On Sunday I took off in a plane headed for Florida -- where I spent a few days visiting my parents -- and we flew directly over Washington Heights and the George Washington Bridge. Although I was looking forward to the trip and relieved that that plane had made it through the first of its two most serious hurdles (the second being the landing, obv), I felt somewhat pensive (although not in a bad way); I had just finished 'All Souls,' the 1989 novel by Spanish writer Javier Marias, which is short but dense and -- most of all -- heavy, i.e., imbued from start to finish with a sense of detached melancholy that makes even the simplest acts of life seem somehow tedious or painful. As I stared out the window at the city below, rendered in delicate miniature, I was struck by one of the -- if not the -- most important themes of the book, which is the idea that nothing is exactly as it appears. (The book takes place in Oxford -- as in the U.K. -- not Washington Heights, lol?) Under the regal ceremony and tradition of Oxford -- which Marias repeatedly describes as being a ‘city in syrup’ -- he depicts a range of (mostly men) who are either drunk, incompetent or psychotically narcissistic (all of whom are affiliated with the university); in more sympathetic cases, they are spies and non-heterosexuals (several of whom, it is worth nothing, are dying of AIDS, although the disease is never explicitly specified as such). As the narrator’s time passes in Oxford, he becomes increasingly enmeshed in the double lives of its inhabitants; he has a (non-homosexual) adulterous affair with a fellow professor, a woman who herself has painful secrets in her past; he becomes a member of a shadowy literary society devoted to a mysterious scholar who for unknown reasons (at least until the end) abandoned a brilliant young career and ended his life as beggar (of which there are many) on the streets of Oxford. Marias writes in an obsessively beautiful, poetic and introspective tone that (to me at least) resonates with European masters such as Proust, Musil, and Nadas, to name a few; his sentences tend to be complicated (thought not inappropriately so) and he deftly turns from dark humor to sex to more ruminative digressions and analysis. If I had one small reservation (I wouldn't even say 'complaint') about the book, it is how at the end Marias ties together several disparate threads in a way that struck me as a bit ‘Dark and Stormy Night’ (i.e., the satirical masterpiece by Snoopy: 'Could it be that she was the sister of the boy in Kansas who loved the girl with the tattered shawl who was the daughter of the maid who had escaped from the pirates?'). But this will in no way stop me from reading more of his work; the book is haunting for its exploration of the horrifying and murky secrets that so often exist beneath the most reserved and polite (and serene) appearances. The novel is an exploration (I thought as I pictured myself in the city below) of what really exists on the ground, and how life is rarely or never what it seems from afar.