Rating: NNNN (Critic’s Pick)
The form of Robert Majzels’s Apikoros Sleuth is lusciously satisfying for both brain and soul. The story meanders and changes tack. The narrator slyly interrupts himself. We’re never certain a conversation has taken place, or what traits characterize the murderers and victims in this unusual thriller.
Fiction writers rarely explore this Modernist literary landscape. The best comparisons are perhaps to painting and poetry.
Intricate, eye-dazzling word patterns occupy visually stunning magazine-size pages. Stories are literally inside stories. Laid out like the Talmud, a Jewish religious text that scholars and sages added to over thousands of years, Apikoros consists of a “main argument” surrounded by additions and footnotes. Majzels adds the occasional shock of colour to a mostly black, white and grey palette.
The shapes of words are as important as their meanings here, in the convention of concrete poetry. Alternating bits of text and white space affect our perception of the events described. Juxtapositions of various languages form pieces of a puzzle that’s as much visual as literal. As the narrator wraps his cold legs in newspaper, he asks, “Is it content that contents or form that feels good?”
If you’re not into formalism, don’t despair. Apikoros is a whodunit and a fascinating take on language and ethics. By repeating certain words and phrases in different contexts, Majzels reveals more (or less) of the mystery, changing the meanings of words and questioning actions. A particularly moving passage repeats the word “Sarajevo” as a noun and verb until all meaning has been squeezed into and out of it.
Although Apikoros Sleuth is challenging, it’s not alienating. It’s easy to relate to the sections about absentee landlords, loss of community, the desire to kill one’s dentist and the search for meaning in disastrous times.
– Sandra Alland