The Invention of Fire: A Novel, Bruce Holsinger’s sequel to his highly acclaimed novel A Burnable Book again lets us smell, hear and especially see the intrigues and dark deeds that go in London and other locations, this time in the year 1386. We again get to enter this world through the eyes of the historical figures and poets John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. Holsinger’s poetic prose and lovingly rendered details of the lives of his characters make this novel not just a great work of fiction but a view of a world and a time that gave rise not just to English poetry but to the technology that still affects our lives today.
John Gower, a man who knows how to use damaging information he has about just about everyone who has some form of power also knows how to pay for others to give him telling details. He lives, metaphorically at least, by sifting through the dirt. The book opens with a beautifully grisly discovery of a mass murder by those who clean up the literal fecal matter that is dumped outside of London. No one seems to know who the men are, the way they were killed and who is responsible. Gower is called on to answer these questions. The more he learns, the more he and we see how intricately the plots within the historical fiction are spun by many of the leaders in London and within entire country. The more he learns the more he puts himself in danger as “a man who knew too much”. If I had to sum up what Gower’s journey (and ours too) consists of, I will borrow a phrase from Gore Vidal who used it to describe one of the great books ever written about mythology, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony: “ a labyrinth lit by fire”.
Throughout the book, Gower travels through the maze that are the London streets, trying to hold on to a thread of clues and words from those who are mostly those who are outcasts doomed to poverty or the hangman’s noose. He also walks another maze, the narrow walks that the guards on the walls of London inhabit. They and their leaders look down upon the masses in some case metaphorically but certainly with what the theory minded would call the “panopticon of power”. The see, if not quite from Olympian heights, what happens below and take actions to control the ebb and flow of daily life. London may not be the prison that Foucault uses to invoke his panopticon trope, but Holsinger certainly does depict the city as trapped within what Blake calls in his poem London “the prison house of language”. Few trust anyone else’s words and many of the words they themselves share are misleading or outright fabrications both to others and themselves too. Gower must sort through the refuse of words to find out the “true” story or at least a version of the story that serves to help place things in a useful and perhaps ultimately poetic order that will outlast the age in which they occurred.
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