The most recent piece of reading to grace my list was Piranesi, the new novel from British author Susanna Clarke. I was drawn in by the work’s classical magical realist themes, as well as its short length combined with the fact that it took over twenty years to write. Anything that short which took so long, I surmised, had to be the opposite of a hack product. Now, knowing that Clarke’s fatigue disorder contributed to the delay, I have more nuanced perspective as to the timeline, but no regret for having completed the novel.
The structure of Piranesi is very much engaged with the idea of creating a bridge between supernatural events of an academic, literary quality and our contemporary world. It reminds me of my work on the early days of Ingress, or what we do at Nonchalance with SYGNYL and In Bright Axiom. The protagonist is isolated, and creates a compelling dramatic irony between his blithe acceptance of his bizarre world and our exterior skepticism. The more he lays out the circumstances of his life, the more we wonder how he came to be the way he is.
Clarke paces the unraveling of this thread very well, and never once are we unduly delayed in our journey toward the conclusion. Given the careful language of the text, as well as its homages to epic and complex works, I spent two-thirds of it under the impression that its storyline would be just as complicated. In reality, the plot of the story is quite simple, though enough allusions are made to deeper narrative threads that we are assured Clarke has thought her world through quite well. It is a simple story, charmingly simple in retrospect, and its simplicity seems wonderfully out of step with the heavy layers of irony and cynicism which pervade most narratives appearing in 2020.
I’m surprised by Clarke, and her choice to tell such a simple and bizarre tale. It speaks to her confidence as a writer. I’m proud of her agent and publisher for championing the work as well, though I imagine the sophomore book of a superstar debut author would be a hot commodity no matter what it was about. In this case, Piranesi is no slump.