Like Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is a masterpiece that imprisons us inside the mazelike head of a mad émigré. Yet Pale Fire is more outrageously hilarious, and its narrative convolutions make the earlier book seem as straightforward as a fairy tale. Here's the plot--listen carefully! John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet's crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote.
According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland--the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote's colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla's King Charles--whom he believes himself to be--and the monarch's eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus.
In the course of this dizzying narrative, shots are indeed fired. But it's Shade who takes the hit, enabling Kinbote to steal the dead poet's manuscript and set about annotating it. Is that perfectly clear? By now it should be obvious that Pale Fire is not only a whodunit but a who-wrote-it. There isn't, of course, a single solution. But Nabokov's best biographer, Brian Boyd, has come up with an ingenious suggestion: he argues that Shade is actually guiding Kinbote's mad hand from beyond the grave, nudging him into completing what he'd intended to be a 1,000-line poem. Read this magical, melancholic mystery and see if you agree. --Tim Appelo