Monday, December 7, 2020

PIRANESI, the latest hugely immersive and fathomlessly involving Susanna Clarke novel


Bloomsbury USA
$27.00 hardcover, $18.99 ebook editions, available now

NOW $2.99 ON KINDLE (non-affiliate Amazon link)

Epigraph for this review: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is - infinite.”—William Blake

Kindle edition only $3.99! (non-affiliate Amazon link)

Rating: 4.9* of five

WINNER of the 2021 Women's Prize for Fiction!

The Publisher Says: From the New York Times bestselling author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an intoxicating, hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternative reality.

Piranesi's house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller's Circe, Piranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.


My Review
: When you begin this voyage into the unknown, you're lulled into a sense of Rightness by this author's almost-familiar archaic language...if one has read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, this feels similar enough to make the initial impression one of either familiar immersion in warm water or an icy-cold dash of horrified repulsion and fear and desire to escape.

Indeed, I found it so simple, so direct, that I suspected a trap was being laid for me. My attention could wander among All the Capital letters, looking for Discrete meaning where there is general background clutter, furniture for The House. The House, you see, is the world. The Worldhouse is Piranesi's Place of Worship and Study, and is as close to infinite as Piranesi can conceive.
The enormity of this task sometimes makes me feel a little dizzy, but as a scientist and an explorer I have a duty to bear witness to the Splendours of the World.
The Beautiful Orderliness of the House is what gives us Life.

Life is exactly what Piranesi derives from the House. In the Drowned Halls our resourceful cicerone catches fish; in the Coral Halls, among other places, he finds colonies of mussels, and immense floats of seaweed; so the House feeds him at a most modest expenditure of energy and effort. The glorious visuals of this book are like eating Sachertorte
then black forest gâteau
then prinsesstårta
with cheesecake for dessert. The headiest are the moments we see the Drowned Halls and the Western Halls, the latter with their Statue of a Faun:
I dreamt of him once; he was standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child.

Could a clearer note be sounded to hark back to Lucy Pevensie and Mr. Tumnus? We're in a Story, laddies and gentlewomen, make no mistake about it. Not some run-of-the-mill novel, a Story, a myth made of sterner Stuff than a mere jeu d'esprit destined for an hour's-worth of pale pleasure. And like all those Stories we've loved and suffered through as we grew into our best selves (which, of course, we all have done like Piranesi has done), there must be An Other. Others are friends. Others are enemies. The Other, in the Story we are told here, is both and neither:
The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it.
‘Who or what is Addy Domarus?’ I asked.

‘A king. Long dead. Someone who possessed the knowledge. Or some of it at any rate. I’ve had success calling on him for aid in other rituals, notably for …’ He stopped abruptly and for a brief moment looked confused. ‘I’ve had success calling on him in the past,’ he finished.

The Other, then, is a Liar and a Manipulator. We see it, standing (more likely sitting, possibly reclining) outside the Story as we must, but our glorious cicerone does not. Or else why would we need his Story told to us?

Like any well-made Myth, the story expands the House and the Other into very odd, very frightening sizes and directions. Piranesi is a Naïf and we can't help but fear for him in his Eternal Present. But he is a scientist, and a methodical man, and he must needs follow clues and puzzle out Meanings in all the things he encounters. He makes complex calculations to determine when the Tides will make some parts of the House dangerous to him; he remembers the cycles of them so he can get food (a thing previous inhabitants...Thirteen of them, now reduced to bones that he cares for and speaks to and feeds offerings...could or did not master). His wanderings in the Halls are carefully notated in his Journals. But all his skills in this world will not stop The End from coming wearing a body he calls 16.

Author Clarke begins to crack open Reality and let in the pestiferous Mundane World, and Piranesi really, really Dislikes it. So do I, dear. Especially when the Other's Origin story begins to come clear, with the appearance of someone Piranesi calls the Prophet:
'You must have been well worth looking at before, you know … before everything happened. Ah, well! Old age happened to me. And this happened to you. And now look at us!'
'...I’ve never been very interested in what you might call morality, but I drew the line at bringing about the collapse of civilisation. Perhaps that was wrong. I don’t know. I do have a rather sentimental streak.’

But let's be honest. Not one word of this stuff feels false; it's like she's at it again, that Minx of an author, reinventing reality because there's no Reality in it. And then, when the superiority of Piranesi's fracturing Reality to our mere, meager reality is self-evident, the trap snaps shut:
The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.
I went to the Eighteenth North-Western Hall and had a long drink of water. It was delicious and refreshing (it had been a Cloud only hours before).
Reality was not only capable of taking part in a dialogue – intelligible and articulate – it was also persuadable.

...and there one is, kettle not yet boiling and egg-salad sandwich congealing, longing to find, to be in Reality, and unable to wash the fog from one's eyes. Piranesi might not be a map of the journey, plain and notated onto paper, leading you to the House. That journey, Journey to be precise, is purely personal.

Don't kid yourselves; Susanna Clarke knows how to get there.

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