I was, in retrospect, too hard on this novel when I reviewed it on March 25, 2013. It’s better than I made it sound.
I’ve thought of it from time to time since then and fondly.
It also seems, in its way, comparable to Edward Whittemore’s Quin’s Shanghai Circus which I’ll be reviewing shortly. That’s why you get this retro review now.
Review: The House of Rumour: A Novel, Jake Arnott, 2013.
Ian Fleming, spy and novelist
Aleister Crowley, the “wickedest man alive”
Jack Parsons, rocket scientist and black magician
L. Ron Hubbard, novelist and messiah
Rudolph Hess, Nazi
Jim Jones, messiah
Nation of Islam, saucer cult
Arnott, in a narrative arranged thematically around the Tarot deck, gives us a secret history that ranges through most of the 20th Century and up to 2011 and back and forth in time from the death of a former MI5 employee and a transvestite hooker in 1987 to a cabal of 1941 science fiction writers in Los Angeles. Here many a character real and imagined have parts, but mostly it’s the story of the fictitious science fiction writer Larry Zagorski and the real Nazi Rudolph Hess. The supporting characters are more ideas and events than people: Hess’ flight to England, the Cuban Revolution, Scientology, black magic, saucer cults, monster movies, utopia and the moment – like a collapsing quantum wave function – the promise becomes disillusionment. And, through it all, is the unrequited love of Larry for a woman.
Part of me suspects that this sort of novel is written starting with a list of historical events and people and then a plot thought up for connecting all the characters and events. But that’s ok. The whole aesthetic of a good conspiracy theory comes from how the dots are linked and how many you work with.
However, Arnott’s seemingly effortless erudition, by itself, doesn’t impress me that much nor do I think it’s bound to impress the average reader of the Fortean Times. It all seems a little glib and easy to those of us who once had to satisfy our cravings for outré occult and conspiracy esoterica by haunting used bookstores and mailing away for obscure catalogs rather than laying on the couch with a laptop.
Readers who have read the secret histories and conspiracy novels of Tim Powers and Robert Anton Wilson, who each in their own way have covered some of the same territory in explorations of the tarot, quantum mechanics, and Aleister Crowley, are likely to find Arnott’s philosophy light and his characters mostly dropped in names. That includes the raft of science fiction writers who get walk-on bits: Jack Williamson, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert Heinlein, Tony Boucher, and Leigh Brackett. The exception is one obscure, but interesting, writer who gets her own chapter: Katharine Burdekin aka Murray Constantine who wrote Swastika Night, the first “Hitler wins” alternate history. The other surprisingly rich character is Ian Fleming who ends up bemoaning that James Bond, the spy alter ego he thought he was running, now runs him. Philip K. Dick is promised on the cover but never makes an onstage appearance though there is more than a little of his legend in the drug addled Zagorski. But, with the exception of Fleming, Hess, and Zagorski, none of these characters have the depth of a typical Powers’ character. The philosophical themes, somewhat unnecessarily wrapped up in the final, explanatory chapter, are not covered in the depth Wilson would have. (The author promises that thehouseofrumour.com has more about the various incidents, allegations, and conspiracies mentioned in the novel. I studiously avoided it since I wanted to review the book on its own merits.) The novel’s publicity material itself makes the comparison between Arnott and Dan Brown and Dan DeLillo. I can’t speak to that having no experience with either of those latter two authors.
Still, even if he resorts to the usual literary tricks of juxtaposition and characters carefully created to elucidate thematic variations, Arnott’s writing sometimes rises to a certain beauty – particularly in a chapter where two timelines are mingled: the moon landing of Apollo 11 and Hess’ flight to England.
So, the more easily wowed younger reader may just find this mindblowing. The older reader and fan of conspiracy theories probably won’t, but both will get a quick, engaging tour through the secret byways of 20th century history. Like a tarot deck, a lot will depend on what the reader brings to the table.