Thursday, November 17, 2011
The Judges of the Secret Court - Under the Microscope
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The Judges of the Secret Court, one of those interesting rediscovered books published by the New York Review of Books, is a book about the assassination of President Lincoln. It's a strange, polyphonic sort of novel. It centers on John Wilkes Booth himself, but it spends almost as much time following Edwin Booth, JWB's brother and one of the nation's finest actors. Yet, at the same time, it whirls like a kaleidoscope through the stories and minds of numerous other characters, creating a strange babble of voices that pull the reader first to the death of Lincoln (though only after we have seen some of Lincoln's own personal meditations, as he rides toward the theatre) and then spreading out after the assassination, tracking the ripples of this event and what it means.
This is a slightly odd book. The technique, I think, has some costs, as it can occasionally be difficult to stay engaged with the central characters and the main events of the assassination, the hunt, and the trial that follows. Yet the scattered whirl of voices and images somehow sculpts the event out of the silence of history. The scope widens, the themes multiply, and there is a greater sense of the event and what it means, not just to the Booth brothers, but to the entire country - and to history itself.
It's worth a read if you're interested in American history at all (and I am, oddly enough, a Canadian who was the son of a professor of American history, so sometimes I simply can't resist), or if you're interested in different narrative techniques.
Plus, you know, that's a really kickass cover. Just sayin'. NYRB really know how to put a book together. It even smells good.