is evident in my dissatisfaction with The Geographer’s Library.
Despite such dissatisfaction, I hold nothing against this particular genre. The commercial success of The Da Vinci Code isn’t just a lesson in shrewd marketing, either. There’s something else going on: a thirst for something deeper and richer, a need to discover supposed ‘truths’ from the past, even if it is wrapped up in a mass-marketed commercial product. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps not. Hopefully, though, in the search for more academic thrillers, readers will discover that this genre didn’t start with Da Vinci. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a great example of a well-crafted historical thriller, written long before Dan Brown ever put pen to paper. And really, The Geographer’s Library isn’t a horrible book. It’s just not a great book, either, especially given Fasman’s credentials.
In mixing all the elements together for his tale of alchemy and murder, Fasman got all his facts right, but he neglected the key ingredient to make his story truly sing: passion. Something which is not missing from Robertson Davies’ similar and deliciously ribald The Rebel Angels, in which a defrocked monk gives the following advice to a head-strong university student:
I recognize that a tree has a bottom as well as a top, a root as well as a crown … but the root does not go back to those old stuffed shirts with white wigs whose portraits people display so proudly, but to our unseen depths — which means the messy stuff of life from which the real creation and achievement takes its nourishment … my advice to you, my dear, is to let your root feed your crown.
I would suggest that Fasman, in writing his next novel, do the same.