Susanna Clarke’s famous 2004 novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell seamlessly combined the traditions of contemporary category fantasy and the traditions of the 19th century novel to create a sprawling literary comedy of manners, fairies and adventure. In her new novel, Piranesi, Clarke is still working with fantasy literature, but here she crosses it with postmodern magical realism—Borges, Calvino and Marquez go through the Narnian wardrobe this time, rather than Austen, Trollope and Dickens. The result is substantially shorter, and perhaps less accessible. In terms of invention and beauty, though, it’s a fitting heir to Clarke’s first book.
Piranesi is the name (or one name) of the main character, a man who lives in an enormous house filled with statues. The lower chambers flood with tides. Piranesi spends his days writing in his journal about the House (always capitalized), mapping the labyrinth of rooms, chatting with birds (albatrosses, rooks, and more), fishing, and comforting and caring for thirteen skeletons. Twice a week, he meets with a mysterious “Other” to compare research notes. The Other believes the House contains the secret to old, forgotten knowledge, which will allow him to exert control over minds, fly, and achieve other wonders. Piranesi humors the Other, but he himself is not that interested in the project (what minds are there to control in this mostly empty world, anyway?)
The odd barely populated House is a fairly obvious Borgesian meta-fiction. Like a book, the House is a closed-in, private world, filled with symbols—statues, the flight of birds—which can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Many of Piranesi’s observations on the nature of the House are also observations on the nature of fiction. “The search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unraveled, a text to be interpreted,” Piranesi thinks. But then he realizes, “The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of itself. It is not the means to an end.” Art and beauty—the statues, Clarke’s novel—are valuable as art and beauty, not because they lead to power or dominion.
The strange amorphous, art-for-art’s sake description of rooms in the early part of the book gradually winds its way towards a clearer plot. Piranesi, we learn, is suffering from memory loss. Like many a pop hero, from Jason Bourne to Captain Marvel to numerous Final Fantasy characters, Piranesi, has what might be called plot amnesia—he doesn’t remember who he is or any of the important events that brought him to his present self.
Plot amnesia is a common pulp approach to meta-fiction—it decks Joyce and Nabokov out in ninja-wear. In plot amnesia stories, the main character starts off in the same position as the reader: neither knows their past, their purpose, or their world. They set off together on the adventure to learn who they are and what they’ve been. Piranesi is in the House, as you are in the book, and he wanders through it to learn his own identity just as you do. Clarke deftly weaves together highbrow and lowbrow so Piranesi as reader is both symbol and story. To read Piranesi is to be the labyrinth and the traveler in the labyrinth, which is poetry and prose.
Memory loss isn’t just a pulp trope; it’s also an indicator of trauma. Piranesi has forgotten, we learn, because he needed to forget to keep himself whole. Since forgetting in turn is a kind of metaphor for immersing yourself in the world of the book, the novel then becomes about losing yourself in the novel. It’s also about grief and finding comfort in art. Piranesi “lived among statues: silent presences that brought him comfort and enlightenment,” Clarke writes. Other people are dangerous, cruel, or just annoying. In the House Piranesi can be alone with his thoughts, communing with the albatrosses. Art is safe..
It’s not just safe though. “I said this is a perfect world,” one character says towards the end of the book, “But it’s not. There are crimes here, just like everywhere else.” Piranesi’s utopia is a refuge from violence, but that means it’s also a reminder of violence. You don’t need a retreat unless there’s something to retreat from. Piranesi’s utopia is moving and affecting in part because it’s also melancholy. His quiet, methodical kindness, and his faith in the House, protect him from looking up at what he can’t face or fix. Escapism in this context is a kind of defiance, and a kind of bravery too.
The end of the novel doesn’t exactly provide justice, and closure is only provisional. Piranesi is a gentle man, and a gentle book. It wants to leave doors open for its characters and its readers. “When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself, then I name a hall.” Piranesi is a novel to revisit—a house you can open again, with statues touched by quiet thoughts and strange tides.