Kit Marlowe, three times over: Christopher Wild by Kathe Koja
Christopher Wild is an imaginative historical novel, a menacing dystopia, and a grimy city tale in one. It tells a raucous life, a claustrophobic life, a poet’s life, three times over: the trajectory of Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe in his historical setting and beyond. The first third is Marlowe as he faces danger from the Service for his role as an intelligencer, his famous plays, and his infamous pronouncements about religion and beyond. The second part is a twentieth-century tale of a gritty poet’s life, tied up in gay bars and covert investigation. The final section is a near-future dystopia of intense surveillance, where the poet known as X04 is fighting for his freedom.
Koja’s book puts an unusual spin on a historical figure who has been the focus of plenty of written works previously, from conspiracy theory novels claiming that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s works to Burgess’ delightfully playful A Dead Man in Deptford. The first section reads like another in this line, the fan fiction about the outrageous life of an apparent gay atheist spy turned poet and playwright from the late sixteenth-century. The fast-paced prose hurtles forward and the references are piled in, meaning that it can feel like a whistle-stop tour of every mention that needs to be made about Marlowe’s life. For fans of him and novels about him, this feels a bit too obvious, but the references are necessary for less knowledgable readers to be able to appreciate the later two parts.
The remaining two thirds of the novel tell two other stories, other outspoken Christophers who also write poetry, fight the authorities, and sleep with a complicated tangle of men. Koja takes advantage of the looseness of Elizabethan spelling to create new versions and echoes of characters and scenarios in a way that will probably delight some and annoy others. Every version reads Ovid and Lucan (the real Marlowe translated works by both of them), smokes tobacco (as per the infamous ‘all who love not tobacco and boys are fools’ line from Richard Baines’ list of accusations), and writes poetry. The prose style that captures a tumultuous Elizabethan London doesn’t slow down, and whilst it is slightly less effective in the later sections, it allows for a poetic style and an overlaying of words that matches the way the narrative and characters are overtly replicated.
This kind of transformative work is nothing new (and indeed there are plenty of examples in literature and on the internet of people doing similar not only with Marlowe, but with a whole range of historical figures), but Koja’s combination of the settings does feel fresh, particularly the final scenario in which the dark web and digital surveillance give a new meaning to the spy-intelligence-based drama of Marlowe’s probable life. Marlowe fans are likely to enjoy the ride, even if some of the ideas (like that he was forced into writing a new play about the secret service that led to his death) are somewhat out there. As novels, TV shows, and films about Shakespeare continue to proliferate (and often reduce Marlowe to a bit part), it is always good to see more attempts to present elements of Marlowe’s life in new fictional ways.
[And in case you missed it, here’s the drinking game I invented whilst reading this book.]