Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is an extraordinary, spectacular, wonderful book. Even among the books I’ve loved, it’s rare for me to find one that makes me feel transformed and transported as I’m reading it, in the distracting, mind-absorbing way that only literature can.
One of those was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Clarke’s gigantic, exhaustive history of magical England. I read it years ago, while I was spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, and its ability to completely absorb me and surround me in the world she’d created was a blessing of escape from anxiety. I can’t say how much of my love for that book is due to the time in which I read it, but I do know that it wasn’t just “escapism” in the sense of avoiding reality. It was being transported to another place and then returned to reality a little wiser and more perceptive than I’d been before. It’s fitting to be delivered another magical book exactly when I’m most desperately in need of escape.
One of the reasons I started writing “One Thing I Like” was, well, to keep me from rambling on too long about whatever movie or videogame or book I’d just experienced. But mainly, it was to avoid my tendency to be reductive. To stop treating art like an assignment: watch or read or play the work, analyze the narrative (if any), put it in context, pull out the “message” or the one thing that it means. To instead, talk around the experience I had with a work of art or entertainment, drawing out one aspect I particularly like to suggest why it impacted me the way it did.
I especially don’t want to be reductive with Piranesi, because the process of reading it is the source of magic in it. Although the book had a lot of pre-release buzz, apparently, I knew nothing about it other than it was the first book from Clarke in over a decade. (And that it’s surprisingly brief, especially when compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). I only read enough of the synopsis to know that it involves a grand house with infinite rooms. I don’t consider it a plot-driven book; its wonder doesn’t depend entirely on its narrative surprises. But I do believe that that ignorance of what I was getting into was a huge part of the wonder of the book: that sense of intrigue and discovery that fills the first half.
Or in other words: I highly recommend it, and I strongly recommend going in cold.
I feel a little like the book was delivered as a Max Headroom-style blipvert directly into my brain, and my subconscious is still unpacking it. There are tons of things I love about it, with more revealing themselves the more I think about it, but right now two are fighting for dominance.
The first thing I love about Piranesi
First: I love the way that Clarke writes villains. Specifically, she writes villains as if they were merely antagonists.
Comparisons between Piranesi and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are inevitable, so I’m just going to lean into them. Both books are most easily categorized as “magical realism,” largely because they both focus on scientists diligently observing and documenting worlds that are too fantastic to be explained by science. One of the wonderful aspects of Jonathan Strange is how well it captures the tone of arrogant optimism of the 19th century, when there was no doubt that with enough observation, experimentation, documentation, and innovation, the unknowable could become knowable.
The protagonist of Piranesi also describes himself as a scientist, but it’s also immediately apparent that he has an unshakeable faith — he exhaustively studies and documents the wonders of the house not to render it knowable, but to affirm and appreciate all the gifts that the house has given him.
But even more than all of the detailed footnotes and methodical journal entries, the two stories more subtly enforce a realistic tone by presenting their villains as casual, conversational, and more carelessly antagonistic than you might expect from fantasies about magical realms. They don’t indulge in grand monologues, nor in moments of sympathetic introspection. Unlike what most of us expect from fantasy stories, it’s never really presented as a grand battle between equally powerful rivals, each with their own motivations, the fate of reality locked in the balance. The villains are banal, capricious, and needlessly cruel.
There’s been a trend in art and entertainment for a while now, where stories are told from the villains’ perspective. The first I became aware of it was Grendel by John Gardner, although I’m sure it must be much older than that. Wicked is the most obvious example from (fairly) recent pop culture. I believe it’s an offshoot of an earnest attempt to make villains more three-dimensional, with their own motivations and their own justifications, instead of merely obstacles for the heroes to overcome. There’s an idea that’s been repeated so often that it’s become accepted as a rule for actors and writers: good villains don’t see themselves as the villain.
Piranesi rejects this. But instead of making its villains seem shallow or artificial, it makes them all the more menacing. And, I would say, more realistic. At least in my own experience, the people who’ve had the most negative impact on my “story” have almost never been the ones targeting me, but the ones who don’t really give a shit about me one way or the other. More than realism, though, it delivers what I think is a longer-lasting and more transformative catharsis. The heroes’ victories aren’t defined in terms of the villain. They win by being brave, compassionate, and kind.
In these stories, evil isn’t the opposite of good, it’s the absence of good. Their heroes devote much of their passion to explaining the inexplicable, knowing the unknowable, but they will never be able to truly understand evil. They lack the capacity for true selfishness and callous carelessness.
The second thing I love about Piranesi
Second: Piranesi is a wonderfully vivid, extended example of metatext, or how the format of the book conveys a core idea of the book.
I have to admit that while I was reading, I was enjoying the book so much that I reflexively started looking for something to criticize. The flaw that my initial enthusiasm must’ve caused me to overlook, or even the one imperfection that made it perfect. I can’t just ramble on effusively about something without having any criticism of it, right?
I found my criticism at around the halfway point, as the story’s mysteries started to be explained. I could fairly easily guess what the clues were leading to, I could make connections the protagonist wasn’t making, I had a very strong feeling I knew what the backstory was going to turn out to be, even if I didn’t know the specific details yet.
(2.5 thing I love about Piranesi: the protagonist typically discovered things or made conclusions about things no more than one page after I’d figured them out. Any time I started second-guessing the novel, it reminded me that everything was under control, and everything was coming together right on schedule. Such a refreshing change to read something that respects the reader’s intelligence, instead of dragging out “intrigue” for chapters while the reader’s shouting “Yes, I get it!”)
So my one major criticism was that after so many chapters of gloriously intriguing expansion, the story starts to rapidly contract as it gets closer to the ending. Mysteries are explained, MacGuffins are found, plot threads are drawn together, loose ends are tied up. It seemed as if this wondrous book used up all its supply of wonder at the beginning. Instead of building up momentum towards a spectacular climax, it seemed to be politely cleaning up after itself.
To be clear: the plot of the book does come to a spectacular climax, but it was also, literally, predictable. (The protagonist predicts it). For a story that had derived so much energy from exploring the inexplicable, everything seemed to have a clear and immediately apparent explanation.
After reading the last chapter, though, I believe that feeling of expansion and contraction is essential to the tremendous impact the book had on me. Throughout the final chapter, there’s a powerful sense of melancholy. The narration is matter-of-fact, even numb. A loss that seems irreplaceable and inevitable. The protagonist had grown to love his prison, and we realize that we had grown to love it as well, because of its seemingly infinite potential energy. Escape is unquestionably preferable to solitude, especially after we’ve been reminded that people are capable of such unselfish kindness and compassion. But it also means abandoning wonder, mystery, and peaceful simplicity.
Piranesi contains a brief reference to Narnia, and when I encountered it, I thought it was just a clever, self-aware touch that confirmed there was a connection between the world of Piranesi’s house and our own world. But when I reached the end of the book, I was overcome with a feeling that was entirely too familiar: it was exactly how I felt as a kid, reading Aslan telling Susan and Peter that they were being banished from Narnia, essentially punished for growing up. It seemed so cruel and sad and unfair and inevitable and natural. I realized that Piranesi was a 245-page prose poem perfectly expressing that feeling. It took me, a 49-year-old, back to the Narnia I remembered from when I was 13. And it left me with a reminder that I could always come back any time I wanted, and while it would never be the same, I now at least had a deeper and more mature understanding of why I couldn’t stay.