By Lisa Goldstein. New York: Tor, 1996. 256 pages.
Many (occult) secret socities often have at their hearts a slight paradox: on the one hand they promise Truth (capital T) and hidden knowledge through revelation to those who open themselves to it, while on the other hand they wish to keep it to themelves, and your “openness” to revelation is measured according to how much you see things the way the group does. Revelation indeed.
Furthermore, what makes hidden knoweldge and secret societies so interesting is their nature: that they are hidden, that they are secret—like a magician’s art, not knowing drives your curiosity. The fun is in the act of uncovering, but the revealed object itself is rarely so captivating.
Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that despite its delights, Lisa Goldstein’s Walking the Labyrinth (1996) eventually loses steam and its spark when everything is revealed. Two plot strands serve as metaphors for the novel itself—that of the magic show, and that of the secret society—and while Goldstein’s prose is fluid and enjoyable, her characterizations endearing enough, and her choice of material intriguing, the execution fails to provide a cohesive novel that lingers with the reader.
To summarize: Molly Travers, now working odd jobs in Oakland, is contacted one day by John Stow, a detective whose mysterious employer wishes to learn more of Molly’s family—supposedly a matter of family inheritence, and perhaps even murder. Molly was raised by her spinster (great)aunt Fentrice after her parents died, and this was all the family she knew. Her work, if not partnership, with John leads her to a secret society in England (and the U.S.) that takes itself too seriously, places her at the scene of a murder, uncovers her family history (to an extent), reintroduces her to other branches of her family, and uncovers family secrets that have been kept hidden for decades. Her amoral lover, Peter, and a few other shady characters act as well-worn plot devices; Molly’s own short-sightedness is yet another. As my summary indicates, the novel moves from action-suspense themes to family-drama themes over the course of two hundred plus pages; this in and of itself is not problematic. The fact that if one were to remove the (semi)mystical overtones the novel would then be movie-of-the-week material, is more disheartening. The ending itself is abrupt and anticlimactic.
What is unfortunate is that the Order of the Labyrinth, seemingly central to the story, is itself basically a red-herring, and not one (as in Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas) that fully draws one in; it simply becomes unimportant. Additionally, instead of creating suspsense through careful twists and turns (reminding one of the labyrinth theme), at times the author chooses to flood the narrative with all the possibilities—suspence through overload of hypotheticals, one might call it. In one review, Starlog writes “Goldstein’s work does not remind the reader of other books: it is truly original, and has a clear, distinct voice of its own.” This, however, is terribly naive; Goldstein surely researched the topic of occult groups, spiritualism, and the like for her book; furthermore, the idea of walking the labyrinth as a specific method of attaining esoteric knowledge is hardly original. On top of that, Goldstein’s novel is written in the wake of works such as Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. And indeed, the trope of the secret society in novels of self-discovery goes back far beyond this and the last century; it is central not only to works such as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, but also to the entire Parzival myth. To critique Starlog, Walking the Labyrinth is only original insofar as it fails to acknowledge its predecessors.
All, however, is not lost. At its heart Walking the Labyrinth is a novel of self-discovery, and one more mature than a simple coming-of-age tale. It is partly a tale of the 90s woman; it is almost Oprah book-club material—some might recognize it as a GenX story (though centered in Oakland, not San Francisco or other parts of the west-Bay, and not concerned with technology). Where it differs, however, is in how it presents a model and metaphor for gaining knowledge 1) in the images of the labyrinth and 2) through illusion and questioning. The second half of the novel, removed from the Order itself in the east Bay and in London, takes Molly to the countryside, and to her family, where she, through the process of recognizing illusions (and the illusory nature of much of what she considered “true”) and by way of always asking what have you learned?, comes to know herself better; the process of walking the labyrinth (walking a confined space, yet seeing something new around each corner, and not returning—via a circle—to where one started) is one of two focal points. The other is an ethics of teaching and passing on knowledge. Molly’s family rejects the secret society, its spiritualism, and its occultism, and instead uses its powers of illusion not to teach people directly, but to start within them the process of learning on their own; one cannot teach the unwilling student, but without taking action, such a person may never come to change on his/her own. There is something vaguely Socratic in this process (not only in the method of questioning, but also in the image of Socrates [by way of Plato’s Apology] wandering Athens seeking the wisest man).
A comment on the back cover remarked on Goldstein’s economy of language, that she packed so much into a 250 pages novel, and this is certainly true. As such, Walking the Labyrinth provides a quick diversion—one that promises more than it delivers, but one that at least provides a few hours of entertainment.