After a while, it becomes clear that what propels the novel isn’t an overarching plot or a conspiracy but anecdotes, episodes, and fantastical interludes that point to the book’s guiding ethos. There are no answers, just an uncanny sense of what it’s like to be alive right now: constantly distracted, bounding between idealism and cynicism, ever conscious of the fact that we may never bring the size and complexity of our world into focus.
In the aftermath of World War II, Charlie is thrown together with a veteran female spy from the previous war in a high-stakes journey to locate disappeared figures from the past. Unsolved puzzles and cryptic riddles crop up like weeds in a bomb crater, and as math-whiz Charlie puts it, "There was always an answer and the answer was either right or it was wrong." But her adventures turn out to be messy, non-formulaic and not so black and white, which after all is what makes life — and novels — interesting.
You can tell when someone's writing about what they love, and whether it's the empty sky of Vanishing Point or the neurosis of Eyes of Laura Mars, Taylor's having a blast. Tying a dozen movie underdogs to a wider cultural history is just the icing on the cake.
This modernist narrative is best approached with a commitment to playfulness rather than a determination to hold all its strands close, and Self’s achievement is to make it intensely funny and humane. The book’s cerebral qualities are buttressed by his great skills as an observer and flaneur.
The main Reading Room—rightly, a tourist destination—with its ambient noise of chairs scraping and laptops clicking and book delivery bins clattering at the call desk is about as far as one could get from the silent, hermetically sealed workroom writers are supposed to crave. The trick is to make your own privacy—a pen, a yellow legal pad, and your own cone of personal space and you’re there.