The Meaning of Night

by Michael Cox
608 pages,
ISBN: 0771023057

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A Victorian Psycho
by Tim McGrenere

Michael Cox took 30 years to write his first novel, a Victorian revenge story entitled The Meaning of Night. Thirty years! In an age of instant books, and instant culture, this is a shocking amount of time for anyone to spend on anything, let alone their first book. The results of Cox's patience and care are obvious, though, and readers will be thankful for his painstaking efforts. The Meaning of Night is a gorgeously written and skillfully crafted literary thriller that transcends the bounds of genre and presents us with a beguiling portrait of one of the most intriguing characters in recent memory.
The book's conceit is that it contains a 'real' confessional memoir written by an Englishman, Edward Glyver, in 1850. The confession is discovered much later in the Cambridge University Library, and then "transcribed from a holograph manuscript," edited, and now presented to us with an introduction by J. J. Antrobus, a professor of "Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction." We are promised by the Professor that the contents are "shocking" in their "conscienceless brutality and explicit sexuality," and we are told that while many of the book's characters and events are real, the name of the author/confessor could not be authenticated and is likely a pseudonym, as are the many other names Glyver employs in his memoir. This prologue is an intriguing little puff piece, though one wonders what effect such a preamble could have on a jaded modern reader who is likely to say, "Okay, your story's 'real', just get on with it. Shock me."
The first sentence of the actual confession, when it comes, isn't particularly shocking, but it is one of the most bracing openers I have ever read: "After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper." That is, certainly, an example of the "conscienceless brutality" we were warned about. Immediately we sense that we're in the presence of a Victorian equivalent of Bret Easton Ellis's epicurean psychopath in American Psycho. This may be a Victorian tome, but it quickly becomes clear that this won't be a Dickensian romp with an orphaned boy. No, this book has a distinctly darker feel, and that post-modern shiver comes on us more strongly as Glyver proceeds to describe in detail how he murdered the red-haired man.
The victim, it turns out, is merely a bit of target practice Glyver elects to give himself before going after his real enemy, one Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, a popular writer who, we are told, has offended and betrayed Glyver in some grievous fashion that warrants capital revenge. The red-haired man is a total stranger who just happened to catch Glyver's eye. Glyver kills him in order to assure himself that he has the will to murder Daunt when he has the chance. The nature of Daunt's betrayal is not yet clear.
The novel's opening chapter is startling and gripping, and constitutes a clever bit of narrative structuring on Cox's part. We are presented with a very unusual and troubling scene featuring a distinctly unsympathetic character committing an unpardonable crime¨a crime that, as it turns out, is committed near the conclusion of Glyver's story. The murder in the opening scene is followed by narrative shifts back in time as Glyver recounts his life story, and ultimately reveals why Daunt must die.
Here we encounter the much more familiar and predictable aspects of Victorian writing. Glyver grows up a relatively poor child with a brutal father and a mother who slaves away (at fiction writing, no less) to provide for her son. A mysterious benefactor turns up who provides the funds to send the promising young bibliographical scholar to Eton, where he first encounters Phoebus Daunt. And so we're set on a path that twists and turns, involving buried secrets, the potential for the inheritance of a large fortune and a baronial peerage, and a love betrayed. In the midst of these stock elements, that opening crime is always present in our minds, shaping our impressions of everything we read. We're left wondering what aspects of the conventional story to trust, coming as they do from a man who killed a red-haired stranger and then ate some shellfish, a man who can seem delusional, opium-addled, and paranoid on the one hand, and lucid, insightful, and even upright on the other.
What makes it all work is the character of Glyver, without doubt the great creative achievement of Cox's novel. His is always an engaging voice that grows in complexity and outstrips the cold-blooded murderer we see in the opening chapter. Glyver offers himself and his world to us in vivid and dynamic Victorian prose infused with subtle wit and constant cynicism. Here is Glyver describing the city:

"London was cold and dismal¨impenetrable, with choking fog for days on end, the streets slimy with mud and grease, the people as yellow and unwholesome-looking as the enveloping miasma."

And here is his description of a funeral:

"It was a most melancholy spectacle: the ladies in their bombazine and crepe huddled together under umbrellas, the gentlemen, for the most part, standing unsheltered in the rain or beneath the yew-trees that grew about the church-yard, the black bands on their tall hats fluttering in the wind; the ranks of mutes and other mercenaries supplied by Mr. Gutteridge¨some a little the worse for liquor¨forlornly holding up their batons and soaking plumes; and the simple wooden coffin being borne towards the terrible gaping gash in the wet earth, preceded by the imposing figure of Dr. Daunt. Everything contributed to a bitter sense of the futility of the mortal condition. All was black, black, black, like the coal-angry sky above."

The quality of the writing is consistent throughout the book as Glyver takes us from dingy opium dens in Bluegate-Fields to the windy desolation of coastal Northamptonshire to the fantastic baronial castle and grounds of Evenwood. Like the opium master he sometimes visits, Glyver is a potent weaver of dreams and perhaps that is one reason the reader is sometimes charmed into forgetting the murder we know he has committed.
Unlike more pedestrian historical fictions, Cox's creation surpasses literary nostalgia¨although it is still that. Any reader who longs to be immersed in the sheer oceanic glory of the English language as it was, before it dried up into its current puddle of soundbites and text messaging, will fall in love with this book if only for its august vocabulary. Viewed as a work of historical fiction or as a literary thriller, it is a superbly executed exemplar of both genres.
Never once does the reader feel the sheer weight of research that Cox must have undertaken over the 30 years it took him to write The Meaning of Night. When Glyver gets into the legal aspects of baronial peerage, we are given only what is necessary to understand his particular quandary, whereas a lesser author might have whacked us over the head with all he or she had learned about the subject. The result is a convincing and exquisite dream of a book, with a character who transcends his Victorian era and takes his place as a fresh creation¨a fully realized individual who is disturbing but also endlessly fascinating. By the end of the book, we've forgotten J. J. Antrobus and his distracting little footnotes throughout the text. The meaning of The Meaning of Night is not found in the gimmicky bits but in the intoxicating complexity of its beguiling central character, whose true name we never know, and who is left to deliver the book's final haunting words, thankfully without explanatory comment. ˛

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