Earlier this year, with a like-minded bibliophile, I started yet another blog. The blog, called Invisible Library, would list books by fictional authors -- that is, titles that don’t exist outside the pages of fiction.
Up went the novels by the titular author of Nabokov’s “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” the wildly varied subjects of Stanislaw Lem’s “A Perfect Vacuum” (a collection of fake book reviews), the quartet of stories attributable to a Cheeveresque author in Cheever’s sly anti-Cheever “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear.”
Who could forget “The Toastrack Enigma,” “The Blancmange Tragedy” and “The Postcard Mystery” -- those vivid cosies of D. Awdrey Gore (née Edward Gorey)? Maybe everybody. We needed a place to record these imaginary volumes, which can exert nearly as powerful a hold on the imagination as their glue-and-paper counterparts.
My reading life became distorted: I sought and savored books within books, hoping to fill out the blog’s virtual shelves. This year’s succès d’estime, Roberto Bolaño’s “2666,” has many virtues, but the Invisible Librarians like it for its creation of more than two dozen phantom books, most by the elusive Benno von Archimbaldi.
Should the Invisible Library’s catalog ever get too large to view on a single screen, we might consider dividing it into separate fields and genres, just like a real library. Science fiction would be well represented: The pages of Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” contains its counter-novel, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” while John Sladek’s PKD parody, “Solar Shoe Salesman,” perfectly conjures a fake Dick tome, “Androgynoid” (written pseudonymously by H.K. “Kid” Cliplip).
“Dune” gains immeasurably from Frank Herbert’s decision to head each chapter with an epigraph from “Dictionary of Muad’dib,” “Manual of Muad’dib,” “A Child’s History of Muad’dib,” and other nonexistent books, most penned by the Princess Irulan. The imaginary world is deepened by having its own peculiar literature.
Jack McDevitt’s latest novel, “The Devil’s Eye” (Ace: 360 pp., $24.95), also gets the invisible epigraph treatment. Every chapter starts with a sentence or three from the oeuvre of Vicki Greene, a 33-year-old author of “six wildly successful novels, of which three [have] won the coveted Tasker Award, given each year for the most outrageous horror novel.”
Greene’s books include “Love You to Death” (the cover depicts “a vulpine creature kneeling in sorrow at a grave site”), “Nightwalk,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Dying to Know You” and “Midnight and Roses.” The last, her most recent, is “about a young woman who lives in a house where the attic opens out into different dimensions. But only after midnight.”
Her huge popularity suggests Stephen King with intergalactic appeal, and McDevitt sets up “The Devil’s Eye” with a catchy scenario: What if a King-caliber writer, scoping out the setting for an upcoming novel, ran into trouble?
As the novel opens, Greene contacts antiquities dealer Alex Benedict, whom she doesn’t know, with a brief transmission concluding, “God help me, they’re all dead.”
By the time he gets the message (and the vast sum she’s deposited to his account), Greene is no longer herself: She’s received, supposedly at her own request, a mind wipe that has erased her memory. (Needless to say, her writing career has come to a halt.)
“The Devil’s Eye” is touted as “An Alex Benedict novel,” but that’s pushing it -- aside from masterminding a couple of clever escapes, Benedict stays in the background, leaving newcomers like myself to wonder about the billing. Chase Kolpath, his assistant and pilot, narrates. It’s either a testament to McDevitt’s gender-blind handling of POV or kind of a problem that I wasn’t entirely clear that Chase was female until a gratuitous, if chaste, topless beach interlude.
Chase and Alex journey to the location of Greene’s final fact-finding jaunt, the distant planet of Salud Afar. On this world, which orbits the enormous star Callistra (the devil’s eye of the title), repression still stalks the imagination of its inhabitants -- or else they’ve cynically exploited that to create a tourist trap. At times, the whole planet seems like an enormous theme park revolving around “haunted buildings, haunted forests, a river with a demonic boatman ... a laboratory, abandoned centuries ago, which locals claimed had once produced a time machine."
So far, so good. The admixture of horror and science fiction, however, never quite convinces. It’s hard enough to raise neck-hairs when talking about a familiar present (say, the North America of right now) suffused with twice-told tales that touch on cultural memory. It’s almost impossible to do it in a setting 10,000 years from now, with a rumored werewolf prowling a planet that you’ve just made up.
In any case, McDevitt isn’t interested in horror, or mystery, instead sticking to the SF equivalent of meat-and-potatoes: the threat of destruction on a global scale, and political brinksmanship between two races (a human Confederacy and the telepathic, insectoid Mutes).
The former allows McDevitt to spin out some unsurprising strategic possibilities. (Move potential victims to a different world? Create a space shield?) The latter involves some good old-fashioned first-contact brainteasers. (Why talk when the Mutes know what you’re thinking anyway?) But unfortunately, the brothers-under-the-skin theme is on auto-repeat.
“The Devil’s Eye” has a surfeit of plot, only some of which engages. Vicki Greene, searching for inspiration, might have kickstarted McDevitt’s tale, but like Alex Benedict, she’s eventually abandoned by her creator. The epigraphs are weirdly bland for someone so famous. (“Watch your head,” runs one in its entirety, from “Dying to Know You.”)
Even in her own universe, Greene’s literature hardly exists.
Ed Park is the author of a novel, “Personal Days,” and a founding editor of the Believer. Astral Weeks appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.