Puzzling Mystery, Mystery Puzzle

Author Nick Bantock completes a trilogy and presents a conundrum

THE GOLDEN MEAN By Nick Bantock Chronicle Books 49 pp., $17.95.

THE EGYPTIAN JUKEBOX By Nick Bantock Viking, 46 pp., $18.95.

`TODAY comes your card saying you were in this house for seven days after my return,'' Griffin Moss writes to the woman with whom he has fallen in long-distance love. ``I am bewildered.''

``The Golden Mean,'' the final installment of a best-selling trilogy by Nick Bantock, finds Griffin desperate to discover why he and Sabine Strohem have been unable to meet in person, even when they appear to have been in Griffin's London flat at the same time.

As in the two previous books, the story unfolds through postcards and letters (which must be removed from actual envelopes to be read) between Griffin, an English artist, and Sabine, a stamp design-er from a tiny group of Pacific islands.

The two characters have found each other as a result of Sabine's ability to see Griffin's artwork even as he draws it thousands of miles away. This odd connection is largely relegated to the background as the two grow closer emotionally through their letters. As their bond strengthens, however, they also find that there is something keeping them apart. Griffin almost drowns in an attempt to reach Sabine's islands, and her trip to London is equally fruitless.

``I have always known we were polarized, but I didn't expect this,'' Sabine replies. ``We have a bigger problem than I thought.'' Like magnets turned the wrong way, they seem to bounce off one another.

The appeal of the trilogy may be largely due to the different levels on which it can be understood. There are enough references to Jungian psychoanalysis to please the most avid connoisseur of the subconscious. Others may simply read it as a story of true love battling obstacles.

The lavishly hand-illustrated cards and letters will engage the visually oriented reader with their quirky artistic vision. And the poetically inclined will relish the references throughout the book to Yeats's ``The Second Coming.''

Of course, there is also the appeal of simple voyeurism, the thrill of experiencing a character's life not through narration, but by reading his own intimate communication written in his own hand.

``The Golden Mean'' (the title is the familiar phrase describing a system of geometric proportion originated by Plato) includes two postcards from a third character, who claims to be a scientific journalist.

His cards intrude between Griffin and Sabine's correspondence just as he malevolently invades their lives and helps force them to reach a conclusion about their relationship.

Bantock's resolution for Griffin and Sabine manages to be satisfying while preserving the aura of mystery that sustains the trilogy. Readers will recall the haunting visual and emotional imagery long after they close the books.

``The Egyptian Jukebox,'' described as ``a conundrum created by Nick Bantock,'' shows another side of the author's artistic playfulness.

Readers are invited to attempt to solve the puzzle of the jukebox, an elaborate series of collages assembled by the fictional Hamilton Hasp (an eccentric millionaire, of course) and accompanied by narrations of his many voyages around the world.

With minimal instruction but ample clues left by Hasp himself, one is led through the puzzle. The riddle left by the creator, who disappeared shortly after the jukebox was built, is: ``Where do my worlds join?''

The artwork of the collages and Hasp's narrated stories reflect an international, mystical vision similar to that which Bantock evokes in his trilogy. The eclectic assemblies sometimes have a sinister mood, but are visually and intellectually engaging in their evocation of the many places Hasp has visited.

Yet the mystery of the jukebox does not live up to its visual intricacy. The formula that allows one to solve the conundrum without full immersion in Hasp's vision betrays the riddle's promise: that the reader's full intuitive and intellectual powers will be required.

The solving of the puzzle becomes more a mechanical exercise in logic than a flight of instinct and imagination.

Furthermore, a striking disconnect between the clues offered and the description of the jukebox leave the impression that Bantock spent much less time in the development of ``The Egyptian Jukebox'' than in the engrossing, multidimensional ``Griffin & Sabine'' trilogy.

Had ``The Egyptian Jukebox'' been the work of a lesser author-illustrator, it could have been an innovative breakthrough. But Bantock has set such a high standard with the ``Griffin & Sabine'' books that one can't help feeling shortchanged.

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