Monday, February 8, 2021

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke 2021 Reread

I stand by my review of Piranesi, pasted below with minor edits, from last year. The awe-filled mood that this creates is perfect. I said rereading would be the tell if this surpassed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in my estimation. And I think it did. At any rate, Clarke has cemented her place among my top tier writers. 

As with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Clarke has once again found the perfect narrator for her book. I couldn’t imagine someone narrating Strange and Norrell other than Simon Prebble. And as for Piranesi, I’m very glad that I read the physical copy last year. I’m equally glad I listened to it this time as Chiwatel Ejiofor is spot on as Piranesi.

This type of material can be used to great horrific effect. In Piranesi, though, Clarke is able to convey the damage done to the lives of some of the characters yet maintain the awe and deep sense of silence that is at the heart of this novel. There is horror, but there is hope as well. Just perfect. This may end up as one of my yearly rereads.


2020 (first reading):

Susanna Clarke’s Jane Austen-era historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel is one of my favorite books. I’ve given it away 10 or 12 times over the years as I’ve found used or remaindered copies. Clarke has had some real health problems in the interim sixteen years since that book’s publication, and was unable to do the historical research required for a follow up. Fortunately, she got well enough to write recently. Piranesi, while it couldn’t be more different from Strange and Norrell  in some ways, is equally good, maybe even better (or at least closer to the center of my taste). It was worth every second of the decade and a half wait. The closest I can come to describing it is that it is almost as if CS Lewis wrote House of Leaves. That is an apt, if jarring and somewhat reductive comparison.

The title character got his nickname from the Other, the only other living human in his world. The name is a reference to the Italian print maker obsessed with Labyrinths. Piranesi lives in a house that is also a world. There are a seemingly endless series of connected classical buildings. There are four distinct seas complete with their own tidal systems in the lower halls and rain and fog in the upper. Piranesi does not know his true identity, and lives a sort of contemplative life cataloging the statues that line the halls and fishing in the lower seas to feed himself. He understands some things that clearly come from our world, but the house is the only reality he knows. To say much more would venture into spoiler territory.

Clarke builds an incredibly evocative mythic atmosphere. It is both contemplative and awe inspiring. The statues in the halls have significance, but are often ambiguous (though at least in one case, a clear reference which doubles as a subtle clue to what is happening). When I first heard the book described, I expected more horror than is present. There is horror, but it is not the primary mood. As Piranesi gradually discovers what is happening Clarke generates real tension without damaging the wonder of the House that is Piranesi’s world. And, as David Mitchell’s blurb says, the ending is pitch perfect. I would never have anticipated this as a followup to Strange and Norrell, but as I’ve sat with it for a couple of days I really think I may like it more. Rereading will be the tell.


The Long Fall by Walter Mosley

This is my fourth Walter Mosley book and I am in for many more. I had previously read Devil in a Blue Dress, the first in the Easy Rawlins series, and the weird and compelling The Man in My Basement. I also recently read his writing manual, This Year You Write Your Novel. The Man in My Basement is one I’ll be reading several more times, I’m sure. I’ll also be reading more of the Rawlins books. But first, I suspect I’ll be going forward with more books featuring the private detective, Leonid McGill, of which this is the first. As much as I enjoyed Devil, this and The Man In My Basement are what really pushed me over the edge with him.

McGill lives in what feels like one long ethical dilemma more than a series of them. He’s an amateur boxer who could have gone pro, in a marriage that is not exactly working but weirdly calibrated to keep him in it, and trying to get away from a past of skirting the morally dubious to outright wrong side of the PI profession he once trafficked in. There is “the one honest cop” in New York who has vowed to put him behind bars and the swank office building, in which his business punches above its weight, is trying to find a reason to kick him out. Then the people he’s investigating start getting murdered.

This seems like pretty standard noir fare, but Mosley’s command of language and mood make this something special. The bone deep weariness and inability to find a way out of the ethical morass he’s trudging through really made this sing for me. Each character seems believable and acts in a believable way. An online friend described the mood of the McGill books as a “surreal purgatory,” which description seems apt. I suspect I’ll read through these (and maybe the Socrates Fortlaw books) and the standalone The Fortunate Son first, but I may end up reading most, if not all, of Mosley’s work.

On the border between Highly Recommended and Canon Worthy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Ahab's Return or The Last Voyage by Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is a writer who writers and reviewers I love speak about in hushed tones, the kind usually reserved for the likes of Kelly Link, Ted Chiang or Gene Wolfe. I had not read anything by him before this, but I doubt this will be the last. That it took a sequel to Moby Dick to get me to take the plunge with him, is, I know, extremely on brand. Moby Dick is my favorite novel, one that I read every year. I’ve maintained in recent years that it has a lot of the structure and feel of a fantasy horror novel. No doubt though, it is a precursor to the big difficult novels of the 20th century as well. And I’m not sure what anyone would hope to accomplish by writing a sequel to it that went for a similar approach. Ford very wisely takes this in a very different, much pulpier direction; this is a delight of a very different sort; fun and propulsive without all the digressions of Moby Dick. And yet it has significant philosophical and political heft.

You could almost call it pulp metafiction. Ahab, again, is an obsessive character encountered by the narrator. The narrator in this case is one Alex Harrow, a reporter (read: person who makes up fantastical stories out of whole cloth) for a tabloid called The Gorgon’s Mirror in New York. After the events of Moby Dick, Ishmael worked as a copy editor for the Mirror while writing his novel. Like Harrow, Ishmael was a little fast and loose with the truth. Ahab survived after all, as did Dagoo (who resents his name having been changed in the book from Madi). After an implied Odyssean journey back to America, Ahab shows up in pursuit of Ishmael so that he can find his son. What follows is part fantasy bordering on horror and part Gangs of New York and part theory of fiction and ideology (though this part never drags down the narrative voice or pace). Ahab’s son has taken up with a gang led by a magical and nefarious gangster called Malabaster. On one level the book is this pulp story from the perspective of a delightful unreliable narrator in which a small band of characters all with different, believable motivations make a tenuous alliance to go after Malabaster.

The magic system is rooted in the power of language and of narrative. In this sense the book, without going on tedious tangents, is very much about the danger of ideology (specifically nativist ideology) and how the war for people’s minds is fought on that ground. Set, as it is, in the 1850s Ford makes masterful use of the rabid nativism that was happening at the time. As I said in my review of Redburn, you could copy paste a lot of what was being said about catholics at the time and just say muslim instead, and other than a few anachronistic phrasings the same message wouldn’t seem out of place in some contemporary outlets. And in Madi (nee Dagoo), Ford illustrates a lot of the ways things haven’t changed a century and change later. By making the enemy the embodiment of nativist ideology Ford makes a powerful statement. If I had to ding the book for anything, it’s that it’s more pointed in its political message than I usually prefer. That said, if there was ever a time to write an anti-nativist novel it’s now.

But the book is not sermonizing. It is, first and foremost, a rollicking pulp journey rendered in excellent prose. If this is representative, Ford deserves those hushed tones that people use when discussing him. This isn’t going to replace Moby Dick on my yearly reread list, but it’s definitely in the reread a couple more times (at least) pile. 

Highly Recommended 

Owned But Previously Unread 2021 Number 5