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‘Crossings’ an inventive, impressive literary experiment

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There is a tremendous amount of craft that goes into writing a book. The meticulous attention to detail necessary to build a truly engaging narrative is incredible, folding together character development and plot and research, all with an eye toward continuity and consistency. And if it all comes together just right, you get a killer story.

Now imagine doing all that while constructing things so that the book can be consumed in a different order and still tell a killer story, albeit one with a different shape.

That’s what Alex Landragin did with his debut novel “Crossings” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99), a marvelous puzzle box of a book that spans centuries and offers more than one way to consume its compelling story. It’s a novel in three parts, built to be read either in the standard front-to-back fashion or via an alternate to-and-fro chapter order.

Epic in scope, spanning a century and a half and featuring a cast of characters that is somehow both sprawling and small, “Crossings” is that relatively rare experiment in form that doesn’t sacrifice substance in the name of style. It’s conceptually cool, of course, but it’s also beautifully written and one hell of a riveting tale.

Our first encounter is with an unnamed bookbinder, tasked with working his particular craftsmanship on an elderly manuscript at the behest of a mysterious noblewoman; her only caveat is that he not read it. Circumstances lead to him breaking that agreement, however, wherein he learns that it is a work in three parts – but that the noblewoman has assembled her own alternate reading order, called simply “the Baroness sequence.”

The first part, titled “The Education of a Monster,” purports to be a lost work penned by the famed French poet Charles Baudelaire, a ghost story of sorts ostensibly intended for an audience of one. It’s a fantastic tale in which the literary notable discovers that his understanding of the world is far more limited than he ever could have known.

In part two – “City of Ghosts” – we meet a man in exile (modeled on Walter Benjamin) imprisoned by nocturnal terrors, only to see his nightmares assuaged by an encounter with a woman whose stories soothe him even as they draw him into a weirdly conspiratorial world revolving around a literary society and a rare manuscript – the very same manuscript that makes up Part One.

Thirdly, we have “Tales of the Albatross,” a decades-spanning look at a native of a small Pacific island whose ability to swap souls with other people (in a process from which the novel takes its name) leads her into a world of global adventure, wherein she lives multiple lifetimes – as man and woman, as poor and rich, as aristocrat and urchin – on a quest for something she lost long ago.

These pieces play off one another beautifully, standing on their own but intricately intertwined as well. That intricacy is on full display once one ventures down the road of the Baroness sequence, giving the reader a story that is no less entrancing even as they bounce around the book.

Obviously, attempting something like this is a wildly ambitious undertaking. The degree of difficulty is off the charts; just one misstep or miscalculation and the entire enterprise collapses under the weight of its own hubris. And yet, “Crossings” succeeds. This book somehow works equally well in both respects in which it can be consumed, telling similar yet distinct versions of this tale. Connections beget connections as the complexity of the web being woven expands almost exponentially. It’s a remarkable feat of literary acumen, the writerly equivalent of juggling chainsaws on a high wire. In short, it’s impressive as hell.

But while the stylistic choices need to be addressed, they aren’t the only reason to engage with this book. “Crossings” isn’t just a parlor trick. It’s a story about the nature of the soul and the strength of love, a story about stories and the power of storytelling. It’s a literary mystery and a rip-roaring adventure. It’s far more than just its device, with plenty of steak to go with the sizzle.

A big part of what makes this book work so marvelously is the verisimilitude of the period settings. Landragin is clearly a gifted researcher, having thoroughly cobbled together vividly detailed portraits of such varied spots as wartime Paris and a tiny South Pacific island; the richness practically leaps off the page. Having constructed such bounteous backgrounds, the deep-seated complexity of his characters can be fully unleashed.

And oh, what characters! Whether we’re talking about the secret life of a noted historical figure or the fully invented multi-generational journey of a body-hopping soul, every single person we meet is possessed of an engaging dimensional depth. They are full-bodied and tangible. They breathe.

If “Crossings” were nothing more than a gimmick, a literary trick, it would be damned impressive. But the fact that it is so much more – a meditation on love and identity and the power of storytelling – is what makes this book one of the most engaging and thought-provoking that I’ve read in some time.

Last modified on Friday, 07 August 2020 13:36

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