cover image After James

After James

Michael Helm. Tin House (Norton, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-941040-41-6

An experimental drug that enhances creativity propels the intricate plot of this ambitious but lackluster postmodern novel. Separated into three tangentially related sections, the story first follows Ali, the drug’s creator, who has retreated to rural Canada after learning that “Alph” induces suicide in its test subjects. The second section relocates to Rome, where Ali’s father has enlisted a type of literary detective, one of a pair of titular Jameses, to track down Ali by interpreting poems written by one such test subject. Instead of predictably combining the two threads, the story turns to Cecilia, a survivor of a miscarriage and the daughter of the subject likely to be the poet. Structurally, Cecilia and Ali are brought face-to-face too late; the narrative doesn’t fully cohere, though opacity and inscrutability seem to be part of the intent. The novel has flashes of brilliance, but they are few and far between, leaving the reader to wander about in a darkness that seems unnecessary. A formidable mind is on display in these pages, but it obscures the story’s heart. [em]Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Sept.) [/em]