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Surreal, sinister ‘Piranesi’ marks Clarke’s return

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I dig unreliable narrators.

Few storytelling devices delight me as much – and none more so. That added layer of ambiguity, that feeling of being unable to fully trust the very person serving as the window into the narrative … it adds a dimension that I find irresistible.

Irresistible, I should say, if (and this is a BIG if) it is executed skillfully. Obviously, stories are better when they’re well-told, but a poorly-drawn unreliable narrator is as regrettable as a sharply-hewn one is wonderful. Good can be great, but bad can be truly abysmal – and the margin for error is razor-thin.

We get one of the good ones in Susanna Clarke’s new novel “Piranesi” (Bloomsbury, $27) – her first since 2004’s acclaimed “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” The titular character more than rises to the occasion, sharing the story of the impossible place in which he lives in a manner that is both overtly and subtly untrustworthy. And when you put that in the sort of lush and vividly-realized fantastical setting that Clarke creates, well … you’ve got something pretty special.

The House is a place of infinite rooms, with massive hall after massive hall lined with thousands of elaborate and unique sculptures. Contained within the House is an ocean, one that ebbs and flows with its own tidal forces, flooding areas with a mostly predictable regularity.

This is where Piranesi lives. He is something a caretaker for the House (albeit a self-appointed one), spending his days exploring and mapping the place and recording his discoveries and ideas in his journals. There is just one other person in this world – a man the rather literal-minded Piranesi has dubbed the Other.

The Other is in the House seeking knowledge; he believes that somewhere in this place is a secret magic that would bring immense power to its possessor. Piranesi serves as an assistant of sorts, doing much of the actual searching as the Other spends little time with Piranesi in the House.

As far as Piranesi is concerned, he and the Other are the only two living people in the world, though over time, he has found the bones of additional people – a handful of those who came before. He is content to offer his assistance in the Other’s work, considering it to be quite important.

But when Piranesi, scared about forgetfulness and discovering gaps in his memory – he doesn’t even think Piranesi is really his name – begins to delve into his journals, he sees things, both on the page and off, that cause him to question … everything. These are the questions that, once asked, cannot be unasked – and whose answers may have inalterable consequences.

There’s SO much more to be said here, but this is a story whose myriad reveals are a big part of the fun. Spoilers are always bad and to be avoided, but with this book in particular, the element of surprise is genuinely important. Suffice it to say that the narrative evolves in a number of interesting directions – some expected, others anything but.

“Piranesi” is an immersive book, a story whose distinct voice quickly captures your mind’s ear. Piranesi is one of those characters that clarifies themselves IMMEDIATELY; we’re in his head in a matter of a few sentences, charmed by his naivete and slightly off-kilter manner of speaking and engaging with the world – his simple descriptor names for the statues, for instance. He’s the sole full-time resident of an impossible place, a self-appointed caretaker of something he doesn’t fully understand – or remember. His innocence leaves him ripe for misunderstanding, making him ideally unreliable.

Clarke is so good at the vivid realization of place – the House is a stunning literary creation. The difficulty of what is done here can’t be overstated, this evocation of an enclosed infinity. There’s a reason that her title character takes his name from an Italian neoclassicist best known for a print series titled “Imaginary Prisons.” She puts us there, in the midst of massive halls and vaulted ceilings and an unending parade of detailed sculpture; her world-building is such that we can SEE this place. It’s a rare gift.

Tonality matches setting here; both are steeped in an ever-so-slightly skewed reality, allowing the reader to slip into the seemingly still waters to experience the chaotic, conspiratorial churning just below the narrative surface. Marrying the sunny gormlessness of Piranesi to the sinister undertones of the world in which he walks makes for a compelling contrast.

“Piranesi” is a first-rate work from a first-rate writer, a wonderful and surreal romp. It reads like a pop cover of Borges, embracing aesthetic complexity in the service of exploring the ethics of exploration – all in just a couple hundred pages. Susanna Clarke is as good as it gets as far as wedding literary and genre conceits in her fiction; this is another example of her considerable abilities, one that is well worth the 16-year wait. You can take my word for it.

You know … assuming I’m reliable.

Last modified on Monday, 21 September 2020 15:02

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