Anna Quindlen once wrote, “[books] are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” It is hard for me to find a better example of this adage than the works of Kathe Koja. The act of reading her stories is not just an experience, but an event. Every time I begin a new Koja novel, I wonder, “can I really go home again?” There is a fear in the first pages, a desperate hopefulness that Koja will not have abandoned me as a reader. But the answer to that question has repeatedly been, yes. In reading Kathe Koja, I come home.
Christopher Wild is a remarkable trilogy of novellas that reimagines the life of Christopher Marlowe as it was in the 1590s and as it could have been in more recent times. The first novella, written in the passionate, fluid, Elizabethan style that will be familiar to fans of Under the Poppy, pays great homage to the historical life of Marlowe and his contemporaries. Included in the tale are a number of familiar characters, including Shakespeare and the University Wits. Koja adeptly tackles the myth of the man and weaves into it the facts as we know them, recreating a believable identity for this spy, lover, and dramatist. In the second tale, Koja imagines Marlowe in a near-contemporary society. How would this man navigate city life, intrigue, sexuality, and his writing if he lived in a time and place more similar to our own? Some of the characters from the first novella reappear again with different names and roles, but they—most of them—fulfill their prophecies. The third novella imagines a near-future, one that seems dystopic in many ways but which, unfortunately, becomes more and more probable all the time. An intrusive government that can control anyone’s every move; a nation of closed borders and constant surveillance; a paranoia about free thought and free speech, both of which are stifled by a police state that employs its creative citizens or destroys them when they do not comply. Amidst this darkness is a poet who dares to defy the system and who will speak the truth, whatever the cost.
Holding all three novellas together is the idea of the writer-activist. What responsibilities does a writer have to truth? How does the poet hold an oppressive government to account? Can words wake us up from our lethargy and apathy? In each case, Christopher, or Chris, or X04, or Kit, or Merlin, personifies the answer to these questions. To be bold and brazen. To be honest and courageous. To be independent of mind and heart and spirit. These are the necessary qualities of the poet, the individual, the rebel, the titan. And what sustains him? Love. Sure, Koja eagerly and truthfully draws a man who is liberal in his lusts and passions, for drink and for men. In all three novellas, the Marlowe character gives and takes of the body with abandon and without apology. And yet, the sexuality is never tawdry, never gratuitous. It reflects the character of the man, the vibrancy and virility of his existence, and his constant state of awareness, the recognition that his time is short. In whose hands could these sensibilities, this anchored sensuality, be more powerfully and delicately crafted? I’m reminded only of Anthony Burgess and Henry Miller—satirical surrealists—who express the balance of mind and body not only in the stories they create, but also in the language they craft to tell them. Koja is undeniably in this company.
Many have noted that this work is an ode to Christopher Marlowe. Koja’s knowledge of Marlowe comes across loud and clear, and her passion for the man, his talent, and his lifestyle are treated with deserved reverence. What this unique work does for me, however, even as a fan of Marlowe, is much bigger than a love letter to one Elizabethan playwright: it is a love letter to writing and to writers. In reading the three novellas, one notices common themes arise over and over again. At the heart of these is the river of time that connects all of us and all of our stories, and how its mythos cannot be outrun or over-imagined. This becomes clear in the way Koja ends each of the three Marlowe tales. The second, which takes place in a near-present time, is the most hopeful. It seems to me a powerful message about the role of the writer as s/he exists in the present. The past cannot be changed and the future is unclear, but if anyone has the ability and audacity to dare plumb and dam and navigate those rivers, it is the writer. And if anything has the power to move hearts and minds, to stir men and women to action, it is the voice of the poet. Kathe Koja, in honoring a literary and cultural hero and phenomenon, reminds us that Marlowe is much more than a man; he is an idea. The charge of that idea, the electricity of it, is so palpable in the way Koja crafts and caresses Christopher Wild, that it brought this reader, and writer, out of a months-long slump. Koja has made a writer want to start writing again, and I can’t think of any idea more profound than that.
“The small feed as they can, the large as they will, whether the meal suits them or no. there is the world” (22).
“What does it matter, that first fulcrum point, if the mind resolves to move the world?” (24)
“Was there concomitant comfort in the promise of rewards, pearly gates and eternity of rest among the blessed, safe forever from the outer darkness of freedom and sin, or only the fear of that dark?” (155)
“But for himself the point was and is still the brute beauty of it—attended by power, yes, sheer playful aggression, and that live-wire rush when the writing comes right, nothing in the world to better it, as if the gears of the universe have for one perfect moment fallen into perfect place” (209).
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