Here, chiseled in stone, are my huzzahs about Bradford Morrow's latest novel, GIOVANNI'S GIFT--chiseled, or as the French say cisele, I think, which sounds even sharper and more final.

This is his most Jamesian novel, not in the least derivative, but heir to James' opportunistic elenchus, if that's a fair way of putting it. I no sooner find a gorgeous, Jamesian sentence (page 237, for instance, sentence number one) than I find another: sentence number two. Morrow is one of the few who cares about the minutiae of this art and do something about it by crafting sentences that, while continually surprising us with their content, reassure us by fulfilling rhythmic promises--we divine how the sentence will end, rhythmically, that is, and it always more of less does. So he plays inevitability against shock, which is a wonderful thing.

Not only that, his central animating conceit seems to me a masterstroke because the Pandoran box becomes a CORNUCOPIA: looking for signs among the boxiana we develop a habit we try to apply to the world at large, to the rest of the dichotomy and so find the world, oddly, become a symbol of itself. In other words, having learned to hunt for signs, we never get enough, which means there is no symbol after all (a bit implying the whole, that old synedoche), but only the world equated with itself. So, to cope, you either have to assume the incomplete account of the world, since you never have time to absorb it all, is symbolic (which it may not be), or you resign yourself to mere addition.

This word symbol fascinates and appalls me as it denotes things brought back together that were thrown apart: say the mind and the external world. If this bothered the Greeks, by how much more must it bother us? We have many more phenomena to deal with than they did, and I'm not even counting the world-wide web {!} cluttered with the vomit of our predecessors.

What this beautiful new book does is to remind us of how arbitrary our sleuthing-out of the world is, how decisive on feeble premises, how shallow on poor evidence. We live and die without knowing much of the world, using only a measly part of our brains. The box has unlimited power, it seems to me, as it first of all tempts us to go beyond it, then becomes a symbol of how unable we are to get far beyond it. It begins and ends as what De Quincey called an involute: a compound experience incapable of being disentangled. All to the author's managerial, stage-managing credit, that he makes that image work on us throughout, utterly transcending the notion of "thriller" for that of profoundest mystery (what did all the dead think?) and hitching our skiff to the galleon of epistemology. Not J.D. Macdonald, but Kant.

Any reader who can outguess the narrator by leaping the life to come is a better man than I. On that level of protracted tension (it is not suspense) Morrow does a noble job, retaining our interest in what's passed while fomenting our desire to know more. And there is always more, even after we close the lid of the book after "ending." A book is a box and this book is a century box. You close it just in time.

I was just reading Kingsbury Smith's account of the Nuremburg hangings, which recounts how, after groans came from the drop zone behind the curtain, the hangman descended the scaffold and went underneath to quell them. What did he do? Why was this his last execution? They fired him right after. That's a minor sample of what's not known, never known, but GIOVANNI'S GIFT sets us out after it, reminding us that the detective novel at its highest reach is a philosophical tool, or a symbol of striving. Without ever wetting his feet in that genre, Morrow harnesses to his own porpoises its yearning for obscure, ambivalent facts.

Is this also a Jovian box? I think so, and there's another level for you. This novel is like the non-existent play that Eliot writes about in one of his essays, happening to us on several levels which do not interfere with each other. Also, GIOVANNI'S GIFT is a mystery or miracle play with words, in which, as ever, the landscape becomes the solace, as does language, while the core problem of being--its terminable gratuituousness--remains intact. Rilke says somewhere Don't ask questions, you couldn't handle the answers. Morrow teaches us on that level.

So, once again, from Bradford Morrow something atavistic, adroit, symphonic, complex, ingenious, delicate, sexy, profound. If there are good readers still around, each one of them should have this novel to delight in and pore over. It sits between THE ASPERN PAPERS and Hartley's THE GO-BETWEEN, but much more physically vital than either. Bravo!

    Paul West is the author of many novels including most recently SPORTING WITH AMARYLLIS (Overlook) and THE TENT OF ORANGE MIST (Scribner) which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.