Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Belated book reviews, I

Observatory Mansions, a 2001 first novel by Edward Carey, is a curious delight. I might say (as have others before me) that it carries a certain waft of Mervyn Peake's stupendous Titus Groan epic (usually miscalled "Gormenghast", though it goes on past that amazing place).

At first, the parallel is not obvious: the Titus novels are set in a hazy land that seems keenly of this world, yet somehow utterly disconnected from it: it is no place we have ever heard of, or ever imagined before Peake imagined it for us. Mansions is very solidly set in our world; the country is deliberately nameless, but is manifestly contemporary England.

But it doesn't many paragraphs before we realize that in their heart and soul, the two worlds are much akin. Each is populated with strangely broken people, who act in ways that--apparently--seem perfectly correct to them, individually and one to another, but which seem at best tenuously related to anything a normal person (including, by design, the reader) would find sane.

That, in a way, is their special magic: anyone can, with a reasonable dash of literary craft, conjure a world in which everybody is more or less insane; genius is in creating a world in which what we from our view see as insanity is an internally coherent reality whose denizens all find each others' behaviors thoroughly unexceptionable.

Peake's world has few residents the reader will find sympathetic, but it does have some: Titus himself, Dr. Prunesquallor, perhaps to a lesser extent a few others. Carey's world seems to have not a single sympathtic soul in it. We are, of course, biased by the fact that this world's first-person narrator is himself not merely seventeen miles off-center as a personality, but off-center in a number of very unpleasant ways. To call him egocentrically selfish is to cheat the concept.

The plot, such as it is, could be recounted in a paragraph or two. As a reviewer, I have never believed in "spoilers", and do not reveal plots; if I can't convey my enthusiasms without pre-telling the book, the fault is in me, not the book. But the point here is that the plot is only a minimalist excuse to pick up, turn around, and set down at various angles the handful of specimens, the occupants of the titular collection of rental flats, for auctorial purposes.

An author who shows us a study of grotesques can accomplish little or much, depending on his skill and vision. Carey here shows us much. Though this is not strictly a work of "speculative fiction", in that nothing impossible happens, it uses the same basic principle: by using the strange, that for which the rules are different, the author can turn a spotlight on this or that facet of the human condition, a spotlight more focussed than is readily possible in a conventional tale of everyday things and people.

In Mansions, Carey tells us of loss, of despair, of unconscious, unintended cruelty begetting unconscious, unintended cruelty, and ultimately of the possibility--or lack of possibility--of obtaining relief, of atonement, of redemption. In the end, the same grotesques we found contemptible we see as pathetic, and, more critical, as fellow humans, as "there but for the grace of God go I" beings.

It's an awfully good book, and I heartily recommend it.

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