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Piranesi: by Susanna Clarke

It’s been nearly 15 years since Susanna Clarke released any new work, with the author sadly hampered by the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome that struck just as she emerged as a bold new voice in fantasy fiction. Her sprawling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell remains arguably the high-water mark of fantasy in the new millennium, its evocative prose and matter-of-fact atmosphere placing a great deal of trust in readers to follow the turbulent riptides roiling beneath its placid surface. At long last, Piranesi has emerged, a book that runs barely a quarter the length of Clarke’s first novel. Yet this has only inspired Clarke to compress her methods into a work of impressive density, trading the lateral historical sprawl of her debut novel for a more interior, impressionistic work.

The title refers to the book’s protagonist, though he himself notes that this is merely the name another calls him and may not be his real one. It is also an allusion to the 18th-century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose Imaginary Prisons set of prints is a clear inspiration for the novel’s setting. Piranesi lives inside of a vast, seemingly limitless house segmented into various vestibules and halls populated only with statues of various sizes depicting everything from normal humans to mythological wars between gods and beasts. Though there are presumably finite boundaries to the house, it is so massive that it contains its own ecosystem, complete with a bottom floor filled with tidal oceans and a top floor with sky and clouds. Written in the first-person by Piranesi, who records his activities and observations in a series of journal entries, the novel is situated in a viewpoint of constant discovery yet also comfortable familiarity, adopting its protagonist’s almost Candide-like innocence as he explores his environment.

Where Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell made the mundane magical, complicating the manners and events of the Napoleonic era with spells described so casually that it was easy to miss major supernatural occurrences, Piranesi makes the magical mundane. As the hero roams this vast, endless interior wasteland, we experience this unsettling existence through the perspective of his purity and compartmentalized acceptance of circumstance. As Piranesi describes his method of cataloging halls, statues, even the tides of the waters on the lower levels, one slips so easily into his daily routine of exploration and gathering that within a few pages it becomes surprisingly easy to accept the parameters of this world, to the point that any disruption that calls attention to how abnormal this place is comes to feel strange and alienating rather than a tether to reality.

The first and most recurrent of such interruptions are Piranesi’s occasional interactions with the only other living soul he encounters, an older man he dubs the Other (such mild irony is typical of the book’s subtle but rich strain of humor). The Other, a cynical, curt counterpart to Piranesi’s naive whimsy, tasks the hero with mapping the house to help him in the quest for some kind of arcane, supernatural knowledge to grant powers like transfiguration and immortality, at once giving purpose to Piranesi’s wanderings and tainting them with a greed that the young man himself does not feel. Throughout the book, the pair’s meetings have a one-sided passive-aggressive streak that ebbs and flows but is always present to some degree, with Piranesi’s eager attitude relentlessly met with exasperation by the man who exploits it.

As Piranesi seeks to aid the Other in his task, he begins to notice stranger and stranger things about the man’s behavior, and for a setting that suggests being trapped in a classical labyrinth, the Other’s gifts of things like bright plastic bowls or new shoes start to tilt the world onto its axis. This sets up revelations that are not entirely shocking but nonetheless so carefully paced that small kernels of doubt rapidly spiral into perspective-shattering confrontations. It is remarkable how well Clarke, in fewer than 250 pages, eases the reader into her setting, introduces troubling complications, then accelerates into a full breakdown without feeling like anything has been rushed.

There are a number of allusion points in the novel, from the works of C.S. Lewis to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Yet as Piranesi’s entire concept of self and surrounding comes crashing down as this work of magical realism collapses into a paranoid thriller, the book comes to resemble a sterling work in the hauntology canon, presenting a gleaming yet dead facsimile of the real world reduced to looming statues through which a lonely man roams. That Piranesi remains optimistic and invested in its protagonist’s innocence even as its truths become more and more hellish is a testament to the fact that not all hauntological works need end on bleak notes but can instead reckon with our increasing alienation with perseverance and even some measure of hope.

Susanna Clarke at last follows up her magnificent debut novel with a book that is tonally and conceptually its predecessors opposite and confirms herself as a modern master of fantasy fiction.
80 %
Slim but dense

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