Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

He is pretty sure his name is not Piranesi. But there is only one other person in the world, and that person calls him Piranesi -- so what else can we call a man who doesn't know his name?

Perhaps the Devoted Son of the House, I suppose -- but that is awfully long as a name, and he doesn't call himself that until nearly the end.

(For a long time, I tried to hold doubt in my head that Piranesi was necessarily a man. That's a bad assumption to make with any fiction, especially a tricky one, especially a twenty-first century one, especially one by a woman, especially one told in the first person. But, in the end, he is: that is not one of the tricks Susanna Clarke is playing here.)

Piranesi lives in a House that is a World, a place of capitalized nouns: Halls and Vestibules and Passages, Statues and Staircases and Windows, Doorways and Plinths and Courtyards. As far as he can tell, it extends infinitely in all directions from a room he has designated the First Hall -- and that is indeed first, though he does not know why. The House has three levels, connected by Staircases with steps built as if for giants -- the Lower Halls are inundated by the Sea, with Tides that pursue complicated patterns and rise into the middle level on dependable schedules. The Upper Halls are full of clouds, the domain of the sky. Piranesi travels to both of those areas, but doesn't stay long -- Lower to fish and gather seaweed, Upper to flee dangerous Tides and to navigate around collapsed sections of the Middle Halls. He lives in the Middle Halls, among Statues and birds and vast, endless vistas. He spends his days exploring -- ever farther, in every direction, if he can -- fishing, mending his nets, and doing all small survival-oriented tasks.

The reader knows something is very unusual in this world; Piranesi does not. As far as he recalls, this the the entire world, and the way a world should be. Manufactured objects come to him from The Other -- that second person, who he sees twice a week -- and he never questions what they are or whence they came. (The reader may spend a lot of time thinking about these objects, and what they imply about the House.) He doesn't even realize that The Other is absent from the House between their meetings. In his view, the World contains fifteen people, which is a lot. There is himself and The Other, who are alive, and the bones of thirteen others, who he cares for and maintains and keeps safe from the Tides.

He thinks, often, about a Sixteenth Person, alive or dead. Someone new and different in the House, something to discover other than more Halls full of Statues and occasional birds. The Other indulges him in this. The Other is seeking a Great and Secret Knowledge: some ancestral human power that once existed, imbuing selected practitioners with magical abilities to control and span and transform. And The Other is using Piranesi to get that knowledge.

The reader knows that. Piranesi thinks they are colleagues and equals. Piranesi is wrong. Piranesi also thinks The Other is his friend: he thinks many things that are not true, and the reader will learn, by the end, why he came to believe those things.

Piranesi is the story of the man who is not named Piranesi. He has a habit of writing down his daily activities in a series of journals: the novel is a collection of those entries, over the course of five or six months in what Piranesi calls The Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls. The reader will wonder if Piranesi has forgotten our world or if he never knew it: the reader will learn the truth.

There will be a Sixteenth Person. There will be unexpected Persons not included in the count. Piranesi will delve in his back journals and in the Halls to find answers to questions he did not even realize were questions. And this reader will not spoil any of that.

This is a magnificent short novel, precise and entirely itself, creating its entire World -- limited in things, unlimited in scope -- and then unrolling explanations of that World bit by bit as Piranesi learns or rediscovers them. It is fantasy. It is very much the next book by the writer who wrote the magisterial Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It has been more than a decade, and Piranesi is a much shorter, sharper thing than its predecessor, but it does not disappoint.

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