Billed in the jacket blurb as a “metaphysical thriller,” Travels in Elysium proves neither particularly enlightening nor thrilling. What it is is a slog, 539 pages of one-track characters having the same conversations on an over-described Greek island.
It actually starts out okay. The writing isn’t terrible, and the setup is pretty good as far as the “thriller” aspects of the novel go. Nicholas Pedrosa is heading for the island of Santorini where he will join an archeological expedition headed by the famous Marcus Huxley. When he arrives, he finds a team wracked with internal rivalry facing a local populace divided over the dig. Some of them like the money it brings their tiny island; others see it as sanctioned looting.
Then some mysterious things start happening. Someone searches Nicky’s luggage before it’s delivered to his lodgings. He learns that his predecessor, Benja, died in an on-site accident after Nicky had already been hired to replace him. Local laborers working the dig report sightings of the undead Benja, and refuse to continue work until an exorcism has been performed. To top it off, it turns out the goal of the dig may be unearthing the lost city of Atlantis.
And then more mysterious things happen, and then a few more, and then a few more, until the mysteries are piled so haphazardly atop one another that it’s nearly impossible to uncover the plot buried beneath.
Everything in Travels in Elysium is a mystery, something the book doesn’t ever want you to forget. Here’s a line from the book quoted in the press packet: “Then chalk it up to experience, Mr. Pedrossa. Trust no one. Believe no one. Question everything. Remember, there is nothing here you can take at face value… No–not even yourself.”
The marketing team at Iridescent Publishing couldn’t have picked a more representative passage. If you’ve already guessed that that’s the voice of the famous archeologist Marcus Huxley, then you already know everything you need to know about the novel, at least as far as its “metaphysical” elements are concerned.
Because that’s it. That’s the big philosophical revelation of the book: doubt everything, question everything. How do we know reality is really real? Really, how do we know? The novel poses the same question over and over again, mercilessly.
Page 64, Huxley again: “Well, have you begun to understand, Mr. Pedrossa–how we must never take anything at face value? How the truth is forever playing hide and seek with us? How nothing is what it appears to be?”
Page 121, Huxley speaking with Niky:
“You may not wish to accept it, but we live in a hypnotic world.”
“Then what is real, and what is not?”
“That is a question only you can decide.”
Then on page 242, in case you thought maybe you were imagining all the repetition, once again, Huxley to Niky: “Time and again I warned you, appearances are deceptive, take nothing at face value, and yet here you are, wailing about Atlantis not being all that it seems.”
The examples go on, but I won’t. Huxley and Niky have the same conversation at the dig, around the dinner table, on top of a mountain, and in the depths of the excavated tunnels of the lost city. The repetition of this central point in the dialogue begins to make the novel read like a particularly boring philosophy 101 seminar, where that stoner kid who watched Waking Life too many times won’t shut up about it.
Sometimes, I got the distinct feeling that this novel could have something going for it if only it could get out of its own way, stop insisting so much on its own metaphysical obsessions, and actually let a story find its way out of the exotic setting, the downtrodden cast, and maybe just a couple of the better mysteries.
But then I would have to remind myself: Appearances can be deceiving.
Similar reads: For books that do a better job mixing metaphysics and plot try The Magus by John Fowles or The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]