Jon Fasman published The Geographer’s Library in 2005. Fasman now is the editor on the Asian desk at the magazine The Economist. He spent several years in Russia and neighboring countries; when it comes to the east, it’s probably fair to say he knows his stuff.
Half of The Geographer’s Library disappointed me. The other half was a delight. That is not the most common experience for me to have when I’m reading. I’m recommending it, but I am going to talk about the problems.
The book, which is general fiction, is twelve years old and it’s probable that some of my problems stem directly from that; in many ways it’s dated. The “present tense” story involves Paul, a twenty-three-year-old reporter who has recently graduated from a tiny liberal arts college in upstate New York. Paul has drifted into a small town where he writes for the local weekly, expertly guided by the first of several male mentors, Art. Art was a big noise back in the day. Now he’s retired, kicking back, but keeping his hand in with the local weekly, and prepared to use all his still-considerable connections to smooth the way for Paul.
Paul is assigned to cover the obituary of an eccentric town resident who died in his home under unusual circumstances. It looks like Jaan Puhapaev died of natural causes, or maybe by accident, in his home. It’s odd, though that there was an anonymous 911 call made about his death. Puhapaev was a scholar and a professor of Baltic history at the very college Paul attended, and when Paul interviews people at the college, Pahapaev’s life, he uncovers mysteries and inconsistencies. And then the medical examiner assigned to the autopsy is killed in a hit and run accident.
The present tense story is leisurely, with Paul occasionally going out to ask a few questions or investigate something. He blunders into a strange and vaguely sinister drinking club, for instance, that the dead professor used to frequent. Mostly, though, Fasman uses this part of the book to give us detailed portraits of whimsical characters like the other writer on the Lincoln Clarion, or to introduce another one of Paul’s mentors, Professor Jadid. Then, of course, Paul meets Hannah Rowe, the beautiful, shy, innocent music teacher who was Pahapaev’s only friend in town. Hannah is sweet and likes music and she’s beautiful. She’s tall and beautiful. Did I mention she is beautiful?
No one would mistake this book for a mystery or a thriller because the pacing and structure aren’t right. The clues are tantalizing; the history of the Soviet Union and its collapse are interesting, and the prose shines now and then with beautiful bits of description. Paul’s passivity is a problem, but it seems that’s it’s his defining characteristic, so I guess I can’t complain.
Oh, wait a minute. Yes, I can. Paul’s passivity is his defining characteristic. He is hiding out from his overbearing father who is a high-powered lawyer. Paul attracts male mentors right and left, and my problem with the story is not this, or not only this, but that they do the work of the story for him. Art and Jadid, between them (there is another male mentor, Jadid’s nephew who is a police detective) do all the work and periodically loop Paul in to provide interactive lectures while he nods and says things like, “Oh, I get it.” Reading this, I realized how very tired I am of “literary” works that offer up passive male characters.
At the end of the Paul tells us that “I finally felt as if I were something other than an observer in my own life.” That’s good, but his final actions in the book don’t support that insight. Maybe that’s the point. I don’t know.
The other problem is the way women characters are treated. Art’s wife comes in to do a one-act skit that shows how in love she and Art still are. Paul’s ex-girlfriend Mia shows up to talk about Paul. And there’s Hannah, the Designated Femme Fatale; who is quite femme but not very successful at being fatale. Women do nothing important; except for the Designated Femme Fatale, they aren’t important. And if we might have missed that point, Fasman underscores it for us by offering up Art’s daughter as a conciliation prize to Paul at the end of the book; a woman we have never seen and who is given two sentences in a summation paragraph. Dana isn’t a person; she doesn’t matter, and what’s most noteworthy about her is how much she looks like her father. She’s like a feudal European princess married off to cement an alliance, because what matters is Paul’s relationship with Art.
So, what did I like about the book? What I liked, what I loved, about The Geographer’s Library is the whole second story, the secret Pahapaev was carrying; a tale about a collection of alchemical artifacts, some dating from the eleventh century, and the secret society of (male) alchemists who are attempting to gather them all together. This part of the book brings us to what Fasman does extremely well; travel writing. The quest takes place during and after the collapse of the USSR. We follow a ruthless factotum as he tracks down and “liberates” each of the items. Through his eyes, mostly, we see marketplaces and hotels, landscapes and cityscapes in regions that were formerly the USSR: now technically independent, they exist in a power vacuum. We see tribalism and bad Soviet architecture. I held my breath sometimes as I hoped a character would survive, or as I feared they would. Fortunately, this was about half the book, and it kept me going.
I liked the conceit of the collection and the quest for immortality these men are pursuing. It tipped the balance of the book for me. Actually, Fasman’s line-by-prose tipped the balance. I’m going to quote a couple of lines I loved, and then end with one that made my snort and roll my eyes because it’s so bad.
“Jadid sat still, attentive and feline, while the smoke from his cigarette glittered with dust as it poured upward through the sunbeams.” That’s just gorgeous.
This is my favorite passage in the book: “Storytellers and spice-sellers, he reflected, had an unnatural power over the memory and should be avoided.”
And here’s the passage that is so wrong it’s bad-movie-funny. This is Mia dissecting Paul as a boyfriend: “Sometimes I felt you were like a sponge, you know, just sitting quietly listening to me talk or vent, without giving anything back. I guess that quality would make you a good reporter. A rotten boyfriend, but a good reporter.”
Yes, because what women really hate in a boyfriend is someone who listens without interrupting, advising, or telling you what you should have done. Of course what Mia probably means is that Paul wasn’t present in the relationship. That isn’t what it says, though. The story sees Mia as a woman who cannot define herself without checking her reflection in the mirror of her boyfriend’s opinion.
In spite of my irritation, the balance tips towards “recommended.” I hope that with his first novel under his belt, Fasman got all that Golden Boy, I-can-afford-to-be-passive-because-everything-is-handed-to-me crap out of his system. He published a second novel, The Unpossessed City, set mostly in Moscow, and I liked this one enough that I plan to hunt it up and read it.