THE MEANING OF NIGHT by Michael Cox ( John Murray 600 pp.£17.99)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
There are books that cannot be written in their own time; it is for later ages to tell those particular stories and fill in the gaps. It is our awareness of this, and of the simple fact that the same applies to our own time, that makes some writers perform that act of justice, speak for the underdogs whose voices were suppressed, or even for the villains. Michael Cox is a scholar of the Victorian ghostly tale, who has edited anthologies of spy stories and detective stories; it was hardly to be supposed that his first novel would stay away from the period, or from the uncanny and elaborately plotted.
Like many genuine Victorian novels, this complexly constructed pastiche depends on an inheritance and an imposture; the narrator, Glyver, tells most people that his name is Glapthorn, and even the name he thinks is his may be a lie. We know from the beginning of his story, when he kills a complete stranger to prove to himself that he is capable of murder, that this is a man who inhabits the borderland of sanity, and it is never entirely clear how much of what he tells us is true, even within the confines of a novel.
Glyver is a good hater, with reason to hate - according to his version of events, the poet Phoebus Daunt got him expelled from Eton long before Daunt set about acquiring the inheritance and fiancee that Glyver claims should be his by right. If Glyver is sane, all this may be true - but we know that he is deeply amoral and deeply troubled. Cox makes us read his novel as if it were two texts - the straightforward Victorian narrative of intrigue and the modern novel of psychopathology - that overlay each other.
This is a story which, in summary, stretches plausibility - a tale of revenges that involve staggering injustices the revenger never thought of and dastardly plots requited with equal violence. This is a novel of sensation as outrageous in its use of coincidence and gloomy surprise as any of the books of Wilkie Collins or Dickens; Cox is free to get away with all of this because he is playing by the rules of another time and its favourite fictions. Like Palliser, Faber and Waters, Cox is making the Victorian era a switchback ride for the reader's mind.
Because it is written in a fairly accurate rendition of Victorian prose, and is dotted with all the observations and references appropriate to a narrative of the 1850s, Cox's book also sets side by side the Victorian mind as it liked to think of itself and the Victorian mind as we know it to have been. Glyver finds no contradiction in his chaste passion fof the woman he loves, his aimiable devotion to his courtesan mistress and his casual sodomizing of young whores picked up in the street; he is a man of a time not our own, which is to say that some of the time he seems like an alien. Even the clues he uses to solve mysteries are from areas of knowledge - the Victorian underworld, the higher bibliography - that we need to have explained to us.
Read as if every word of the narrative were reliable, this is a rich and complicated tale of a man wronged beyond endurance who takes an almost pointless revenge knowing that it will change nothing. Read as a madman's rant in which nothing is reliable, 'The Meaning of Night' is a journey into darkness whose bleak sense of entrappedness is only occasionally lightened by the doomed Glyver's occasional triumphs and happinesses.
and a brief review from the TLS
MILLENNIAL MONSTERS by Anne Allison
(University of California 332 pp.)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
We can learn a lot from a culture by its toys, especially when radically different cultures find those toys congenial enough to start playing with them. Anne Allison's useful book traces the history of the Japanese toy industry as a major source of wealth, which has also allowed Japan to carve out small spaces of cultural hegemony: from Godzilla to Pikachu ( the little yellow creature from Pokemon), Americans in particular have been prepared to buy into another culture's dreams rather than perpetually inflict its own on others.
Allison is a little too inclined to see toys as a mode of social discipline - it is fanciful, for example, to see tamagotchis, the small virtual animals that you have to feed, pet and nurture to keep alive, as a serious attempt by the toy industry to do something about Japan's falling birth rate. Much of what she has been told by the marketing men is a rationalization of what has worked, rather than, necessarily, a proud boast of a mission accomplished. After all, no marketing man or advertising executive is ever going to ackowledge that events have their own logic, are always going to assert their control over the process by which particular toys and their associated material will find their way into the hearts of millions.
She also suffers from the fallacy that what has happened, and is still happening, will continue to happen, only more so. The dominance of Pokemon in electronic games, films, trading cards and so on both in Japan and elsewhere was and is a real phenomenon that she needed to try and account for. What she does not do is draw on the experience of the earlier similar phenomena she discusses - Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, for example - and examine how a craze dies. She successfully demonstrates that late capitalism will always find new product to sell, but she is too caught up with cute yellow monsters to see that capitalism is also quite ruthless in moving on, in binning last year's fads. After all, how many tamagotchis have you seen recently?