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Stephen Carter’s Palace Council Dredges Up Memories of Paradise Lost

While I was out of town last week I got a lot of reading done. One of the books I picked up was the paperback version of Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter, the Yale law professor who burst onto the fiction scene a few years ago with The Emperor Of Ocean Park . This fiction debut was a thriller situated in an Ivy League setting whose black protagonist roamed through the lives and loves of upper crust African Americans as he searched for his father’s killer.

Carter works at the opposite end of the spectrum from Walter Mosley, who wrote one of the other books I read last week, a detective story called The Long Fall. Mosley’s book was a little long in the tooth, with too many digressions and too many generalizations about race, but it whet my appetite for another thriller with an African American protagonist.

Mr. Carter did not disappoint.

He began back in the fifties, with a cast of black characters who seemed like they had risen straight out of a Carl Van Vechten picture book, still wearing the furs and jewelry and the snobbish attitudes that had drawn Van Vechten to them in the first place. After reading Mosley, Carter’s prose seemed surgically precise, if a little pedantic at times. He weaved biblical excerpts, actual historical facts and abstract legal concepts into his plot with a soothing rhythm, developing a distinct but predictable tempo in each chapter.

Until he got fancy, and threw Milton’s Paradise Lost into the mix.

That one addition blew the whole fictional world Professor Carter had been so painstakingly constructing for my enjoyment all to bits.

I had been reading in public, and now I was talking out loud, as if Stephen Carter could hear me. “Paradise Lost is a f***ing clue? Are you serious?”

I was flabbergasted, partly because I was one of the few brave souls who has read Paradise Lost in the last hundred years, but mostly because seeing the name of the book dredged up memories of how it came to be that a sixteen year old high school student ended up doing a major research paper on John Milton’s famously difficult epic poem.

I had gone from being a kind of nerdy guy with Coke bottle lenses in my glasses as a freshman to a kind of nerdy guy with Coke bottle lenses in my glasses who was now a member of a bunch of student run organizations as a junior. So the semester research paper deadlines were easily overlooked. The day before we had to make our selections, I was in the school’s library, running late for a meeting, trying to pick out a book to research from the list of acceptable choices the teacher had given us.

I showed up in class later that day, still no closer to making a decision on which book to chose, when I saw the name Paradise Lost on the approved book list. I will never forget the way the teacher peered over her glasses at me when I answered “Paradise Lost” after she had called my name to ask what book I’d chosen.

I don’t think I’ve ever studied as hard as I did when I found out, a couple of weeks later, with my rough draft deadline looming, that this was a several hundred year old book, a major poem whose Cliff’s Notes ended up only being a preliminary guide to the shelves full of critiques that centered around this one little book.

Indeed, the widowed Aurelia Garland, one of the book’s main characters, was portrayed as a scholar with a doctorate in literature who had never read anything by Milton.

Aurelia studied the yellowy pages of the book. Her dissertation topic had been the response of European writers to Negro abolitionists, with a special focus on Martin Delany and his novel, Blake. She had never read Milton. An undergraduate degree in English, a doctorate in literature, and she had never read Milton

From Palace Council by Stephen Carter

If you were to base your observations about this particular clue in Palace Council and the author’s choice to use it on the knowledge modern day people would have of the works of John Milton, the way I did all the way through the rest of the book, you would think the author had gone too far. It didn’t come to me until I was halfway through writing this piece that my parents and their friends all know who John Milton was, and most of them have at least a rudimentary understanding of the book’s storyline.

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 Maybe it is a sign of the times, where the app store has replaced the library, GPS has taken away the sense of place one gets from reading a physical map, and text messages and social media have reduced the chances of developing deep, wide ranging conversations. Where most of the classics that are studied in school these days comes from nineteenth and twentieth century literature.  

In spite of the lingering images of piles of notecards sprawled across a library table, and the searing memory of the four or five other books critiquing this poem that I had to  read in order to understand it, I got to the end of Palace Council. Although it was more sprawling and less intimate than The Emperor of Ocean Park, with too much time spent during the second half of the book explaining why the newer black characters were as important as the original lineup, it was still an enjoyable read.

I should be fully recovered from my Paradise Lost flashback by the end of the week.


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