My expectations for Piranesi were lukewarm. Clarke’s short story collection wasn’t fully successful, and the early descriptions of this new novel hinted at a dreamlike, labyrinthine, magic-realist puzzle – not really my cup of tea.
So I entered The House with a certain reservation, but Clarke’s narrative powers quickly swept me away.
Not that this book is a 100% triumph, but it would be foolish to dwell on its few, minor flaws too long. Taken as a whole, Piranesi succeeds brilliantly, and easily stands among the very best I’ve read this year.
I do think this review is safe for those who haven’t read it yet, but as I will try to unravel some of the book’s philosophical underpinnings, there will be mild spoilers – even so, nothing you can’t guess after about 30 pages in. I will not say anything about its relationship with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There are links aplenty – disenchantment for one – but Piranesi deserves to be treated & read as its own thing first.
I’ve seen the book’s biggest shortcoming identified in other reviews as well: earlier than expected the central mystery becomes reasonably clear to the reader, and for a while that results in less narrative tension. At the same time, the oblique early revelations make it clear Clarke’s endgame is not the mystery, but the psychological portrait of the main character.
The fact that the book is named after the title character is a strong indication he is the focus, not The House. Piranesi is a tragic figure, and Clarke wonderfully managed to evoke traumatic personal dissociation – truly a tour de force, especially as she uses so little means to do so. It is mostly the result of careful, deliberate construction, not of some spectacle in the plot. The book’s descriptions in the press of the rococo setting obfuscate the fact that Piranesi is at heart a very simple, small story.
Small & simple it may be, the construction is nonetheless intricate, and even though its artifice clearly shows – Clarke doesn’t try to hide it – the emotional effect of Piranesi was deep and unexpected.
I’ve read minor complaints about a lack of character development, but those seem to miss the point. Side characters are steady, yes, but Piranesi’s psychological journey is complex and layered – even though Clarke evokes it seemingly effortlessly, again simple, clean & without fuss. Much is left unsaid, and readers have to fill in most of the implications themselves. That makes flipping the last page all the more a sad goodbye – even though the ending to this tale is nominally a happy one.
“Birds are not difficult to understand. Their behavior tells me what they are thinking.”
Thematically Clarke uses old, familiar tropes, but she manages to infuse them with new life. Maybe the most breathtaking reversal was how she made the real world serve as mythic prophecy, and as such Clarke has written a very, very successful epistemic novel. Piransi shows perspective is always key when judging knowledge.
Clarke seems to inscribe herself into the Romantic tradition that longs for a past where humanity – before the advent of “progress” and Science – possessed “Great and Secret Knowledge”. A tradition that sees the innocence of a child as superior to “the iron hand of modern rationality”. The core of the novel’s world building confirms this. There would not be a House if Clarke didn’t acknowledge these sentiments. Ideologically I don’t see eye to eye with Clarke on this matter: while the Enlightenment of the 18th century undoubtedly altered our world, and the results of its technologies now even threaten it, I don’t think most people would want to return to the state before penicillin, fridges and smartphones. That past might seem appealing to lovers of the arcane, but people tend to forget we used to burn witches.
Clarke also makes the categorical mistake to uphold the illusion that “rivers and mountains” don’t give us wisdom anymore. All we know today, we know because of observation of and dialogue with reality. More so: it is the essence of science. It is a falsehood we “ceased to speak and listen to the World.” On the contrary: much of the trouble we are in today could be remedied is we would only listen better to science’s listening.
Luckily, these matters aren’t fully clear cut in the novel. Clarke renders the quest for ancient knowledge insignificant in Piranesi’s mind. It’s also no coincidence that Piranesi is a scientist and explorer himself. He is able to understand The House’s appearance, but not its nature, and that makes him the ultimate Everyman.
Never mentioned, but always present, is Plato. I have never been an Idealist, and I suspect Plato’s dualism has done humanity a disservice. Piranesi understands he knows concepts not found in the House’s statuary: again a brilliant reversal. It’s unsure what Clarke’s own stance is, but there might be a hint in the fact that Piranesi needs real fish to feed himself, not marble ones.
Despite my own beef with Plato, I don’t have any trouble admitting words on a page are indeed a representation of a something – be it an idea or a fragment of reality: structurally language doesn’t seem to make a distinction anyhow. So taken as a metaphor for books, journals, art, rather than as true ontology, the world of Ideas has its rightful place, and regardless of whatever alleged philosophical blueprint in Clarke’s mind, as a fictional setting it works wonderfully.
Which is the better world? Piranesi says the statues don’t decay in The House, yet an entire wing is collapsed & derelict. There is lots of sadness in our own world – but humans bring death and crime to The House too. Ostensibly Piranesi’s early innocence state is to be preferred, but we have to remember that such wasn’t his primordial state: he hasn’t always been like that, and he’s only there because of deceit. Maybe more importantly, he needs Others too. Clarke confirms man is a social species, and knowledge a social construct.
Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not.
This is a partial echo of a sentiment expressed much earlier in the novel:
This experience led me to form a hypothesis: perhaps the wisdom of birds resides, not in the individual, but in the flock, the congregation.
The very ending dissolves any dichotomy, and Piranesi clearly becomes what it has been all along: a festive meditation on reality’s Beauty and Kindness – immeasurable and infinite. In short: a celebration of the imponderable Mystery of the world.
But cruelty, and oceans of human suffering, you say? That’s a valid question, just as Clarke is well within her rights to put the positive aspects on a pedestal. Death and violence aren’t absent from the book, and Piranesi’s attitude of forgiveness is a real possibility – a matter of perspective.
Piranesi is much richer than this review could convey. Clarke sprinkles surprise throughout – sprinkles of both wisdom & wild imagination. Aside from the slight dip somewhere halfway, this keeps the tension multiform: intellectual, emotional and aesthetical.
“He has such a sense of belonging, and that’s very often a thing that’s missing – a sense of absolutely belonging in the place where we find ourselves.”
The New Yorker has published a great piece of writing on Clarke, amongst other things about Piranesi‘s genesis, and Clarke’s sickness.