Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I think ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’ is a masterpiece.

I’ve read it several times over the years – it is one of those rare books that gets better every time you read it. It’s magnificent: subtle and funny and sad and totally ingenious, one of those books so enjoyable to read that you look forward to rereading it.

‘Jonathan Strange’ came out in 2004, Susanna Clarke’s first novel. We, her fans, waited fifteen years for her to publish another, and when ‘Piranesi’ finally landed, in 2020, I think it was…thinner than we had all hoped. ‘Jonathan Strange’ is a great honking book (my copy clocks in at 850 pages) – the kind of book you can stretch out into. ‘Piranesi’ is a tight 275 pages, clearly not the leisurely stroll of Clarke’s first novel.

I often save books I’m particularly excited about for treats – I have saved “Piranesi” for a year now. Holding off has allowed me to gather a sense of the public’s response to it, and, while most people seem to love it, there is one thing I have heard over and over again: it is very different from ‘Jonathan Strange’.

Which is obviously emotionally complicated news for everyone who loved ‘Jonathan Strange’. The relationship between readers and authors is very, very complicated. On the one hand, you, as a reader, want the authors that you love to be able to grow, to experiment and try new things and develop. Some people (Tom Clancy’s fans) want to read the same exact book over and over again; everyone else appreciates some variety.

On the other hand, though, you love the authors you love for a reason, and it is not in your interest, as their reader, to encourage them to grow out of doing the thing that you loved in the first place. And authorial growth is rather like random mutation: a few changes are beneficial; most are deleterious.

The answer to this problem is trust. Over the course of their authorial life, writers earn their readers’ trust. They demonstrate reliability in whatever traits have made them loved, and readers learn that, even as the author changes and grows, their work will be still worth reading. The amount of trust is contingent on two things: how reliable the author is, and how outstanding they are, relative to other authors, at the thing which has made them loved in the first place. As a equation, it might look something like this:

Trust = consistency x unique value

The unique value is an expression of the thing that this author does that makes you, the reader, love them especially, that sets them apart from other authors. It might be understood as something like

Unique value = rarity among authors x execution

Where how uniquely prized an author is, is a function both of how good they are at what they do, and how many other people do it.

As an example, let’s take Agatha Christie. Christie is among the most trustworthy authors, probably, who ever lived. But let’s break her down by the components of her Trust Equation:

Trust = consistency x (rarity x execution)

Rarity: Low, basically non-existent. Murder mysteries are common as dirt.

Execution: Medium. Strong but not astonishing. She has a few masterpieces, it’s true, but most of her books are solid rather than shining.

Consistency: 100%. This is the variable doing the heavy-lifting for Christie. She just doesn’t write bad books, and she doesn’t go off-script. If you like what she’s selling, you know you’re going to get it every single time. The trust, in this case, is basically entirely a function of Christie’s consistency.

Let’s take another example: Jane Austen. What do the variables in Austen’s equation look like?

Consistency: Medium. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is one of the greatest books every written, but if all Jane Austen had written was ‘Persuasion’, no one alive would know her name.

Rarity: Medium-high. The satire of manners is not uncommon, but the gently-biting, feminine perspective of Austen’s works belongs to her and her alone.

Execution: Stellar. This is where Jane Austen shines. She doesn’t pull it off every single time, but when she does, there is literally no one better. This is why Austen has high reader trust: it’s worth reading any of her books because sometimes they will turn out to be ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

Anyway, why am I talking about this in an article about ‘Piranesi’?

New authors are, obviously, deeply handicapped according to this equation: their consistency is N/A. Worse: you don’t even know yet what their traits will be. It may be that the things you loved about their first work were completely incidental to their project. This is what makes the release of an author’s second book so suspenseful: it is only in that second book that you really begin to know who they are.

On one level, ‘Piranesi’ is a very difficult book to describe. Our narrator, called Piranesi although he is pretty sure that it’s not his real name, lives in the House. The House is vast: an endless series of huge rooms filled with statues. Some rooms are flooded; some are open to the air. Great tides sweep through the House, flooding whole chambers and receding. Piranesi loves the House; his days are devoting to fishing for food and mapping the endless halls, charting the tides, and caring for the dead. As far as he knows, there have only been fifteen people in the House, ever: himself, the thirteen skeletons he cares for, and the Other. The Other is aloof and strange, but, as the only other living person in the house, he is also Piranesi’s only friend.

One day, though, the Other warns Piranesi: another person has arrived in the House, Sixteen. Sixteen is wandering the halls of the house, trying to find Piranesi, and, according to the Other, destroy him.

Susanna Clarke

‘Piranesi’ is a good novel, but it’s not, I think, a great one. And here is the thing that surprised me: though it is very different from ‘Jonathan Strange’, that is not the problem with it. In fact, ‘Piranesi’ would have been a better novel if it had been less like ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’.

‘Jonathan Strange’ is, at heart, a cozy novel. It is Dickensian: it lives in detail, in the specific, closely-observed eccentricities of its characters. It is tangible, concrete, minute. It is not a mystery, and it is not other-worldly. That is exactly its charm: it is a story of magic set in our world, one we know well. It is the juxtaposition of quotidian humanity with the supernatural.

‘Piranesi’ is the opposite: it is a spooky, atmospheric novel, alien and vague. ‘Jonathan Strange’ inhabits fire-lit drawing rooms in London townhouses; ‘Piranesi’ echoes in vast, cold spaces. And those echo-y bits are the best parts of the novel: Piranesi, wandering alone through his House, showing it to us.

As I said, on the one hand, ‘Piranesi’ is a difficult novel to describe. On the other hand, it is very simple: it is a Whodunit. What is the House, who is Piranesi, who is the Other, and how did they get there? These are the animating mysteries of the book, and Clarke answers every single one of them. She answers them clearly: concretely, specifically and very unmagically.

And it’s a let-down. The imaginative premise of ‘Piranesi’ is wonderful, majestic and unnerving and grand. When it is solved, it is just a novel of people being terrible to each other in strange places. It is as though Clarke’s mind, which is so rigorous and thorough, could not inhabit the mystery of the House: she needed to solve it for us, but in solving it, she diminished it.

Ever since I finished ‘Piranesi’, I have been wondering whether I would have liked it more or less if I had not read ‘Jonathan Strange’. It feels terrible to hold the goodness of a first book against an author, but it’s impossible not to compare.

I think I would have liked it more, but, after way too much thought, I’ve realized that that is not the right question to be asking. The question I should have been asking is: does ‘Piranesi’ make me more or less likely to read Clarke’s next book?

The answer is definitely yes – I will read Clarke’s next book. Whatever else, both of these books are products of a capacious and thorough imagination – I’m interested to see what she comes up with next.

Perhaps the capacity to surprise is an authorial trait. Perhaps you can learn to trust that an author is capable of re-inventing herself with expertise, that her mind is solving different problems in different ways, that she is building new and better worlds in which to solve those problems. Perhaps, the capacity to surprise will end up being Clarke’s authorial project, the special trait which will make her beloved.

I kind of hope it is. Maybe she’ll never write another ‘Jonathan Strange’, but that’s OK, I think I like her anyway. I don’t trust her totally yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.

The Immortalists

By Chloe Benjamin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

In my experience, the most difficult kind of book to write about is a mediocre book.

The easiest books to write about, obviously, are bad books. It’s almost joyful to write about bad books, to stretch out into descriptions of what you hated, to justify at your leisure why each sin is mortal.

Excellent books, adored books, presents their own challenges (you never seem to do them justice), but it’s always a pleasure to defend something you love, to show it to someone who might never have seen it otherwise.

But mediocre books, they are a challenge. Writing about them does not offer the catharsis of a good eviscerating – they do not deserve it anyway – but neither can you endorse them with enthusiasm. They have no earned opprobrium, and so there is no fun in heaping it on them; you don’t want to damn them, but you must, at least with faint praise.

So, ‘The Immortalists‘:

One sultry summer day in 1969, the four Gold children, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, visit a Roma woman who, their friends have told them, can tell each of them the day that they will die. One by one, these four New York children will face her and learn their fate. ‘The Immortalists’ is the story of their lives.

Simon, the youngest, learns that he will die in his early twenties. A closeted homosexual, he will escape his family’s expectations and follow his sister to San Francisco in the early 80’s, where he will live a few years of blissful freedom before succumbing to AIDs. Klara, told she will die in her early thirties, becomes a magician, the performer she always intended to be, but she will never recover from her brother’s death.

Daniel, the elder son, becomes a doctor. He has been told that he will die in his middle ago, and as his death-date nears, he becomes obsessed with the woman who gave it to him, convinced that her prediction has caused the deaths of his two younger siblings. Varya, the eldest, lives her life burdened by the knowledge that she will live until she is 88. She becomes a scientist, a researcher into aging. Her life revolves entirely around her work and her mother, whose care, after the deaths of all three of her siblings, has fallen entirely onto her. She suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder which makes her avoid human touch, and she survives on the same calorie-restrictions she feeds her lab animals.

The problem with ‘The Immortalists‘ is that it aims high, and its ambition shows. It is, I think, an attempt to explore the effect of death on life. What would it mean, to know when you were going to die? Would it be freeing, or would it be the most profound condemnation? Each of the Gold children will struggle with this dilemma, each will find themselves damned in some way by what the woman has told them.

It’s an interesting question, a moving one. But ‘The Immortalists‘ shows its hand too often; it’s clunky, obvious. It never errs on the side of subtlety when it could smack you right in the face, and that robs it of much of its potential effect. The minute you learn that Simon is a gay teenager, you know that he will die of AIDS, the price he will pay for his few years of freedom. It’s the shallowest metaphorical level for this lesson, the lowest hanging fruit, and Benjamin grabs it.

Daniel, at loose ends in his career, weighed down by grief from the death of his two siblings, decides to go and shoot the woman who gave them these prophecies, where he is gunned down by an FBI agent – not a likely end for a family man and physician. There were other ways to do this, to make this point about derangement and rage and grief, more realistic ways. But Benjamin consistently takes the most obvious road where a subtler one might have been more interesting.

It’s not that I don’t think that obvious books can’t be great – sometimes the blatant mechanism is the best mechanism. But Benjamin picks the blatant mechanism every single time. Simon’s choice, to live his short life freely, will literally, directly, bring about the early death that has inspired his bravery. Varya, granted long life only to watch her entire family die, will literally devote her to life the extension of life against aging. Klara, having spent her life in pursuit of magic in which she believes literally, will prove her own magically-predicted death date by actually, literally, killing herself on it.

A subtler novel would have been a better one, in my opinion. The premise is interesting; the question, profound. We spend our entire lives negotiating with our deaths, in one way or another. And Benjamin is right: there are multiple effects that death may have on our lives. Some of us are liberated by the certainty of our end: we maximize the time that we have, because the only thing that we know for sure is that it will be limited.

Some of us, though, will allow our lives to be cramped and deformed by our foreknowledge of death. Fear will constrain us, alter our movements, limit our scope. Despite the fact that death is everywhere and eternally inevitable, we will try, eternally and inevitably, to cheat it.

Chloe Benjamin

So, this is what fantastical fiction is meant to do (or, one of the things): it uses impossible premises (you will know the day of your own death) to interrogate the universal. And sometimes the best way to do this is to take the most extreme example – sometimes extreme examples are illustrative.

But I think ‘The Immortalists‘ is trying to have it both ways: it is a realist novel with a fantastical premise. The lives of the four Gold children are meant to be plausible in our world given a single magical event. The problem is, taken all together, they strain credulity, and that diminishes the effect of the work.

But it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad book. It’s very readable, the pages almost turn themselves. It’s well-paced, the writing is competent, even good. More: the writing is good enough that the content is easy to emotionally connect with, not necessarily an easy feat.

The Immortalists‘ is exactly the kind of book that makes me want to avoid contemporary fiction. Not a bad book, but not a great one, either, not one that will go the distance, not one that will be read by our great-grandchildren. When it came out, critics were pleasant but mild in their praise, as well they should be: ‘The Immortalists’ is a pleasant book. Fun to read, difficult to remember. A tasty drink, but weak. A beach read. It’s not that I regret reading it – hard to regret a pleasant read – but the time might have been better spent elsewhere.