The Politics of Prose
A Conspiracy of Paperby David Liss
Random House, 448 pp., $25
According to the press release accompanying this historical novel, A Conspiracy of Paper "touched off a frenzy" when it was submitted to publishers. It is the story of the first stock market crash in the English-speaking world, and a murder mystery to boot. Admittedly, it has all the elements of what should be a great read: suspense, scenery, and drama of the highest order. It has shadowy villains and carafes of cheap wine. Knives flash, prostitutes flirt, and a sultry widow named Miriam shimmers just out of reach. Nonetheless, finishing this book was a monumental chore. The only frenzy A Conspiracy of Paper touched off in my house was when I finally got to the end and whooped with relief.
David Liss seems to be unsure of who his audience is. It seems that his story would be of interest primarily to readers who are intrigued by the history of financial markets. However, he sets up his poor narrator, Benjamin Weaver, as a fool who needs every nuance of stock speculation explained to him, boring to tears readers who already know, for example, that "if value is no longer vested in gold, but in the promise of gold, then the men who make the promises hold ultimate power, no?"
No kidding, Sherlock. Yet this is big news to Ben.
The narrator's voice poses another problem. Liss takes great pains to make Benjamin's voice historically accurate, and so the novel is narrated in a stuffy and sexist manner which, accurate as it may be, is off-putting and ultimately wearying. "Women such as you know, reader, would find themselves reduced to unstoppable tears or perhaps even rendered insensible by the treatment Kate received," says Weaver at one point, and as much as I tried to pretend I was a gentleman reader, sipping a fine claret in my drawing room, I couldn't help but feel annoyed.
The plot of Conspiracy stumbles along, shocking Benjamin at every turn but not even raising this reader's eyebrows. Although some historical details are fascinating (descriptions of medical leeching, for example), the combination of a dull plot and irritating voice left this reader, even while in the throes of the final swordfight, less heated than a tepid cup of tea.