August 2005

Damien Weaver


A History of the Imagination by Norman Lock

Norman Lock's A History of the Imagination is a delightful and sometimes transporting book built of perversely ridiculous ideas made to work in practice.

The facts aren't flattering: most of History takes place in a blithely invented colonial Africa, bearing only accidental relation to the actual continent. Our narrator is known solely as "N." Franz Kafka himself shows up in the story, one of several dozen celebrity cameos -- Edison, Einstein, Eiffel -- jam-packing the pages. In the first chapter, a giant cigar-smoking gorilla, in the livery of a lawn jockey, emerges from the jungle to ravish and sexually satisfy a wealthy white woman who unconsciously desires him.

Still there? It all works in practice, unlikely as that seems. One thing rendering all this over-the-top nonsense not only palatable but pleasant is the charming narrative voice, which has the silly pomposity of Anthology-era Neal Pollack. The writing is engaging, sly and frequently hilarious, and Lock provides passages of genuine beauty all the more enjoyable for having emerged from farce. Too many writers have lately attempted fiction in a similar vein; call it magical unrealism. Lock is distinguished by success, having written an elaborate whimsy grounded in human emotion and worth sitting still for. To paraphrase a great poet: it's not Barthelme, but it's not bad.

If "A History of the Imagination" doesn't quite hang together as a novel, it's forgivable; as long as we're having this much fun, who cares? Only the last few chapters stumble, beginning to feel like more of the same. Lock, a professional ad man, is perhaps too enthusiastic with his freedom from the constraints of the thirty- or sixty-second bite, and "History" overstays its welcome. By the time readers finish A History of the Imagination they will have had a little more than enough, but if History is too much, at least it is too much of a good thing.

A History of the Imagination by Norman Lock
ISBN: 1573661155
223 pages