Justin's Reviews > All Men of Genius

All Men of Genius by Lev A.C. Rosen
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Oct 28, 2011

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bookshelves: 2011-debut, steampunk, 2011-release, read-2012, macmillan
Read from November 16, 2011 to January 01, 2012

http://staffersmusings.blogspot.com/2012...


I had a bit of frustration with Lev AC Rosen's debut novel, All Men of Genius, and I recognize it may be a controversial one as it has nothing to do with his talent as a writer or the quality of his novel.  In fact, the novel's voice is great, using third person omniscient that strikes a perfect balance of authentic Victorian and modern convention.  The tagline on the dust jacket calling it inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is right on and I might add a dash of Charles Dicken's knack for character and setting.  Even the plot is well executed, demonstrating the power of a straightforward story when populated by things the reader cares about.



Violet Adams is a brilliant young scientist barred from study at the world's greatest scientific institution by her gender.  Determined to continue her studies, and prove that women deserve a place at the table, she disguises herself as her twin brother Ashton.  Of course, keeping the secret of her sex isn't easy with her friend Jack’s constant pranking and the headmaster's (Duke Ernest Illryia) young ward, Cecily, developing feelings for Violet’s alter ego.  Add in some blackmail, mysterious killer automata, and Violet’s burgeoning affection for the duke, and Rosen has a steampunk Victorian response to J.K Rowling's Harry Potter franchise (albeit more adult).



Where the novel raises an eyebrow, for me, is in the constant emphasis on sexuality and gender.  Here's a run-down of some of the related plot devices.  Violet is a woman dressed as a man.  Violet's twin brother, Ashton, is gay.  Professor Valentine likes to have sex with senior citizens.  Duke Illryia is questioning.  No one seems to have a sexual relationship with anyone their own age.  Cecily has a thing for the cross-dressed Ashton (Violet).  I could go on, but things might get spoilery.



Early on I found the treatment of Violet's cross dressing and Ashton's sexuality to be both refreshing and authentic.  But, as the novel wore on I became overwhelmed, as I felt constantly assailed by the sexual proclivities of every character.  I applaud the desire to put alternate lifestyles in the spotlight.  However, I think it does a disservice when it feels like token offerings to inclusiveness, which too often seemed to be the case in Rosen's debut.





And yet, here I am talking about it.  In pushing the envelope, then sealing another one and pushing it right behind the first, Rosen compels his readers to confront the issue.  Despite my frustrations with it from a storytelling perspective, I can't help but applaud him for what he's trying to accomplish.  All Men of Genius is a novel I would happily hand to my someday teenage daughter (she's two now).  The message embedded in it is one of tolerance and acceptance, but also of demanding equality, making it one of the more important 2011 novels I've read -- especially considering its cosmetic appeal to younger readers.



Some might criticize the stiffness of the characters, an unfortunate side effect of Rosen's chosen narrative style.  Other's might turn their nose up at the neat bow Rosen puts on everything. or the general acceptance of prostitution.  To the latter point, some might call that an indictment of its appropriateness for a younger reader (and they might be right, as that, and several other items, are mature in nature).  My response?  It's Victorian!  Reflected in everything from the narrative voice, to the novel's structure, to the mores of the time, Rosen never forgets it and embraces it with aplomb.



All Men of Genius is a novel I can recommend -- especially to younger readers or parents although others will find enjoyment as well.  In an ever expanding world full of those alike and not, it's imperative that published works lead the way in engendering mutual understanding.  My only caution is to let the ideas speak for themselves, overworking them only reveals an insecurity in their veracity (which I'm sure the author doesn't have).  While I would have preferred more (any?) deconstruction, the novel is a wonderful homage to the source material of Shakespeare and Wilde.  It's not clear if Rosen plans to continue Violet's story, but I'd certainly be interested if he is.  If not, I'd be intrigued to see what he's capable of in a space unconstrained by Victorian virtue.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Respectfully, I find the idea that tolerance toward, and acceptance of, people of atypical sexuality is "inherently American" to be... surprising, to say the least. It does not... completely accord with my experience of nonAmerica, or with the reports I have heard about life within America. I think, for instance, that if I toodled down the road to Brighton and told people there that they were being very "American", they would react with some confusion. You must surely admit that - at least so it appears to the external world, I think - America has not always lead the way in gay rights (or women's rights, or ethnic minority rights, or really any minority rights, to be honest), let alone led the world so emphatically that tolerance and acceptance and equality would universally be recognised as "inherently American" values. No?


Justin Equality and tolerance are the foundations on which this country was built. Whether they hold true today or were hypocritical from day 1, I won't comment on, but to say America as a nation hasn't fundamentally contributed to equality and tolerance around the world is being intentionally subversive.


message 3: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Well, it's not particularly clear to me that America HAS fundamentally contributed to equality and tolerance around the world, no. Certainly not to a greater degree than many other nations. But frankly, that's beside the point. [Though, poor benighted intolerant un-American that I am, I welcome being thought of as a "subversive". I'm not sure, however, if treasonous thoughts regarding another person's country really count as subversion. Brezhnev, for instance, was not really a 'subversive', I think].

However, returning to the point,
It's one (controversial) thing to say that America is inherently tolerant, but it's quite another (and, to be honest, rather offensive) to say that tolerance is "inherently American". Was John Stuart Mill an American? Are countries like Portugal and the Netherlands "inherently American" for permitting gay marriage? I'm earnestly curious, as I should like to know in advance if I'm likely one day to *pop* become an American, as a result of having been too tolerant of others and too strongly been advocating equality!

Or to put the point in less irate characters: American Exceptionalism may be unexceptional within America, but it leaves a sour taste as an assumption in the rest of the world, I think.


Justin You're hunting for an argument and I'm not sure why. Nothing in my review suggests anything about American exceptionalism. And nothing suggests that those ideas are exclusive to America. I'm merely stating that I believe them to be at the core of what America is and should be about regardless of the actions of its leaders. Read the Declaration and the Constitution. Read the inscription on the statue of liberty. These ideas are inherent to the idea that formed the nation.


message 5: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel I'm not really interested in what America "should be about", because I'm not American. I'm interested in what you say about the rest of the world.

OK, if you meant to say that America was inherently tolerant, OK (though clearly it isn't - if America doesn't always live up to something, that something cannot be inherent to it) - so say that that's what you meant.

What you said, on the other hand, was that tolerance was inherently American (or, more precisely, that being tolerant made the book inherently American). Obviously that's going to offend a lot of people who aren't American. You're implying that you can't be tolerant without being American - that's what 'inherently American' means! If you don't see the point with 'inherent', try rewriting it with some synonyms: "uniquely American", or "characteristically American" or "essentially American", or "inseparable from America".

If you didn't mean to say this, fine, but maybe you should choose more sensitive words in future. My original post was meant to be a gentle invitation to reconsider the remark, and certainly wasn't intended to start an argument - I assumed you would either take it on board silently, or else say "oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't really thinking, I'll rephrase that". If I sounded more irate in the second, it's probably because you responded by calling me a subversive for daring to challenge America's role in bringing light to the nations - which rather lead me to assume that the exceptionalist implications of the original remark were intentional.

To bring it back to the book - you imply that it could only have been written in America. I think that does a disservice to the literary productivity of many other countries. Far from being inherently American, I think this book (going solely from your description, of course) could easily have been English or Canadian or Australian (etc). Because we have tolerance too.


message 6: by Justin (last edited Jan 05, 2012 05:53PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Justin I think you're really reaching, but I'll reconsider my adverb. It's not my intention to dig at anyone.


Wordwizard I go to the same college as the writer recently graduated from. The emphasis on many alternate sexualities is a very Oberlin thing, so I can see where he's coming from. But I agree, it does all get to be a bit much, just looking at it from a realistic point of view. Lots of coincidences in this novel, period.


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