Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Biggest Secret: Jake Arnott’s The House Of Rumour

The House of Rumour (New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 448 pp.) is the seventh and most ambitious novel by Jake Arnott, an English writer of what some call “faction” fiction constructed around real people and events, some famed, others obscure. Engrossing as pure story, the novel is also an education, as the broad outlines of World War II and the ensuing half-century are reconfigured in and by the voices of people whose split decisions nudged the levers of history, or whose visionary hunches foretold its outcomes. The blurbs draw comparisons with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (at the high end) and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (at the low); reading the novel, I thought of Robert Anton Wilson (especially Masks of the Illuminati, which germinates from similar principles), James Ellroy (American Tabloid, in its interconnections and narrative density), Thomas Harris (canny prose incorporating deep research into language, history, art, science), and David Thomson (Suspects and Silver Light, novels built from the secret parts of familiar, albeit fictional, lives).

The House of Rumour begins and ends with Larry Zagorsky, a minor pulp science fiction writer, living in Los Angeles just before Pearl Harbor, who joins the Mañana Literary Society, described as “the closest thing to a salon that science fiction had at that time.” The Society is unofficially chaired by future SF giant Robert Heinlein; among its members are Anthony Boucher, mystery writer and editor, and L. Ron Hubbard, another pulp workhorse, not yet the creator of Scientology. Also in the Society orbit is Jack Parsons, a charismatic genius researching solid fuel for the newly established CalTech Jet Propulsion Labs as well as a practitioner of ritual magic and priest of the Ordo Templi Orientis cult. Parsons, like the Mañana Literary Society, actually existed; and if, like me, you hadn't known that, you have plenty to discover as the novel veers back and forth in time, its speculative web drawing in wartime spy capers and UFOs, gender and sexuality, prophecy and the occult, how James Bond was created, and why Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland. 

Often “conspiracy theory” amounts to little more than asking what the connection might be between facts already existing in close but unexamined proximity. Fact 1: In May 1941, for reasons that are still far from clear, Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy Führer, piloted a plane from Berlin to Scotland, where he crash-landed and was imprisoned for the remainder of the war. Fact 2: Four years earlier, a novel by Murray Constantine called Swastika Night, about the aftermath of a Nazi invasion, was published in England; in it, a top Hitler lieutenant named “von Hess” flies from Berlin to Scotland on a secret mission.

Jake Arnott. (Photo by Cristian Barnett)
The oddity of these facts in relation to each other is Arnott’s point of departure: Hess becomes a character in The House of Rumour, as does Constantine. Among the other historical figures making physical or referential contact with Arnott’s inventions are Jorge Luis Borges, Aleister Crowley, Cyril Connolly, Hanna Reitsch (the Nazi Amelia Earhart), Fidel Castro, and Jim Jones; among the other weird texts evoked are Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue, Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time, Douglas-Hamilton and Clydesdale’s The Pilots’ Book of Everest, William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, and John W. Campbell’s pulp periodical Astounding Science Fiction. Ferreting out unlikely confluence and scintillating obscurity, Arnott fabricates a secret history with “no clear linear narrative, merely quanta of information, free particles that fire off one another . . . tales that split and converge.” One is tempted to read with the Internet handy, to check the factuality of a name, event, or work that sounds too juicy or prophetic to be true. Almost always, it is true. (A warning, though: Save all such checks until the book is finished, or you’ll ruin more than one surprise.)

Yet Arnott’s mesh of fantasy and fact holds together as a novel. He makes scenes live, both in their moments and as parts of a whole. He has no trouble slipping into his characters’ skins, transmitting empathically from their often lonesome, disturbed interiors. His Ian Fleming is a mesmerizing creation. As the MI5 agent tasked with, among other things, investigating the Hess premonition, Fleming also lives out a tormented dynamic with his never-named “other self . . . the hollow man of his imagination” he who will, after the war, emerge as James Bond. This cold, deadly cipher, “the empty hero of Fleming’s private narrative,” is the void into which Fleming can deposit his own depths, themselves empty of any passion save masochism. More than brilliant, it is revelatory, even moving, of Arnott to depict Bond as his creator’s tortured and torturing doppelgänger, the cruel Quilty to Fleming’s suffering Humbert. (And upon meeting the aged diabolist Aleister Crowley England’s most notorious hedonist, tapped by MI5 for his insight into Nazi occultism Fleming finds the prototype of Le Chiffre, Blofeld, Goldfinger: Bond’s fat, grinning supervillains!)

Mysteries of sex, and of sexual switching, feed the novel’s encompassing mysteries. A female character disappears, to reappear as a man; a female writer takes a male identity. The devoted Hess is mockingly referred to as Hitler’s “Empress,” but he wears the name proudly, coveting its “feminine potency.” Jack Parsons proclaims the female principle as the next human transformation, supplanting what another character calls “the cult of the male that made fascism possible.” The novel’s women are not merely key players in male stories, but movers and shapers with agendas, frustrations, drives, failures. Arnott’s ability to imagine worlds within and without characters in markedly different situations the spy-infested streets of London; the midst of a black mass in the California desert; the despair of Jonestown during the mass suicide; the heat and hysteria of Havana leading up to the 1980 Mariel boat-lift, in which Castro allowed thousands of Cubans to escape the island on makeshift sailing vessels, knowing many of them would never reach Florida gives breath and blood to what might otherwise have been only a catalog of entertaining enigmas. The narrative mutates organically, its circumference always expanding to draw in another character, another history, another set of secrets; a common desire for flight unites these free particles of humanity as they fire off across eras, and their dreams of transformation and transcendence multiply. 

The House of Rumour is not Arnott’s first novel to appear in North America, but it is the first to be partly set in the US, and likely the one that will break his name among non-British readerships. He made that name in 1999 with The Long Firm, a densely detailed crime epic set in the London underworld of the 1960s. Its centrifugal force is gangster Harry Starks, lone wolf in rackets dominated by brother-gangs the Krays and the Richardsons; its five sections have different narrators, with Starks a homosexual, manic depressive, and celebrity-besotted sentimentalist seen through their eyes across the decade’s radical span. Real figures (Judy Garland, Johnnie Ray, Jack “The Hat” McVitie, the Krays themselves) are involved, not as name-checks but as detailed characters; and while its events, sounds, and sensations gibe with popular notions of the English sixties and East End crime, the novel carves out a convincing fictive space leagues away from Austin Powers or Guy Ritchie films. (The novel’s recreative success, like that of Mad Men, lies partly in what isnt evoked; e.g., Joe Meek makes an appearance, but The Beatles arent mentioned.) 

The Long Firm became a bestseller and BBC miniseries, thereby spawning, where it perhaps neednt have, a “Harry Starks trilogy” and although the closer, truecrime (2003), improves considerably on the second installment, He Kills Coppers (2001), both have a plodding, dutiful quality, as if Arnott were executing a brief rather than fulfilling a design. There were signs of regeneration in Johnny Come Home (2006), about political belief and personal betrayal in a 1972 London gripped by glam rock and terrorism, and The Devil’s Paintbrush (2009) upped the imaginative ante in several respects chiefly by leaving the womb of Mother London and the cultural familiarities of the 1960s and ‘70s for Paris in 1903, to depict the historical encounter of Aleister Crowley and British Army hero Sir Hector Macdonald.

That breakthrough now leads logically, and happily, to The House of Rumour, which covers roughly seventy years and encompasses, not just England and the continent, but Earth and outer space. Where Arnott will venture next, I wouldn’t guess; but I hope he sticks with his great theme, which is the power of secrets. “Imagine if we could unlock that,” Crowley muses in The Devil’s Paintbrush. “Unleash it.” The secret holds the same seduction offered by art, religion, science, law the promise of an answer. Despite his narrator’s metaphor of free particles, Arnott doesn’t say that history is the sum of random collisions, and therefore absurd, weightless. He says that history is weightier, less random than we can know, because at innumerable decision points, great and small some minutely documented for posterity, most now dead with their owners another choice could have been made. Why a decision went as it did, why history turned a certain way: That is the secret. We can call these facts obvious, and so dismiss them. But like any good novel, The House of Rumour makes the obvious problematic, the factual mysterious. It makes the question of what is real in our world feel like the biggest secret of all. 

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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