Film-maker David Lynch once said that he spent a great deal of time sitting in a chair and staring off into the middle distance. He also said that while it looked like he was doing nothing, that those were the times he was going after what he called “the really big fish.”
Which brings me to Cannonbridge, by Jonathan Barnes. This novel seems like it is going to be another literary thriller, with academics chasing leads from one scenic or historic destination to another, searching for a lost manuscript. It morphs, however, not once, but many times, and ends up being something quite different, and quite unique.
The story starts with Toby Judd, a professor of literature who wife has left him for a colleague who has just published a best-seller, a guide to one of the greatest and most popular English writers of all time, one Matthew Cannonbridge. Now not only is Cannonbridge noted as an author, but during his life he was also a kind of Fifth Business for other writers, showing up in the lives of writers and changing their fortunes, for both good and ill. We witness him besting both Lord Byron and the Shelley’s, (where Mary first started on Frankenstein), at the Lord’s Villa at Geneva. He also appears to a young Dickens at the boot-black factory, and Poe right before his last fatal debauch.
In a fit of drunken despondency which produces unusual clarity, Toby decides that something is distinctly wrong with both the life and works of Cannonbridge. Marshalling his sources he decides to give a lecture denouncing Cannobridge and his canon as a fake. His lecture is a flop, and Toby gets the hook after only a few minutes, but a seedy man who spoke to Toby beforehand catches the whole thing on his phone. Without his knowledge, the video goes viral. Toby has other problems, however. The seedy man is found dead, an apparent suicide, and the police come and question Toby. Later, one of the inspectors come back to speak to Toby, and tells him that the death is probably a murder, and he thinks it best for Toby to take it on the lam. Later, that detective ends up dead as well, and Toby is wanted as a person of interest.
This is where things begin to get really strange.
On the run Toby runs onto a waitress, Gabriella, who gives him an enormous amount of help. The fact that she used to be a soldier is also very handy. Together the two of them begin to unlock a sinister conspiracy that drifts from Academia, to politics, and, (after a particularly hallucinatory trip to a private island), a place that is not of this world.
The latter parts of this novel are tough for me, because the plot is rife with spoilers that I will not divulge, and the narrative shift ends up placing the reader firmly in a place that feels a bit like Lovecraft and a bit like American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. A move like that requires a lot of skill, and Mr. Barnes has it. His sense of plot and character is sure, and his prose, fluid and supple, keeps the reader grounded. While his imagination took me farther and farther afield his grasp of story kept me with Toby the whole time. In the end, as Toby grapples with the nature of reality and creation, I found myself guessing just what strange and wonderful place Mr. Barnes was taking me. It was a trip I enjoyed the whole time.
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