FEBRUARY 4, 2020
ELIZABETH COOK’S Lux is named for the poet Thomas Wyatt’s falcon, Lukkes, but also for all the luck there isn’t, both in his world and that of his poetic precursor, King David. Unlike Cook’s light-footed first novella, Achilles, this is a tome, largely to its detriment. We are told the story of David and Bathsheba in several ways, told it to near-exhaustion: we see it in its context, we see it through tapestries, actors, imagination — with little alteration or contradiction. The first two-thirds of the book is — after a fashion — backstory. In Achilles, Cook talked of Achilles himself, his feats and his friends, only to end on John Keats, drawing parallels, not entirely convincingly but as coda, or surprise. Here, we have the story of the Ark of the Covenant, then of David and Bathsheba, of the genesis of the Psalms, most of it seemingly to prepare the ground for Wyatt, for his struggles in the Tower of London and his “Englishing” of the songs of David.
It’s not that the parallels between David’s world and Wyatt’s fail to cohere, but the imbalance and flatness of the David section serves ultimately as occlusion rather than expansion. This is a novel in which death is always flying toward us, in which each body is, to an extent, “surrounded by swords and knives” — as Wyatt characterizes the freshly beheaded Anne Boleyn. It’s crucial to note, from the outset, that this is a novel in which the characters, both in the David section and the Wyatt, dwell in a world of faith. The book, by necessity, more or less excludes, even precludes, psychology, as much as it does any notion of luck: “[A]s if luck played any part in fortune,” Wyatt notes. We are in a land of kings, both of the gold and ermine and of the theological stripe; character here is less an ongoing construction or act of self-determination than a struggle not to be noticed by one who would do you ill.
This sense of death coming at one from all angles is introduced early, with the brutal stoning of an adulteress, an alter-self for Bathsheba who, usefully, is in the crowd as an adolescent, uncomfortable in her newly adult skin: “[T]he woman’s screams are her own.” Soon enough Bathsheba will learn the two chief lessons of Cook’s novel, that “[i]t was safer for a woman never to catch the King’s eye” and that “The strength of Israel is not a man”; in other words, there’s no reasoning with the power by which one’s life is held captive. David, the King of legend, remains largely that; Cook’s portrayal of him is hamstrung in part by the lack of source narrative upon which she might draw (the whole of the David and Bathsheba story unfolds in just two chapters of 2 Samuel) and in part by the aforementioned constrictions imposed on a modern novelist by the diminishment of an inner life as we might think of it. To be emotionally true to her character, Cook has to negotiate the fact that he lives in a realm of seers and prophets, in which God is an interventionist participant, an onstage enforcer striking down anyone who touches the Ark and dishing out plagues to keep the others honest. She must also contend with the fact that David’s acts of service to, or perceived slights of, his God, referred to as YHWH throughout, are the ultimate measure of every deed, its every conclusion.
Another frustration for the reader comes from the fact that, on the whole, the events that punctuate both the David and Wyatt narratives mostly occur elsewhere and are mentioned in passing or retrospect. We do see some of the important action and interactions, but Cook’s preferred method is to give us moments of reflection on the part of the characters, to show us David alone in a cave with his thoughts or Wyatt bitterly reflecting on his new lot, backfilling the narrative in relative tranquillity. This method can lead to awkwardness in the narrative, as well as to reiteration. One’s heart sinks a little as David sets out seven stones that stand in for figures he wants to think about while isolated in a cave, knowing that we’ll be led back through them one by one, learning little new in the process. Ostensibly sequestered to pray for his ailing child, born after he summoned Bathsheba to his bed while her husband Uriah was off fighting a war on David’s behalf, the King largely manages to forget to pray for the baby at all, instead losing himself in various reveries about his kingship and a somewhat unexpected masturbatory fantasy about his dead friend Jonathan.
The neatest conjunction between biblical past and Wyatt’s period is the sense generated — and occasionally stated — that while the boorish King Henry considers himself a new David, he is in fact more of a Saul figure, dissolute and falling from almighty favor, or even a Goliath, galumphing around on the bones of his ex-wives with his gargantuan form. It might be noted that the entirety of the David section is rendered semi-redundant almost immediately by the retelling of the Bathsheba narrative at the opening of the Wyatt narrative. Admittedly it isn’t only there for contextualizing purposes; Cook surely trusts her readers to either have a working knowledge of the story or to be able to seek one out, and so the work one has to assume it’s intended to do is atmospheric, setting us up for a world in which intruding kings or gods have the final say, and individual liberty or fortune are flies to their wanton boys. In that sense it’s somewhat justified, but the cost to the novel’s momentum of its exhaustive length is a high one. One feels especially disappointed by the frequent reiterations because they come from a writer who shows remarkable poise and elegance on the sentence level, who seems on occasion to be fighting her own instinct for concision and simplicity on behalf of a desired scale that is ultimately her enemy. If this book was of the proportions of Achilles, one senses, its impact would have been felt far more keenly. One wishes Cook had taken Uriah’s narrative approach on describing the ongoing battle to David: “He answered with the minimum that truth required — with neither embroidery nor expansion to make his tale come alive.”
This grumbling is largely to do with the fact that there is much to admire here, beneath all the brocades, especially in the founding ideas from which Cook is somewhat corseted by her own narrative maneuverings. The precariousness of being prey to larger, unreasoning forces, to the dangers of being singled out as exceptional in an environment in which conformity is a matter of survival, is compellingly handled, while the mostly implicit question as to why anyone would want a king at all acts as a subversive, sorrowful shadow narrative. Just as the followers of Moses, we are told, lacked confidence without something to focus on, leading to their building a golden calf to worship — with inevitable consequences — Cook speaks sympathetically and thoughtfully to the various vacuums at the heart of our own means of government and citizenship.
The closest we get to harmony, or indeed freedom, in Lux is in David’s slightly New Age–style communing with all of creation on emerging from his mope cave. His greeting of the sun couched in a worship of the God who created it leads to “[p]ure sound. No words. Just full chords of praise.” Wyatt is drawn to the penitential Psalms of David, in which the King tried to expiate his wrongdoings through poetry. The Tudor poet is full of his own lamentation — for a forcibly restored marriage and the loss of his true love, Bess — but despite all his female bereavements, he seems most fully in love with the titular falcon. He is captivated by the lack of control he has over Lukkes, by the bird’s love for him, and also by its enviable freedom to take off when the mood stirs it. This sense of freedom also inspires some of Cook’s finest prose:
From where he stands, the land ascends gently to a summit topped by a group of trees. Earlier that day he and Lukkes were out hunting on open ground — ground that smells marvellously fresh for it has rained and rained. This time, for once, the bird does not come to the lure. She has flown into the trees, jesses dangling like torn and ragged tendons.
This sort of unfettered possibility is unthinkable to almost all of the book’s characters; even David, for all the bodies on his record, is answerable to YHWH and, knowing he’s done wrong, is suitably constrained by a newfound piety. Only King Henry, perhaps, the latter-day Saul/Goliath, comes close to being free, but he is of course restricted by his appetites and desires and has (courtesy of the novel’s theological framework) extrajudiciary judgments awaiting him. At the conclusion of this novel — which is, as much as anything, a treatise on the abuses of power that enslave all but the loftiest of our number — is a moving and quietly optimistic realization from Wyatt: “The time for small personal ambitions, precious as they are, is over. He must lift himself to wish and pray for more, for a good which is not his alone or even for him to see.” That feels like a faith we might all buy into, heathens and worshipers alike.