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A Strange Habit of Mind
by andrew klavan
mysterious press, 288 pages, $26.95

A year ago, I wrote about Andrew Klavan’s superb novella When Christmas Comes, the first book in a series featuring Cameron Winter, an English professor in the Midwest with a shadowy history (evidently he served in some under-the-radar intelligence agency). Now comes a novel with a wonderful title, A Strange Habit of Mind, in which Winter is caught up in a tangled and quickly escalating conflict set in motion when he learns of the suicide, in San Francisco, of a former student of his; at the same time, we learn more about Winter’s past. The book will be released Oct. 25.

Klavan is at a point in his long career as a writer where he can effortlessly do several things at once without confusing the reader or breaking the fictional spell. So in this book, as in its predecessor, we are often privy to Winter’s reactions against contemporary culture in various manifestations (the movies, the clothes, and much more), sometimes explicitly contrasted with Winter’s own preferences (for great literature, classical music, and more). This could become tedious if it weren’t seasoned with humor: Klavan’s disdain is quite serious, as is his love for the Tradition, but he is also indulging himself (the Old Fart shtick), and he knows that we know it.

But then, just as we think we’ve got Klavan’s MO taped, there’s another twist, a doozy. It works like this. Lots of people buy into all sorts of nutty ideas about the ways in which some evil cabal (take your pick) is manipulating us, pushing a distorted reality on us, and so on. Then other people, some of them with blue checks on Twitter, pop up to discredit this arrant nonsense, these deluded masses and the masters who exploit them. And yet—here’s the kicker—what if much that passes for informed good sense, the picture of our common world that pretty much all sensible people share, is itself riddled with falsehoods and distortions? Maybe our consensus reality is subject to deep manipulation. Whoa. Shades of Philip K. Dick.

For a good while now, that has been Klavan’s recurring theme, as it is in the first two Cameron Winter books. A little way past the midway point of this novel, at the start of Part Three (“The Prince of Shadows”), there’s a section set in italics, marking one of Cam’s sessions with his therapist, Margaret Whitaker. I can’t go into detail about this session without spoiling the unfolding of the story, but it gets both to the heart of Cam’s heavy burden of guilt and to the machinations he uncovered when he began to look into the circumstances of his former student’s suicide, an investigation that quickly led him into conflict with Gerald Byrne, a world-class tech baron, environmentalist, and philanthropist.

Here he was now, on the video playing on Winter’s laptop. A youthful, tall, willowy figure. A little too thin, but fit and nimble. With one of those long biblical beards men grow when their heads can no longer contain their self-regard and it simply flows out of their chins all the way down to their sternums. Also a black ponytail. Also a purple flower tattoo on his neck. Also a ring in his nose. Oh, how original and eccentric he was.

Let me note in passing that I myself have a beard some have called biblical (though I’m not sure how it would measure up against Byrne’s). But never mind: You get the picture. Byrne is indeed a loathsome character, and one whose chosen domain gives him extraordinary powers to manipulate “reality.”

After I read a novel I greatly admire for the first time, I often read it again right away, in part simply to extend the pleasure but also to consider how the book is made. And sometimes when I do that, I imagine reading the book at hand in concert with this or that reader I esteem—living or, as in many cases, dead: Coleridge or Adam Roberts; Hugh Kenner or Viktor Shklovsky; Elizabeth Sewell or Michael Chabon (whose politics are quite different from Klavan’s but who, I’m sure, could illumine his craft); and so on. If you read A Strange Habit of Mind, I’d love to hear from you as well. 

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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