‘The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri’ by David Bajo

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri

A Novel

David Bajo

Viking: 290 pp., $25.95

Literature transforms. If you are the type to get lost in a book, if the surrounding world comes to a complete halt when you read, if the words on the page come alive, a book can change you. But what you might not realize is that it has changed its writer in some fundamental way as well. The very act of creation takes some tangible bit of the author and places it on the page for the world to read. It is this idea, this essence, that binds together the plot of David Bajo’s ambitious debut novel, “The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri.”

Philip Masryk is a twice-divorced mathematical genius who has lived a life devoted to two entities: the language that is found in numbers and the transformative passion he has found in the arms of Irma Arcuri. His devotion to numbers is easy enough to parse, because Philip has one of those problem-solving minds that was “always ahead of computers,” able to calculate any string of numbers precisely, but that -- in life, as well as mathematics -- also knew “the most efficient formula or set of formulae to use in any given situation.”

The result is a life of exacting margins, save for the great unknown, the titular Irma, a book restorer and binder, as well as author, who over decades has shared with corporate consultant Philip a sexual passion and a passion for words. (She calls him Pip, a none-too-subtle clue as to how much of one’s life can be manipulated without one’s ever realizing it.) Her appetite knows no bounds, we learn, since she has bedded nearly every character in the book, most notably both of Philip’s ex-wives (sometimes with Philip but more often without); his two stepchildren, 20-year-old Rutgers student Nicole and her 17-year-old brother Sam; and Philip’s best friend, Isaac.

But Irma is no mere polyamorist. At heart, it seems, she is the ultimate author, one who not only writes books but also manipulates entire real lives as well, setting into action alternate endings and beginnings for the players. “Most of us can’t accept being the protagonist of our own lives,” she tells Philip. “Whether we only watch TV or sports or read thousands of books, we’re all just trying to find another protagonist.”

When she disappears -- presumed dead by some, particularly since she has willed away her life’s possessions, leaving Philip 351 of her specially bound books, including five of her own authorship -- he takes it upon himself to discover where she might be, since he is certain that her departure is not an ending but merely another restoration, a new skin placed around the book of her existence.

The clues are in the books she has bequeathed him, most notably a “Don Quixote” that, in addition to rebinding, she has rewritten as well, the life of the valorous knight intermingling with the lessons of life Irma wishes to impart to Philip. She has also added new stories to the works of Borges and made additions and subtractions to Turgenev, all in an elaborate attempt to send Philip on a quest to find her. Philip begins to suspect that Irma is sending messengers in human form as well. Both of Philip’s ex-wives, Rebecca and Beatrice, reveal long-held secrets about Irma after her disappearance, which sends Philip into mathematical fury, trying, hoping, to solve the riddle of Irma by using math to define their twisted relations, to little avail.

How do you solve for passion? What are the givens? One may exist in the beguiling Lucia, a translator with a striking resemblance to Irma, who begins a torrid affair with Philip that replicates many of his emotional experiences with the missing woman.

It’s engrossing stuff, there’s no question. Bajo uses words and equations to the point of poetry, particularly when he evokes the world created by Cervantes and the theories of pendulum mathematics as they relate to Philip’s life. The book is less successful -- and borderline pretentious -- when Irma’s own autobiographical novels are referenced at length, detailing the relationship history of the odd couplings as well as Philip’s and Irma’s backstories.

It’s clear why Bajo uses this device instead of plumbing Philip’s mind for the details -- it is a book about books, after all -- but it becomes less and less effective as the novel pushes forward. Likewise, the ethereal quality of every sexual experience Philip recounts -- and there are several, from losing his virginity onward -- strains believability and occasionally requires an intimate knowledge of Twister. In that regard, the novel is like its closest literary forebears -- “The Magus,” by John Fowles, and Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet,” both of which indulge in the psychosexual in order to find some higher emotional truth -- though Bajo doesn’t quite approach their success.

But those are quibbles, really. Bajo has crafted an intellectual thriller for a literate audience. Nothing blows up in “The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri” and little is settled apart from what we already know. The novel is really about the most troubling equation of all -- the mystery of true, unfettered love, whose sum contains infinite, unknowable varieties and cannot always be solved for. *

Tod Goldberg is the author of the novels “Living Dead Girl” and “Fake Liar Cheat” and, most recently, the short story collection “Simplify.”