One year ago. They were pissed, to begin with. A little. Not nearly as much as Horatio is now. Only a shared Viognier bottle over fresh pasta, then a pair of whiskeys so they wouldn’t have to leave the restaurant, abandon the silk ribbons of wind. All the sharp corners sanded off their inhibitions. It was the sort of perfect-weather night that saddens New Yorkers because there are only ten or twelve per year. The city becomes an hourglass, precious grains lost every second. – The King of Infinite Space
Lyndsay Faye became my most read author this year, a feat I did not set out to accomplish. Incidentally, I started with what ended up being my least favorite book by her, The Paragon Hotel. I liked it, but it didn’t come together as well as her other novels do. In the afterword, Faye writes she scrapped the novel more than once mid-way thru writing it because she could not get an angle on it. The book feels that way still. Much better were Jane Steele, and The Whole Art of Detection. The latter a group of excellent Sherlock Holmes short stories that could easily sit alongside those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This brings me to The King of Infinite Space, the fourth book I read by Faye this year catching me up with her catalog. This is her newest book, published in 2021 and I’m honestly surprised there hasn’t been much buzz around it.
Benjamin Dane’s theater magnate father, Jackson Dane, is dead and his Uncle Claude has quickly married Ben’s mother, Trudy. In his heightened emotional state, Ben summons his estranged best friend and one-time-lover Horatio Patel from London for support in New York City. Meanwhile, Ben has been sharing dreams with Lia, his ex-fiance and former darling of the New York art scene, that slowly reveal hidden secrets from the past. Mix in a flower shop run by three (possible) witches, a devilish event planner, and two college bros that Ben suspects have been sent to spy on him, and the stage is set for an explosive confrontation that everyone will be lucky to survive.
If this plot sounds vaguely familiar it should, it’s a modern take on Hamlet. Most of the main characters from Shakespeare’s play have carried over to this new version and unfortunately, there will be blood. I spent a lot of the book wondering how far it was going to go in following the play. Hamlet is a tragedy, after all, it’s right there in the title (actual title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), and while Faye’s take on the story has many original elements, it’s still a tragedy.
What the book also shares with the play is the playful banter and wit of its characters. Ben is a Philosophy of Physics professor (an actual real degree) and is described as brilliant by pretty much everyone that meets him. He also is described as having a neuroatypical brain, is obsessed with his own mortality and is very highly strung and on various prescriptions for his mental state. Lia is a recovering alcoholic torn apart over ruining her chance of a life with Ben over a mistake she made. Horatio is a love-sick fool who fled for England but returns to be at his best friend, and love of his life’s, side. These are the main characters and the structure of the novel is one of a revolving door. First is Lia, next is Horatio, and finally Ben. Then the cycle starts again at Lia. This structure lets us see what is in its character’s head, their thoughts, and gives constantly shifting perspective. It works fantastically and gives the narrative real momentum.
At the center of the novel is Horatio’s love for Ben, and it is blinding love. Blinding all good sense and his own self-preservation, for his life and his heart. But Horatio is helpless in the face of it, he cannot NOT love Ben Dane. Their relationship is a complex one. While Ben does not regret his one-night-stand (and first gay tryst) with Horatio, he also does not know how to put things back to “normal” even though he quite wants to. He and Horatio form a detective duo to investigate the death of Ben’s father, Jackson. As Ben’s obsession grows, Horatio desperately tries to save the life of his friend as the danger grows.
Lia is recovering in the flower shop of three woman who may be witches. She is learning their ways while working on her own addiction issues and processing her feelings of grief over the dissolution of her engagement, and loss of her art career. Lia’s journey of acceptance for what she has done forms a large portion of the story serving as a counterpoint to the idea fate is absolute. Lia strives to overcome her additions and set things right, but right and wrong are both mutable ideas in this story. While peripheral, she ends up being pivotal to what happens though she herself is only dimly aware of the part she is playing. There are what appear to be supernatural beings here that are hellbent on making sure all the pieces are in place at the right time. Why they are doing this is only hinted at, but more than one conversation references the multiverse and the universe is made from stories, not people.
The frame of Hamlet also works well. It allows Faye to play with expectations, both subverting and affirming them, so the reader is constantly off guard. Each cycle presents more and more information as the plot gets more complex and the stars themselves seem to be aligning for front row seats of the tragedy that will ensue. There is a thread in the novel that the story of Hamlet is inevitable. If not in this time, then perhaps in a far-off royal court long ago. This inevitability of what is coming brings to mind Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play (and movie) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Itself a deconstruction of both Hamlet and the idea of supporting players, there is a similar tone here. In Stoppard’s play, the hapless duo (played wonderfully in the movie by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman) are helpless pawns in King Claudius’ game, but also narrative pawns that have no purpose but to die. They did not exist before the play, they do not exist after until they are called on again to be needed. The tone of The King of Infinite Space is similar. The reader pines for the outcome to be different than they suspect but it is in vain.
I struggle with how to rate The King of Infinite Space. It’s a fantastic book, but it does hold to Hamlet to a strong degree. There are a few elements that I do think push it over the edge to a 5 star book. It is beautifully written, the language is lyrical and often references the dialogue from the play, it is sharply funny, and there are some late book developments that hit like a meteor crashing to earth.
This is a great book, and crosses genres so well I would recommend it to anyone.