The writer Grace Paley once said that "every story is really two stories," by which she meant that fiction is textured, that it is about the interplay between two narrative lines. Martha Cooley's ambitious debut novel, The Archivist, takes Paley's proposition to a new level, concerned as it is with the rich interplay between not two lines but three.
At its surface, The Archivist is the tale of its narrator, Matt Lane, a 60-ish librarian at a private university near New York, a man who has been entrusted with the care of certain personal correspondence between the poet T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale, letters which are supposed to remain sealed until the year 2020. But the archivist's attempt to preserve the privacy of those letters is a metaphor for larger concerns. Lane, a Prufrockian character, has a sealed history of his own the haunting memory of his dead wife, Judith, a manic depressive poet, a woman not unlike Eliot's own wife Vivienne. The central portion of the book consists of Judith's suicidal diary entries. Lane must come to terms with these writings and with his own complicity in his wife's illness, and there begins the novel's third line—that of Roberta Spires, a prepossessing graduate student who inserts herself both into the off-limits Eliot-Hale archives and into the archived secrets of Lane's own life.
Like A.S. Byatt's Possession, The Archivist is both a romance and a novel of ideas. While Lane and Roberta explore the letters and their own tentative December-May relationship, the characters also grapple with the problem of faith in a post-Holocaust world. Both Roberta and Matt's dead wife, it turns out, are Jews of European origin whose families have shielded them from their true religious and cultural identities. In the course of Lane's and Roberta's conversations about faith, Cooley archly equates the role of God and the archivist. "As an archivist," Matt Lane says, "I have power over people" to preserve and destroy. What, Cooley wonders, is the humane function of the archivist—and of God—in a postwar world where ideas about preservation and destruction have been problematized?
T.S. Eliot and other Imagist poets of the early 20th century argued that symbols must speak for themselves. At its heart, The Archivist is a deeply symbolic story about privacy and memory. If the archivist's job is to preserve the private papers of others, what is his responsibility to the material of his own life and the material of the lives of those with whom he is intimate? In the novel's final chapters, Matt Lane sheds at last his Prufrockian stance and takes surprising action to resolve this question. In what ways, Martha Cooley is asking us, are we all like archivists preservers and destroyers of what it is we know about ourselves and others?