Review of Codex by Lev Grossman
by Lev Grossman
If you were an investment banker before the 2008 recession, and you had just begun your first vacation in four years prior to moving from New York to a cushy new position in London, would you take on a job unpacking and cataloguing an ancient library for an elusive, eccentric, and extremely wealthy British couple who also happen to be nobility? That’s what Edward Wozny does in Codex, and it changes everything. On the surface, that seems like it should be a good thing to say about a novel. Change—and specifically conflict—keeps things interesting. Unfortunately, Lev Grossman seems to have a knack for writing characters with whom it becomes difficult to sympathize, and Codex proves no different in this respect from his later efforts.
I’ve catalogued books before. During one of my summers working at the art gallery, I spent several hours a week in the tiny room that served as our library. It contained a diverse collection of arts books, catalogues from other galleries, newsletters and flyers announcing exhibitions from other galleries, and all manner of slides and film reels and bric-a-brac mouldering away. Armed, like Edward, with a laptop and a cataloguing program and, like Edward, lacking any experience in this field, I gamely went through the collection. I looked up books in online databases, estimated how much they might be worth for insurance purposes based on their condition and a search of used booksellers. I printed labels with Dewey classifications on them and stuck them to the spines before replacing the books on their shelves. It was an interesting experience, but it took a long time. And that tiny library is a lot smaller than the one Edward must tackle.
So I can understand Edward’s reluctance to get involved initially. And to some extent I can empathize with how he gets sucked into the task after that first day. But I don’t understand how, after he is dismissed, the hunt for a codex by Gervase of Langford still consumes him. Why is he still so obsessed with the Duchess? Grossman gives Edward an academic background in English, probably in an attempt to make Edward’s atrophied interests germane to the subject matter here. It’s not enough, though. Similarly, Edward’s newly found passion for the game that his techie friend Zeph passes on to him is unimpressive.
The problem here is simple: Grossman tries to emphasize that Edward is acting out of character. Yet we have met Edward so recently that we don’t have a good baseline for his character. So instead of internalizing this idea that Edward is deviating from his typical lifestyle, it just seems like Edward is a massive idiot. And my opinion of him does not improve at any point in this novel. He consistently and constantly invites disaster by confiding in people or failing to act when action should have been taken. The entire fizzling, disappointing coda to Codex could have been titled, “Why Edward Deserves to Fail”. At no point does he decide to take charge and do something his way.
Its black hole of a main character aside, Codex tries to be a thriller and just doesn’t work. Worse, it tries to be a literary thriller. This is no The Name of the Rose, an eminently superior book that Grossman name-checks with a bit of a pretentious literary wink. I don’t think Codex is trying to be The Name of the Rose, because it lacks any of the academic or philosophical depth that makes the latter such an amazing book. Nevertheless, Codex just isn’t very thrilling.
One reason is a lack of strong, nefarious antagonists. The Duke and Duchess are remote characters whom, aside from a brief cameo at the beginning, we never see. Moreover, Grossman tries to build the former up as this imposing person who should not trifled with, but he doesn’t even kill off a lackey. How are we supposed to find these people threatening? About the worst thing that happens is that Edward doesn’t sleep enough and fails to pack before his move to London. Oooh, so terrible. Where are the consequences here? Various people seem to insinuate that it isn’t easy to disentangle oneself from the grasp of the Wents once they have their cold, rich fingers closed around you. Yet at no point does Grossman ever do anything to demonstrate this is true.
And then we have the ending. Without going into spoiler territory, let’s just say that the eponymous codex puts in manifests in time. But, of course, Edward screws it all up even as he gets betrayed. We don’t really learn why he gets betrayed, nor do we get even a hint of the aftermath involved. Indeed, after all that sabre-rattling about how unpleasant his life would be if he failed at his task or displeased the Duke, the ending of the book makes it seem more like Edward is just going to get let off the hook. But I guess we’ll never know.
Reading Codex wasn’t a waste of time. It provided a certain level of empty enjoyment. It’s clear that Grossman did some research here, and his love of literature shines through. Edward and Margaret’s conversations about medieval scholarship and speculations on Gervase of Langford were genuinely interesting. It’s these few redeeming qualities that make this book so disappointing. As with The Magicians and The Magician King, Grossman infuses the story with a highly sophisticated literary subtext—but he does so at the expense of the story itself, and that is problematic.