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by Oktay Alkan

Publisher: Dog Ear Publisher

A man’s obsession with secret writings leads him to strange encounters and offbeat ideas in this darkly mysterious fantasia.

In this debut novel, Oktay is a doctor living in Istanbul who likes to think about such cosmic conundrums as time travel, astrology and UFOs. His deepest passion is his search for an occult code that will reveal hidden messages in the Quran, which takes up so much of his time that he loses his job and strains his marriage to his long-suffering wife. After writing a dense treatise on the code, revealing messages that are anything but clear, he’s invited on to a bizarre reality show with five other contestants who possess esoteric knowledge, including a physicist, a clergyman, a fortuneteller, a spiritual medium and a young boy with prophetic gifts. They compete in increasingly enigmatic challenges, from running a maze to creating unspecified products and taking part in group projects. Mainly, however, they sit around talking about financial markets, noncoding DNA, entropy, the arrow of time, the Mayan apocalypse and so on, in expansive but murky terms. Some contestants are eliminated, and then the narrative adds a devil who terrorizes and beats Oktay and an angel who protects him; each offers his own discourse on the relative worthiness of the human race. The ideas in this slender novel are seldom posed with clarity or depth, nor are they apparently meant to be. Instead, its religious/philosophical/scientific reflections seem meant to suggest vast, obscure patterns of existence—pictures that emerge only in the aggregate, at a far remove from the seemingly meaningless pixels of individual experience. From them, the novel conjures a mood of Kafkaesque bafflement that’s explained but not dispelled by a late reveal that readers will likely see coming. Fortunately, Alkan’s deft magical realism and talent for evocative description and sharply-etched characters make for an engaging story. Overall, its emotional resonance doesn’t bog down in the sometimes-muzzy intellectualism.

A compelling fable about the pitfalls of ruminating too much and living too little.