The first thing I’ll say about it is that it has critical praise coming out the wazoo. The second thing I’ll say about it is that I had some assumptions and preconceptions about the book (aside from the heaps of critical praise) that made me expect something completely different.
I think the critical praise is warranted, for two reasons. First, this guy can truly write. He has a gift with words that makes reading this book easy and enjoyable. Even when he uses metaphor or figurative language to make a point, it’s understandable and meaningful (unlike, e.g., Michael Chabon’s use of metaphor, which is often incomprehensible). And even his straight literal writing is often moving. Example: after slipping some money into a poor boy’s bag while strolling through 1922 Cairo, one of the characters writes:
There is a mist of good luck, I suppose, hanging about the worthy or at least the entertaining poor — as if their one compensation for their lot is to decide upon your future, or as if they are an easy way to impress whichever gods one thinks will be judging one later or clearing one’s path sooner. Or, perhaps there is no surer way to prove to yourself that the poor are not you than by giving them your money.
I don’t know what it was about that particular passage, but it just resonated with me. Second, I think he’s constructed a whopper of a tale here, but more on that below.
As for my preconceptions and assumptions about the book, let me just say that for some reason I completely expected the next Da Vinci Code, set in the desert. I expected chases, thrills, suspense, treason, a Vatican-controlled conspiracy, secret clubs, aliens, etc. Okay, maybe not aliens, but I had visions of a hero being chased through the tunnels of the pyramids, clutching the final piece of a puzzle that some evil organization wished to keep secret. But this book contains none of that. In fact, in large part because of its structure, there is very little in the way of suspense, spine-tingling confrontation, chips, dips, chains, whips and the like. This is because the story is not written as a true narrative, but rather is pieced together solely and exclusively out of journal entries and correspondence by the main characters.
This structure initially led me to the point of confusion, as I tried to understand who was who, what their story was, and how all of the characters mentioned related to one another. And I’ll admit it was a bit of a struggle early on, but in the end I believe it was worth the effort. And I’ll also say that the book seemed a bit longer than it needed to be. I don’t know why I say that, because if you ask me to go back and excise portions of it, I don’t know that I could pick any particular pieces that could be done away with. But the fact of the matter is that the book is 383 pages long (which I think would require two trips to el bano for DJ Cayenne given his ferocious speedreading abilities), but the denouement (sp?), to the extent there is one, takes place almost exclusively in the final 20 or 25 pages.
And when I say “to the extent there is one”, what I mean is that this book, in retrospect (meaning when I woke up at 2:00 am last night and started thinking about it a couple hours after finishing it), reminds me quite a bit of Life of Pi, in that the reader is essentially presented with conflicting accounts of what truly happened, and reasonable minds can differ as to what the true result was. If anyone else reads this, I would love to discuss it to find out if what I think happened is what you think happened. What I think happened truly is a whopper of a tale.