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“Babayaga” a comedy that needs to take itself seriously

 babyaga by Toby Barlow (383 pages, $27)

babyaga by Toby Barlow (383 pages, $27)

Toby Barlow’s Babayaga is a novel that asks not to be taken too seriously. This is its most fundamental mistake, from which all its others spring: Even if a novel is a rip-roaring yarn or a bonkers comedy, one can feel whether, beneath all that, it feels it deserves to be taken seriously – and comedies that feel they deserve to be taken seriously are, in fact, much funnier than ones that don’t. Despite all its violence, Babayaga is lighthearted and intentionally cartoonish, painted in broad strokes and bright colors. It’s a convoluted and densely populated tale of intrigue, murder and witchcraft set against the backdrop of Cold War espionage in 1950s Paris. It borrows some interesting and surprising history about the CIA’s covert involvement with the Paris Review.

Well, it’s not actually the Paris Review. In the novel, it’s fictionalized with a wink over the characters’ heads as the Gargoyle Press, just as its publisher and a central dynamo of the byzantine plot – the WASPy, bloviating Oliver – is a deliberately obvious caricature of George Plimpton. He is also the funniest character in the book, and perhaps its only morally ambiguous one.

A lot of wacky things happen in Babayaga. There are cross-species transmogrifications, Indiana Jones-style convulsions and melting faces, shared hallucinations, gunfights and lots of rules on how the witch-magic works.

The novel threads together two (at least) intersecting story lines. The central protagonist is Will Van Wyck, an everyman from humble Midwestern roots, working as an advertising agent in Paris, who quickly gets in over his head when he meets the charming, reckless and well-connected Oliver. Will and Oliver’s story line is an intriguing mixture of Cold War paranoia, literary expats in Paris and advertising.

This isn’t a book in which one cares much what happens to the characters (we know too clearly who’s good and who’s bad for that), it doesn’t contain much real emotion, and the writing is usually competent but never beautiful.

Ben Lerner in a recent interview described much of contemporary American literature as being “essentially very inefficient television.” Babayaga, for the most part, fits that description. Some readers might find it fun, but I found myself wishing it would take itself a little more seriously.

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