Review: The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night: A Confession is a murder-mystery tale, set in the mid-19th century, with an attempt on the author’s part to portray the story in the contemporary (i.e. Cox presents the work as if it had been written in the 1800s).  The main character, Edward Glyver, has been slighted by an old school friend, and this betrayal leads to the ultimate downfall of both Glyver and his nemesis, Phoebus Duport.  The novel is, in fact, Glyver’s “confessions” which are written down and sent to a dear friend, who passes it along to the fictitious editor, J.J. Antrobus.  This “editor” makes notes and comments throughout, and points out insertions of found materials which were not included in the original package sent by Glyver to his friend and former employer, Tredgold.  These editorial notations and introduction are an attempt on the author’s part to re-assert the antiquity of the text – perhaps a clever nod to his bibliophile readers– for, as the reader soon will discover, bibliophiles play a prominent part in the plot, and in finding and unraveling the many mysteries to Glyver’s past and future.  Through clever use of flashback and an oftentimes seamless introduction of major and minor characters – all of whom, past and present, become related and relevant to the plot, Cox develops a fast-moving, believable literary history of a multitude of fictitious authors and nobles.

The Good:
Cox’s story is a delightful throwback to the Victorian and even Gothic romances and mysteries – with obvious nods to Dickens (Great Expectations, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and even Radcliffe (The Italian).  Interestingly enough, though, the book was most reminiscent to me of non-English writers, such as Peter Carey’s re-telling of Great Expectations vis-à-vis Jack Maggs.  I was also clearly reminded of some American works, such as Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” – both of which deal with this idea of self-destructive, calculated, and unrepentant revenge, as well as love lost and unrequited.  I found the language and dialogue interesting and fluid.  The main character, Glyver, while despicable at times – and certainly starting off on the wrong foot with his readers – can be sympathized with and championed, despite his many failings (such as an obvious love-blindness).  For bibliophiles, the many references to major literary works is laudable, as is the fact that Glyver’s clues and mysteries are resolved by research into lost letters, old histories, and personal libraries.   I particularly liked that, while revenge is sought & found, there is no satisfactory resolution for the avenger – indeed, his life likely would have amounted to much more (and certainly have been much simpler) had Glyver either 1) never looked into the mystery of his past or 2) chosen not to seek the destiny which he was denied (the conclusion his mother so hoped he would choose).  In this way, and only in this way, can we as the reader empathize with Glyver & root for him throughout, and then also be satisfied that Glyver does not get more than he really deserves – considering he is not really such a great guy, after all.

The Bad:
In reference to this edition, specifically, there were a few proofreading oversights, which I found surprising in a Norton publication.  I also disliked the idea of this fictional editor who inserts his own clarifications and footnotes throughout the novel – it is largely unnecessary and ultimately distracting (not to mention that Cox comes across rather indulgent by including explanations and clarifications to his more obscure references – almost as if he is patting himself on the back for including such ambiguous or learned information).  There were also quite a few holes in the plot, most of which include Glyver not picking up on facts which are blatantly apparent to the reader.  Does the author believe his audience– supposedly literature lovers and bibliophiles who would be quite privy to sub-plots and deconstruction- is too obtuse to figure these things out without them being spelled out, step-by-step, as Glyver seems to need?  One hundred pages could easily have been saved by allowing Glyver, a self-identified genius, to have come to conclusions which the average reader has certainly come to on his own.  There is also a stunning lack of characterization – aside from Glyver and perhaps Tredgold, the remaining characters are relatively flat and indistinguishable.  The servants, even, who are of severely different capacities and mentalities, to Glyver, all seem to be the same person in style.  In a seven hundred page novel, perhaps more attention could have been paid to the other characters, particulary to the Lord and Lady Dupont, whose relationship is so imperative to the plot, but who are never truly engaged.  The combination of including unnecessary clarifications and “spellings-out” of plot points, with the major oversights in character development, I feel, prohibit a generally well-written, entertaining, and intelligent novel from being quite possibly a great work.

The Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0
Despite the oversights, the over-indulgence, and the author’s obvious assumption that his readers are incredibly less learned than he is, The Meaning of Night is still an achievement.  Glyver’s story is interesting, and the psychological play in terms of championing an anti-hero is always intriguing.  The pace is good and author’s passion for literature and books in general is clear and well received (by me, at least).  What could have improved this rating to a 4.5 or 5.0 would be, perhaps, a bit less arrogance by the author – and a bit more trust in his readers.  It is impossible to develop and present a piece with hopes of earning “epic” or lasting status, while assuming the readers need to be hand-held throughout.  Cox is said to be writing a sequel and, I hope, he has been encouraged to treat his reader as a partner in his journey, rather than as an apprentice or subordinate.

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0393330342
Source: Owned Copy
Rating: 4.0/5.0

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