Caren Gussoff Sumption Reviews The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye

The King of Infinite Space, Lyndsay Faye (Putnam 978-0-52553-589-8, $27.00, 384pp, hc) August 2021.

Of all the Shakespearean dramas, has there ever been one more discussed, more widely adapted, one that has become more of a Western cultural artifact than Hamlet? It seems unlikely anyone, even a writer like Lyndsay Faye – with previous successes turning Sherlock Holmes and Jane Eyre on their ears – could find a fresh approach to retelling the Hamlet. Yet, with The King of Infinite Space, this is exactly what she’s done.

Faye brings the setting from late Middle Ages Denmark to present day Manhattan. Benjamin Dane (get it? – all the names have a set-in got­cha) is the prince of the wealthy Dane clan, son of Jackson Dane, who wants nothing more than to transform his family’s Texas oil money into Broadway respectability by running the World’s Stage Theatre. But Jackson has recently died, from an apparently accidental prescription drug overdose, and Benjamin’s mother, Trudy, has quickly remarried, to Jackson’s brother, Claude.

Reeling from the loss of his father and the quickie nuptials to his uncle, and fueled by his own drug use and obsessive personality (poorly explained as ‘‘neuroatypicality,’’ but more on that below) Benjamin refuses to accept the ruling that Jackson’s death was an accidental suicide. He calls in his best friend, Horatio, to help him investigate.

Horatio, deeply in love with Benjamin, drops his whole life as an academic at the London School of Economics, and rushes to Benjamin’s side. He finds his friend is a mess: thin, manic, and in touch with his ex-fiancé, alcoholic artist Lia, through shared lucid dreams.

From here, the cast is set, and the Hamlet-inspired shenanigans unfold, almost as expected, but with a few surprises. Nefarious machinations are, indeed, at work, but instead of Claude/Claudius as the string puller, we find that (Queen) Trudy and Polonius (in this case, as Paul Brahms, father of Lia and manager of World’s Stage) drove the plot against Jackson – and they are not happy with Benjamin’s meddling.

Faye adds in additionally interesting flourishes. Lia, her Ophelia, is a tragic figure, but one with considerable agency and a stubborn, if not un­pleasant personality. Lia’s artistic installations brought her precocious success and dedicated fans; three fans, in particular, the ageless, mys­terious proprietors of the Three Sisters Floral Boutique, whose ‘‘weird’’ arrangements seems to work magic for clients (like, you know, some­thing out of Macbeth), and who take Lia in after her messy break-up with Benjamin. Counter to the sisters (witches, fates) stands Robin Goodfel­low, whose love of chaos and uncanny ability to insinuate himself into the lives of all the dramatis personae cuts a far more sinister figure than his Midsummer Night’s Dream incarnation. Though Lia’s been estranged from Benjamin for more than a year – the sisters only know Ben­jamin through reputation, and Robin’s a stranger – they all have a part to play.

And there are a lot of parts. Just as in Hamlet, all these parts become stacked more and more precariously atop one another, until, of course, they all come tumbling down in a display of spectacu­lar bloodshed.

Again, here Faye stays true to the source text. Even as the evitable carnage commences, Faye keeps us at the same emotional distance as the Bard did in Hamlet. The amount of death is shock­ing, but the actual deaths, the loss of each character, decidedly less so.

Hamlet Prime was difficult to like. Sheltered, coddled, Hamlet’s angst over the plot at Elsinore was as much about his grief and rage as it was about his utter annoyance at being removed from his studies and his otherwise comfortable life. Hamlet struggles with morality and respon­sibility, but easily uses and discards the people around him as pawns or obstacles.

Benjamin Dane is cut from the same cloth. We’re told, repeatedly, by both Horatio and Lia that Benjamin is a genius, kind and generous to a fault. We never see that Benjamin, though. He’s prone to obtuse (but fascinating) soliloquy, usu­ally on arcane philosophical subjects, punctuated by pill-popping. He’s cruel to Horatio, ditching him without a word, only to reappear with veg­etarian sushi as apology – or to be discovered, in near-death shape, after drinking himself to blackout in the shower. He’s a jerk.

Herein lies the only issue with The King of Infinite Space. The overlay into modern day New York is masterful. The plot straddles the line between familiar and inventive. The characters themselves are compelling, roundly depicted, and interesting, even when they are jerks. The problem is that Faye falls into a hole attempting to provide Benjamin with a ‘‘reason’’ for his jerkiness: Autism. Though it’s never explicitly named, all the talk of Benjamin’s place on the neurotypical spectrum (as in, not on) feels as if it ‘‘explains’’ Benjamin’s behavior. As someone with Autism, this reader took offense. It would be fine having Benjamin simply possess a characteristically ‘‘Hamletian’’ trait without giving us yet another cliché of the emotionally ignorant, insufferably obsessive Autist.

Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.

Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.

Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.

This review and more like it in the January 2022 issue of Locus.

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