by andrew klavan
turner, 335 pages, $29.99
Summon to mind the image of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers saying “Don’t mention the war.” For certain writers, such prohibitions are catnip. What you are not supposed to talk about changes over time, of course.
“For instance,” I wrote, when I reviewed Andrew Klavan’s 2015 novel, Werewolf Cop,
[t]he protagonist, Zach Adams, a detective in a rather mysterious élite squad, is married to a woman who stays at home with their two young children, a strong, sweet woman, a Bible-reader, “religious in the same beat-by-beat scriptural way [Zach’s] own mama had been, the way he assumed a good woman was supposed to be.” Some readers, I’m sure, are already feeling a bit nauseated and a bit angry at the same time—and I haven’t even mentioned the name of Zach’s “Proverbs 31 wife”: Grace. She is not phony, she is not a prig, she does not secretly hate her life. So be warned: this book is LOADED with provocations. The French have Michel Houellebecq; here in the US of A, we have Andrew Klavan.
Further provocation came with Klavan’s next book, published in 2017, a memoir called The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. (“You did . . . what? You became a Christian?”) But that's not all. Klavan has in recent years devoted a good deal of time and energy to a podcast, The Andrew Klavan Show (“Andrew laughs his way through Armageddon with political satire”). Whereas I’ve read all of his novels (including the early ones published under a pseudonym), and re-read many of them, I avoid this production. It’s too narrow, and encourages a chummy smugness among listeners of a “conservative” persuasion, in sharp contrast to his fiction—which resists any such sentiment, and where the reality that we are all sinners desperately in need of help comes through loud and clear. And yet, something essential to Klavan the writer animates Klavan the political satirist: The sheer excess of the show (such as the jokey sound effects—you can almost imagine him in a jester’s cap and bells) signals “Provocateur at Work.”
Another Kingdom, the first installment in a projected trilogy, also began as a podcast. I don’t want to reveal too much about the unfolding of the story, but I can tell you that it shifts back and forth between parallel worlds. The protagonist is a thirty-year-old would-be screenwriter, Austin Lively, living (but far from lively) in North Hollywood. Early in the book, he goes through a doorway and suddenly finds himself in a vaguely medieval setting (“Galiana”) and in immediate peril. Before long (via another doorway), he finds himself back in Hollywood. And so it goes through the course of the book, back and forth.
Austin first believes he’s suffering from a psychotic break, but his circumstances—whether in Hollywood or in Galiana—don’t allow for a great deal of reflection. This is a recurring situation for Klavan’s protagonists. You see something that seems impossible. What do you do? Tell yourself you didn’t see it? Make an appointment with a psychiatrist? Or do you say: All right, that happened, even though I can't explain it. What does it tell me? What does it mean? Add to this the many and varied inducements to actively deny reality, to pretend something isn’t happening when a good many people know that it is, and the often high cost of challenging such a false consensus.
I suspect that Klavan’s first intended audience for this novel is young men like his protagonist. That doesn’t mean he’s writing for them only. (I’m seventy years old, and I read the book with great interest.) His style is deliberately simplified, in word choice and sentence structure: “I turned from one guard to another, one stony, indifferent face to another, trying to tell them it was all a mistake, trying to push the thick words past my thick tongue. No one even glanced at me.” There’s a sense of humor here that reminds me of certain current movies, as when, early on, Austin finds himself thrown into a horrible dungeon in Galiana: “‘What are you doing?’ I shouted. ‘Stop! It’s all a mistake! I’m a story analyst!’”
Along the way, Another Kingdom also pays homage to the Narnia books and Middle-earth, while at the same time tweaking Lewis (who supplies the novel’s epigraph) and Tolkien. Galiana is a much earthier place than its predecessors. And, more centrally, it has a book at its heart—an elusive and mysterious novel entitled (yes) Another Kingdom, by the equally mysterious Ellen Evermore.
There’s much more that I have deliberately left out in this brief account, but I hope I have given you enough to go on. As for myself, I’m already impatient for the second volume.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.