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Book Review

Retreat into fantasy shows escaping is not what it used to be

Rich prose adorns Tod Wodicka's study of a man trying to regain his family. Rich prose adorns Tod Wodicka's study of a man trying to regain his family. (Clare Wigfall)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
April 30, 2008

Retreat. Deny. Relive. Escape.

Such are the myriad options available to us, the hedonistic and educated human race. Escape may be a luxury, but it's a choice we're increasingly choosing. Think of the millions devoting the better part of waking days to online games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. The lure of other times and realms is plainly seductive. To replay the past is to make all outcomes possible. Even save a destroyed family.

Or, "anything was still possible out there in the past," according to Burt Hecker, a.k.a. Eckbert Attquiet, a medieval reenactor and the protagonist of the disarming and brilliant novel "All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well."

As for pain, loss, and heartbreak, "that was all still in the future, hundreds of years from now in a land not yet discovered," Burt believes. "It could all still be prevented."

Burt is the sincere, inept, and historically lost narrator of Tod Wodicka's generously titled first novel. Hopeless at navigating fin-de-siecle America, Burt spends his time clothed in a tunic and sandals, buzzed on mead, and if not tilting at windmills then at least evoking a world where his wife, Kitty, is still alive and his children, June and Tristan, don't despise him. Faced with his familial ruin, most of it his making, he has fully retreated into a medievally themed society that he founded, the Confraternity of Times Lost Regained. All has not been well.

By the time we catch up with Burt at the novel's start, it's 1998 and his wife has been dead for two years. Burt has bravely taken a plane to Germany, then embarked on a car trip to Prague. (Both modes of transport are "OOP," or Out of Period, not native to his beloved Dark Ages. So, too, is coffee.) The reason for his risk is simple: He wants to get his son back.

Wodicka's prose is a revelation. A schoolroom clock is described as "worn raw by stares . . . the countless years of young eyes reflected in it, urging it onwards." On a wet road, a car's taillights turn "water to wine." At every step, "All Shall Be" asks us to see creation anew.

Wodicka's missteps are minor and few. The novel's first third is unnecessarily cluttered by side characters: a Brazilian travel companion, a coterie of Hildegard von Bingen chanters. A spate of italicized passages, third-person narration of Kitty's childhood, take us too far from Burt's head.

But the novel's final quarter is a tour de force. Amid a massive medieval feast on the grounds of the ramshackle, upstate New York inn that his family runs, we see Burt descend to the nadir of his despair. And then, our present-abhorring hero takes action. Back in Prague in search of his son, for Burt opening the doors to a jazz club "is like tearing off a bandage which has long been covering a particularly sensitive part of the body," he narrates. "I have now entered the wound."

That wound forms the heart of the book. Such is the skill of Wodicka's tragic-comic portrait, we accept Burt, foibles, big nose, and all: "It is hard to not be what you are." We want Burt to be redeemed. We want June and Tristan, faced with the failures of their father's good intentions, to forgive. We want this father to reenact his family's history. We want it all back again.

Of course, Burt's family, like all families, doesn't get a sugary, mead-sweet ending. Wodicka's novel reminds us that families are "historical things." As with digital realms and dreams of heroic deeds, so too with one's kin: "You have to believe in them for them to be real."

Ethan Gilsdorf is working on a book, "Escape Artists," about fantasy escapist culture. Write him at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

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