Natalie Angier's Bookshelf
By Frederic Prokosch
This is one of the greatest novels that nobody has ever heard of. Certainly, I had never heard of it when I idly picked it up at a bookstore and saw the lineup of cover squibs so swooning in tone and exalted in provenance I almost thought the whole thing was a joke. Thomas Mann said it was so "astonishing" that he "was unable to tear [himself] away," Albert Camus called Prokosch a "virtuoso," and André Gide declared it an "authentic masterpiece."
Well, the immortal blurbers weren't kidding. I couldn't put the book down. It is an astonishing masterpiece that I have since pressed on many a good friend and bare acquaintance alike, all of them previously benighted, all of them quick converts to the author's exuberant gloom. Published in 1935, the novel follows a young American hitchhiker as he travels with fierce aimlessness through Asia. He meets princes, thieves, priests, and eunuchs, young boy prostitutes and aging, self-dramatizing madames, and they ask him, What do you think of life? Tell me of your life. Are you happy? At times he tries to answer, at others he rebuffs their prying, at still others, sudden violence intervenes. It is a misanthropic, gorgeous odyssey through a part of the world that, astonishingly, Prokosch never visited, but evoked so persuasively that my husband, an old Asia wayfarer, felt he was back on the road.