Piranesi

I realized that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if we ever 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.

I resisted my first introduction to Susanna Clarke. Friends had told me that there was a fantastic historical fantasy called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but any interest I had in that premise withered and died the moment they told me that it was shades of Austen and Dickens. When I finally read JS&MN a few years ago, I was entirely blown away. Without taking anything away from those people who ate up the comparisons to Austen and Dickens, neither of whom have ever done much for me, this novel was a thousand pages of immersive storytelling that took the deceptively simple plot of a magician and his apprentice and set it at a specific historical time and wrapped both of them in the richly-textured cloak of folktale. The result was one of the best piece of fantasy literature I have ever read.

Clarke’s first book since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Piranesi could not be more different from her debut, but it is every bit as good.

Piranesi’s world consists of the House, a labyrinth of beautifully austere halls populated by statues. His favorite is an enormous faun with a slight smile and a forefinger pressed to his lips, but there are all sorts. A woman carrying a beehive. A gorilla. An elephant carrying a castle. Two kings playing chess.

Piranesi considers himself a scientist studying the world around him. The House, which stretches out for miles, exists across three floors. The lowest levels, the Drowned Halls, consist of a deep and powerful ocean with tides that can flood the upper floods of the House—particularly at the confluence of the three Tides that happens every eight years (or so Piranesi says). But if the ocean can be dangerous, it also provides Piranesi with sustenance, and he has a great reverence for all things provided by the House.

According to Piranesi, “since the world began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people.” There is Piranesi: a man in his early thirties, 1.83 meters tall, and of slender build. The second person is The Other, a man somewhat taller than Piranesi, and nearly twice his age who Piranesi meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The remaining thirteen are skeletons. He knows other people might exist, of course, which is what drives his impulse to diligently record his findings for posterity, they exist primarily as an abstraction to him.

The Other is different. He is impatient, considering the House an endlessly dreary and dead place, and rarely moves past one or two rooms because he gets easily lost.

The overlapping mysteries at the heart of Piranesi are evident practically from the opening paragraph: Who is Piranesi? Where is the House? How did he get here? The irony is that Piranesi initially doesn’t have these questions. He is a scientist, after all, and confident in who and where he is.

The House is the extent of Piranesi’s world, but there is also a larger world—our world—that cannot help but intrude on the House. Some of this is linguistic. Piranesi has words for items like “biscuit” that don’t exist in his world, for instance, so the House is clearly an adjunct to our own, but he has no memory of how he arrived there. The Other might offer insight here, but Piranesi has no reason to distrust his friend and fellow scientist. It is only when the outside world begins to impose itself on the House that Piranesi is forced to reconsider his prior assumptions.

I am being cagey about the second half of this haunting book because discussion of the house and the relationship between Piranesi and The Other requires giving away major plot elements. Suffice it to say that the answers come in the form of Susanna Clarke’s typically precise take on magic and obsession.

Clarke took the title Piranesi from Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th century classical archaeologist and artist who penned a series of sixteen prints called “Invented Prisons” (Carceri d’invenzione). These prints took the tradition of capricci, a style of art that depicts monumental buildings, and applied it to enormous labyrinths of the sort that make up the House.

The Lion Bas Reliefs form the second edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Piranesi is a spare, beautiful book about isolation, identity, and the search for knowledge, and the sort of story that has a way of staying with you. In casting about for a parallel, I could only come up with Neil Gaimon’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane or, to an extent, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, other slim, cerebral novels that benefit for how starkly they contrast with the author’s other books.

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I remain behind on writing about books I’ve read. In addition to Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy and Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King, I have finished Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent Caste, Boris Akunin’s mediocre The Coronation, and am now reading Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters.

The City We Became

I first came to N.K. Jemisin’s books in 2017, right in the middle of her spectacular run of three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel that she won for her Broken Earth trilogy. Those books warranted every plaudit they won and right away I knew that I would read almost anything she put out.

The City We Became, released in March of 2020, is Jemisin’s most recent novel, an urban fantasy about five New Yorkers who have to join forces to to confront an existential threat as the city awakens to itself. Naturally, each of the avatars represents an aspect of the city:

  • Manny, an ambiguously multi-racial and queer recent arrival in the city awakens to discover that he has no idea who he is, but he needs to find a homeless man who appears in his visions.
  • Bronca Siwanoy, an older, queer, Lenape woman and PhD who works at the Bronx art center is determined to hold her ground against the encroaching forces of gentrification.
  • Brooklyn “MC Free” Thomason, a city council member from the borough that shares her name and while she might be all business now, she was once a fire-throwing rapper.
  • Padmini Prakash, a Tamil immigrant and math prodigy who lives with her extended family in an apartment complex.
  • Aislyn Houlihan, a fully-grown white woman who lives with her parents, including her abusive, racist father (a cop), and who is deathly afraid of the other four boroughs.

On one level, The City We Became can be read as a breakneck urban fantasy. The heroes are in a race against time to find the keystone avatar of the entire city who they need to find and support against the strange forces that are attacking their city. Each of them has powers rooted in their identities as both people and as avatars of their particular borough (Aislyn’s power even rejects her New York-ness), and in this quest they are aided by other awakened city avatars, including São Paulo who draws his power from the polluted air he consumes (i.e. his cigarettes) and Hong Kong.

However, as story that crosses thriller and urban fantasy, I found The City We Became only okay. Jemisin is a talented writer, but I found the threat a little too existential and the characters a little too fumbling to really propel this book.

Where The City We Became shines is as a social commentary. This is her attempt to write New York as she knows it into existence.

Anyone who is looking to be aggrieved about racial politics is going to find a lot to dislike about The City We Became, but this is a testament to what Jemisin has created. New York and its avatars are a radically diverse collection of people who form the heartbeat of the city. It isn’t exactly the city as I know it as an outsider—I will forever associate it with bagels and pizza and find it more hispanic than depicted in the novel—but I can appreciate it as a variation on a city that I know a little bit. Jemisin’s New York is eccentric, eclectic, and frequently queer, and that is a truer depiction than one that whitewashes the city by looking only at one aspect.

Something similar happens with the existential threat that—not coincidentally—wants to whitewash all of these issues. The enemy appears in numerous guises: The Woman in White, Dr. White, and white fronds that stoke outrage, including by inspiring a group of racist provocateurs the Alt-Artistes. Dr. White works for a shadowy organization that has real estate holdings all over the world. In a word, their goal is gentrification: replacing local character with generic, boring, uniformity that weakens the local power of the awakening cities. It has killed before, and aims to do so again.

In time, The City We Became opens from this New York story to a larger universe of struggle where the awakening of one city means the destruction of another. The Enemy is revealed to be the lost city of R’lyeh. Appropriating a piece of mythos from Lovecraft, a notoriously racist author, as the primary antagonist thus layers references and commentary about the traditions of fantastical literature to the allegory about how local communities become strong through diversity.

Trying to capture the character of a place, particularly in a single book as packed with commentary as this one is, is hard. This sense of place is one of my favorite things about mystery novels, but those usually develop this sense of place across multiple novels as they feel their way through the corners and cracks. Here, in one novel, Jemisin tries to capture five distinct places that are also part of a complete whole. I would say she is on the whole successful. The City We Became is many things, including a rather unusual fantasy novel, but it is not boring. This novel is also supposed to be the first in a trilogy. I don’t know whether that means capturing the character of another city or developing stories based on the characters set down here, but I’m ready to let Jemisin surprise me whatever direction she chooses.

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<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>The City We Became</em> is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee's <em>Machineries of Empire</em> trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick's <em>Generous Thinking</em>. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste's <em>The Shadow King</em>.The City We Became is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

What is Making Me Happy: Brandon Sanderson’ Cosmere

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Brandon’s Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel drops next week. Rhythm of War is the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive, the cornerstone epic second-world fantasy to his larger authorial project. What makes this project, the Cosmere so impressive is that it consists of multiple different series, each set on a different second-world and with a different feel, but also contributing to a larger story that is just starting to be made clear.

Ordinarily, I vary my reading, rotating between authors and genres, but my ability to focus on books rapidly diminishes through the fall semester, often going into hibernation sometimes in mid-October. Despite my present exhaustion, I have mostly managed to avoid that fate this year by just letting myself get absorbed in the escapism of epic fantasy, starting with many of the Cosmere books that I had not yet read.

There are three things in particular that make me happy about Sanderson’s work.

First, I appreciate the ambitious scope of these novels. I have now read or am reading thirteen novels and novellas in this universe and, while I can pick up on many of the easter eggs between the stories, the larger story is just now starting to take shape. Seriously. Sanderson currently plans 35 novels for this universe. Some of these books don’t work as well for me as others do, whether because the characters don’t land or the world doesn’t quite work, but I love the sheer variety of these books.

Second, in a recent Writing Excuses podcast episode on Fantasy World-building, Patrick Rothfuss expounded on how some fantasy systems tend toward the numinous, perhaps with defined rules, but playing on a sense of wonder wherein ‘magic’ breaks the defined rules of the universe (effectively, a soft magic system). On the other end of the spectrum, he posited, are scientific (hard) systems where characters treat ‘magic’ as the world as it is and thus studying them are little different from any other scientific pursuit. Sanderson’s magic systems are decidedly scientific. Each series explores a different aspect of a common system that becomes increasingly complex as it iterates. Thus, discussion of the Cosmere often comes back to trying to figure out what the characters can do based on an analysis of the known laws of the universe rather than wondering what new abilities a character might manifest.

Third, and perhaps my favorite thing about reading so many of Sanderson’s books, is watching an author mature and develop. Sanderson’s early books are exceedingly competent, which I often chalk up to his formal education in and teaching of English. As much as I love some of the characters in his early novels, I also sometimes found the prose itself to be mechanical, workmanlike. His focus was on the worlds and the plots, which made for deeply satisfying stories that didn’t always have the most polished prose. I have noticed that starting to change in his more recent novels, where he’s started to wed prettier prose to his technical excellence. Sanderson is still stronger at world-building and the technical side of writing, which allows him to publish at a prodigious rate, but raising the level of his prose has made some of the scenes in his recent novels particularly powerful.

Watching this sort of development in the line-to-line excellence of their prose, which I have noted in authors as esteemed as Ernest Hemingway always makes me happy, if for no other reason than it gives me hope for my own writing.

I suspect I’ll keep reading mostly genre fiction for the rest of this year since I’ll likely remain tired and I have on my shelf Alex Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, but this week what is making me happy is Sanderson’s Cosmere.