In A.D. 3700, London's greatest orator, Plato, regularly delivers bravura public lectures on the long and tumultuous history of what is now a peaceful, tranquil city, secure in the certainty of its own relationship to the past. Particularly fascinated with the dark and confused epoch known as the Age of Mouldwarp, stretching from A.D. 1500 to A.D. 2300, Plato discourses on its extraordinary figures and customs from what evidence remains. These include orations on the clown Sigmund Freud and his comic masterpiece, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious
; the African singer George Eliot, apparently author of The Waste Land
; and Charles Dickens's greatest novel, The Origin of Species
. And then there's E.A. Poe--or rather, Poet:
The eminence and status of the author are not in doubt. The name, for example, was not difficult to interpret. Poe is an abbreviation of Poet, and by common consent the rest was deciphered: E. A. Poe = Eminent American Poet. It seems clear enough that the writers of America enjoyed a blessed anonymity, even in the Age of Mouldwarp. The word 'poet' is known to all of us, but as there are no chants or hymns in 'Tales and Histories' we believe the term was applied indiscriminately to all writers of that civilisation.
Plato also elaborates on the era's strange rites and rituals, including "the cult of webs and nets" that apparently covered and enslaved the population. But then in the midst of these brilliant, precise public performances, he begins a dialogue with his soul. Doubt begins to creep in (Is the past really past? And are the rituals of the present so superior?), leading him on a fateful journey.
The Plato Papers is an extraordinary novel. As with the best of Peter Ackroyd's fiction, it treads a thin line between fantasy and biography, the genre he so elegantly mastered in his now classic studies Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and The Life of Thomas More. Wise and salutary, it is a wonderfully observed satire of misprision and the arrogance of philosophical certainty. --Jerry Brotton
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From Publishers Weekly
Is each century doomed to misinterpret previous ones? That's the central question of Ackroyd's new book, more a Swiftian compendium of social folly than a novel, satirizing many of today's intellectual shibboleths. In the year 3700, a public orator named Plato educates the masses about the important texts and beliefs of previous ages. It's an imperfect archeology, though, since destroyed texts and lost information cause him to attribute On the Origin of Species not to Charles Darwin, but to Charles Dickens, placing that volume in Dickens's line of melodramatic or romantic novels. He also puzzles over the computer age, rueing the "despair engendered by the cult of webs and nets which spread among the people" and cites Edgar Allan Poe's Tales and Histories as "the unique record of a lost race." Eventually, Plato begins to suspect that his knowledge about earlier culture is fundamentally incorrect, but as he moves beyond generally accepted assumptions, he runs afoul of those in power. He's placed on trial and is forced to defend himself against accusations of "corrupting the young by spinning lies and fables." Biographer (The Life of Thomas More) and novelist (Chatterton) Ackroyd displays his encyclopedic knowledge of world literature in this philosophical satire, rendering this effort witty and cerebral. The humor is especially sharp in the sections listing common words and phrases from centuries before, and their wildly creative definitions: "pedestrian: one who journeyed on foot; used as a term of abuse, as in 'this is a very pedestrian plot.'" Or "yellow fever: the fear of colour." Toward the end of the book, Ackroyd creates a sense of how Plato's search for knowledge affects him as an individual, a welcome development in keeping the plot connected to the experimental narrative. Other elements are by turns highly intellectual, jokey, lofty and fragmented, but Ackroyd delivers a constant stream of surprising linguistic, satiric twists that many armchair cultural theorists will relish. (Jan.)
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