It's Great Expectations! It's Faust! It's a whole slew of other books and then it's Dorian Gray! It's the encore to the enormously popular The Shadow of the Wind, that's what The Angel's Game is, and I haven't had the refrain "This is stupid" running through my mind so many times since The Da Vinci Code. Not that I think author Carlos Ruiz Zafon is at all stupid, he's obviously exceedingly clever and well-read. But when the smart stuff in a book is only a McGuffinly means of getting the sensationalistic hoohah in motion, then I know someone's jerking me around instead of giving me anything meaningful. And I resent it. There's no reason for postmodernism to devolve into a mere amusement park ride if the reader's expectations have been raised to expect something more. Shouldn't a book that's so blatantly bookish do more than bombard us with thrills and chills?
Pip, er, David Martin starts out writing serialized melodramas for the newspaper in Barcelona at the age of 17. His father, an uneducated war veteran, had been the night watchman there before he was gunned down in the street outside the newspaper office's doors. Martin continues working there, as a gofer and an assistant to the owner's son, Don Pedro Vidal, a writer of thrillers himself, before Vidal encourages the editor to give his fiction a chance. Martin's work is so popular that his co-workers scorn him and Vidal then conspires to have him fired so that he can sign a contract to write penny dreadfuls under a pen name for a pair of unscrupulous publishers.
Martin is in love with Cristina, who convinces Martin to rewrite one of Vidal's manuscripts behind his back after Vidal's talent deserts him. Cristina then marries Vidal after the book is published to high regard and popular success. A serious novel Martin publishes under his own name fails, and he buries a copy in the Cemetery of Lost Books. And a doctor confirms that Martin's ill health and headaches are caused by a brain tumor that will kill him within a year. . .
And then Martin enters into a real contract with the devil instead of a mere metaphoric one with the greedy publishers, a contract that offers him riches and eternal life in exchange for writing a book that will create a religion, "a story for which men and women would live and die," and takes on a delightful young assistant named Isabella.
I am at the height of my liking the novel at this point because of all the witty dialogue and religious and writing discussions, and if Ruiz Zafon had continued in this vein I would have thought the book fabulous. Instead, after that enjoyable interlude, the book underscores again and again that it's a mystery/thriller, my "This is stupid" mental refrain kicks into high gear, and I spend the last two hours of reading wishing I were watching a movie so that I could take an extended pop corn/restroom break at the beginning of a chase scene and come back to my seat to have my daughter whisper, "You didn't miss a thing."
My reading tastes are outside the mainstream enough for me to realize that The Angel's Game is going to be as hugely successful as the novel Martin rewrote for Vidal turned out to be, but I regret spending my time on the latest Faustian fare when I could have been reading Mann's version or The Master and Margarita. I won't go so far as to say I sold my soul for an advanced reading copy, but I certainly could have made better use of my time.