Several weeks ago I was waiting for my friend, Mary, at a bar. Great wine list and killer chili-covered almonds. A guy walks in, 50ish, sits down, looks around him, spots a nicely dressed woman who is reading, loudly orders a drink, and in what I assume was a completely failed attempt to pick her up insults her book, makes embarrassing comments about her hat and his ex-wife, brags about how anti-intellectual he is, talks about how much money he has, and yammers on refusing to take any kinds hints that she had no interest in talking to him. It was three-quarters of an hour before he finally stumbled back out into the cold and the entire bar applauded the poor woman and bought her another glass of wine. The Forgery of Venus is that guy.
The egoistic, cazh (as in cazhual) voice takes way too much for granted. In the first three pages Michael Gruber manages to make snide, insulting comments about New York, come up with the following description for another character's parents: "They were actual refugees from Hitler, with dense accents, almost parodically overdressed..." what does he mean "actual" refugees? Are there people out there posing as refugees? Or has this character actually never seen one before? Are the dense accents a problem for him? Clearly their style of dress is terribly amusing in some way that eludes me. Finally, this is all done in a chapter that frames a story that happened in flashback. Yet when Gruber calls attention to that frame - bringing us into the present with his narrator who refers to actions in the past that had stopped long ago - he is unaware that the past-perfect tense should be used ('had been' ) rather than the past tense ('was'). I'm not offended a grammatical rule being broken, but with writing that jumps around in time and in which we have no reference because the book had only just begun, verb tenses are actually helpful. The writing finds many ways to be clumsy. Take this sentence : "I have sketched my life here, a singularly bland existence strung around the cusp of the century, and I supposed I wanted a taste of, I don't know, extravaganza, which is what the life of an artist, which I had declined in terror long ago, had always represented to me." Whew. I should have said "take this sentence, please."
This narrator finally leaves around page twenty or so and another character takes over. It is like walking out onto a breezy terrace at an unbearably stuffy party. The second voice, that of the "artist" in the story (dare I guess the forgerer?) is far more convincing. I stayed with him for a while - but unfortunately by that point the story had taken me too much for granted and had lost my interest. Actually he had never had it to begin with and didn't consider capturing my interest part of the job, he assumed he was owed it. Like the guy at the bar, and since I was not waiting for my friend I could walk out on this story. I am sorry to only because I was given this copy so that I might share my reactions with you in advance of its official release and I wanted to find something nice to say. Well, that second narrator is better and perhaps if you stay with him you will end up liking the story. I don't know. Life is too short for mediocre wine or books. Furthermore, this book is marketed as an "intelligent" and "sophisticated" thriller in the vein of The Da Vinci Code which I did read and kept my interest on a flight to California. If mentioning Velaszquez, Beckett and Columbia University in the first ten pages are supposed to earn this book its intelligence - think again. The story seemed fascinated with fanciness but its art seemed solely in the service of bravado and is anything but sophisticated.
To wash the taste of this one out of my mouth I began reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, an enthusiastic recommendation of superfast Annie. This reading experience is the polar opposite. Shirley Jackson establishes a macabre atmosphere, clear characters with inner lives and outer behaviors that distinguish them from one another. In fact, she has peopled an entire town and explained its internecine relationship with a certain Blackwood family that occupies the "big house" in a scant ten pages. Wonderful writing. Here's a sample.
It was a fine April morning when Ii came out of the library; the sun was shining and the false glorious promises of spring were everywhere, showing oddly through the village grime. I remember that I stood on the library steps holding my books and looking for a minute at the soft hinted green in the branches against the sky and wishing, as I always did, that I could walk home across the sky instead of through the village. From the library steps I could cross the street directly and walk on the other side along to the grocery, but that meant that I must pass the general store and the men sitting in front. In this village the men stayed young and did the gossiping and the women aged with grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home. I could leave the library and walk up the street on this side until I was opposite the grocery and then cross; that was preferable , although it took me past the post office and the Rochester house with the piles of rusted tin and the broken automobiles and the empty gas tins and the old mattresses and plumbing fixtures and wash tubs that the Harler family brought home and - I genuinely believe - loved.