We believers have waited a long time for a second novel from Clarke, and so it’s especially exciting to see that none of her enchantment has worn off — it’s evolved. Reading her lithe new book, “Piranesi,” feels like finding a copy of Steven Millhauser’s “Martin Dressler” in the back of C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe.
The highly circumscribed action takes place in a palace filled with an infinite labyrinth of halls and vestibules. The walls of all the rooms are decorated with statues covering every available space: There’s a woman carrying a beehive, a smiling faun, a squatting gorilla, a boy playing cymbals, an elephant carrying a castle, two kings playing chess — on and on, a vast inventory of sculptures, each representing an object, concept or feeling like a whole lexicon carved in marble.
The hypnotic quality of “Piranesi” stems largely from how majestically Clarke conjures up this surreal House. It is not a place in the world; it’s a world unto itself. It contains so many halls that competing tides crash through its lower level, and clouds drift by the upper rooms. Between those two realms is an inhabitable domain. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” the narrator says.
But who is this narrator?
It’s worth pausing here to warn that “Piranesi” is an unusually fragile mystery — as delicate as the slender fingers and wispy petals on the marble statues that fill the House. Clarke’s power certainly extends beyond mere suspense, but her story relies on the steady accretion of apprehension that finally gives way to a base-shifting revelation. Until you read the book yourself, keep your wand drawn to ward off the summaries of enthusiastic fans and clumsy reviewers. I promise to tread carefully here.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” wove its wizardry through the actual history of the Napoleonic wars, and even provided footnotes concocted from real and faux bibliographic detail. “Piranesi” is far less devoted to such blending, though it opens with two epigraphs, one of which you’ll Google in vain. Students of Italian art, though, already hold a clue heading into this novel. Giovanni Piranesi was an 18th-century artist who created a collection of etchings called “The Imaginary Prisons.” They show cavernous stone rooms filled with soaring arches and a dazzling tangle of stairways — a precursor to M.C. Escher’s impossible structures.
Clarke’s narrator, a young man called Piranesi, isn’t this Italian artist, but he seems to inhabit something like one of those imaginary prisons. Except that, despite some maniacal forces at work here, Piranesi doesn’t feel imprisoned — or even inconvenienced. Although he has to catch fish to eat and dry seaweed to burn, he feels blessed to reside in such wonder. “As a scientist and an explorer I have a duty to bear witness to the Splendours of the World,” he tells us. “The Beautiful Orderliness of the House is what gives us Life.”
Us? There is no apparent “us.” Piranesi seems to exist alone in this infinitude of watery rooms. Despite his obvious intelligence, he has no conception of how or why he came to be here. (Do any of us?) Dressed in rags, he’s Robinson Crusoe with no memory of shipwreck and no desire to escape — nor any sense that elsewhere might exist. He tends the bones of several others, though he knows nothing about them except that they deserve his respect. He measures the passage of time by the arrival of an albatross, one of many birds that pass through the House. His waking hours are devoted to describing his observations in a meticulous journal. “I have begun a Catalogue in which I intend to record the Position, Size and Subject of each Statue, and any other Points of interest,” he writes. “The enormity of this task sometimes makes me feel a little dizzy.”
Perhaps Clarke’s cleverest move in this infinitely clever novel is the way she critiques our obliterating efforts to extract deeper meaning and greater value from everything in our world. In the middle of his determined study, his endless recording of details, his ceaseless search for patterns in the birds’ flight or the statues’ placements, Piranesi arrives at a revelation, which he conveys in his usual tone of guileless wisdom. “The search for the Knowledge,” he says, “has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unraveled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery. The sight of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight made me see how ridiculous that is. The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.”
If little Jack from Emma Donoghue’s “Room” stayed trapped in that garden shed until he was 35, he might sound something like Piranesi, a man of boundless curiosity and delight but with a mind fed only by the details of his containment. This is the abiding magic of Clarke’s novel: We’re as likely to pity Piranesi for his cheerful acceptance of imprisonment as we are to envy him for his ready appreciation of the world as he finds it. Clarke conceived of this story long before the coronavirus pandemic, but tragedy has made “Piranesi” resonate with a planet in quarantine. To abide in these pages is to find oneself happily detained in awe.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury. 245 pp. $27