Cliches of the Imagination

When she was seven years old, my little sister decided to write a novel about another little girl. The book grew and grew, as she filled in details of what she ate and wore, what her parents said, many of the trivial details of her day. Nobody told her it wasn't a novel. But one would have thought that publishing doyen David Davidar, by his third novel, would know the difference between literature and life the crucial fact that something has to happen in a novel. Ithaca is an okay account of a working life, a decent apologia for the publishing industry, but a failed work of fiction. It spills over with inconsequential detail, but lacks a story.

The plot, such as it is, follows the fortunes of Litmus, an independent London-based publishing house, trying to stay independent in these times of economic and technological uncertainty. Zachariah Thomas, its half-Indian editor, is so far buoyed by his big find, Massimo Seppi, whose trilogy about archangels and demons has stood between Litmus and destruction. But can Zach and his team save Litmus, or will they allow the powerful American publisher Globish to muscle in? Most of the novel is devoted to Zach's flat interior monologue, and other characters are mostly revealed only through his shallow assessments. And so, the novel is crammed with cliches of the imagination.

The only human drama you can wring from this novel is that Zach's work has temporarily estranged him from his wife. This is not shown, but told. His emotional life is torn between his wife, Julia, a literary agent, and his rebound girlfriend, a petulant waitress named Mandy. Zach's erotic appeal is insisted on, over and over again the women he has loved and left (like the smoky-eyed investment banker who smears Gentleman's Relish all over the crotches of his trousers), the infinite possibilities at book fairs.

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