British author Peter Ackroyd is among our most learned novelists. His encyclopedic knowledge of things literary and historical is astonishing, and his ability to weave this vast store into infinitely readable books sets him far apart from the average historical novelist. Rather than novelize history, Ackroyd uses the past as a springboard into the world of imagination. For example, his earlier novel, Hawksmoor, is a literary gothic horror story which combines a haunting architectural past with supernatural time travel.
The Plato Papers, subtitled A Prophecy, is a small, playful book filled with ideas and allusions. It would be better subtitled A Frolic; it is a truly fun and hilarious read. The hilarity is at the expense of humanity's foibles, a situation this book predicts will be not at all improved by the year 3700.
The premise is that a renegade future philosopher, Plato, interprets ancient (meaning, of course, from our time) cultural artifacts and gleans broad conclusions from tiny clues; Ackroyd has applied (ancient) Plato's cave metaphor to our culture. For example, from a partially remaining volume, Plato concludes that On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was written by Charles Dickens and is a satirical novel (for those readers living in Kansas, write care of the Independent for an explanation). Freud is a comic genius, while Edgar Allen Poe is considered to be a foremost historian.
Ackroyd employs several methods of exposition including third-person narrative, dialogue (of course), official declaration and, best of all, a glossary which tries to make sense of our idiomatic language. An organ grinder is defined as "a kind of butcher. See 'organism.' " Fiber optic is "a coarse material woven out of eyes, worn by the high priests of the mechanical age in order to instil (sic) terror among the populace." (Hey, that one's true!)
The book could be tighter. Ackroyd is too enamored by his many literary forms and his writing occasionally lacks enough substance. But the warmth and humor this book exudes allow us to laugh at ourselves, and the message is a warning to those who cannot imagine anyone ever having been stupid enough to think the world was flat.
-- Michael Salkind