What is the codex? Quite simply, it's a book, a catalogue compiled and kept by a Czech cosmetic surgeon named Svoboda. Its pages contain a litany of variations on an ideal, inspired by the essay's other central character, an oversexed nonagenarian multi-media artist who has long inspired Svoboda.
And what is The Codex? On one level, it's Broudy's twin profile of both the artist and the surgeon. On another, it's a document of the author's journey to find and confront the book itself. Finally, though, it is another transcontinental adventure, this time fueled by Broudy's mix of attraction to and revulsion for the book's contents. [Warning: No spoiler forthcoming.]
Broudy excels at nesting traditional essay structures, in this case a profile within a profile within a quest within a memoir of sorts. At the level of mere craft, this notable skill leaves most of what makes the pages of annual, book-length essay revues rather wanting. But structural savvy alone does not make great writing; Broudy elevates the stakes of the form by forging meaning out of utterly surprising connections that yield searing insights into modern life.
One meaning of essay, of course, is "attempt," an effort to do or create something that hasn't been done before and, by implication, is not a guaranteed success. It's this understanding of the word that best illuminates why Oliver Broudy is developing into one of the essay's masterful modern practitioners. There is no shortage of clean, succinct, tightly packaged, eminently marketable essays in circulation today, and plenty of dependable publications in which to find them. Broudy's essays attempt more. Inevitably, they're not for everybody. But given what I've read so far, I'm much more interested in reading Oliver Broudy's next failure than most modern essayists' next smashing successes.