Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Oops. Now that I blurbed this site in my bio for the new Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (note shameless plug), I'd better update. I'm very behind, and most of the magazines I've read since, well, a long time ago will just have to go unremarked-upon. Sad, I know.

First up is Observatory Mansions, by Edward Carey.

Carey is a playwright and illustrator in London. This is his first novel. I stole those two sentences from the book bio. OK, I stole the entire bio, because that's all there was. It doesn't astound me that Carey works in theatre, as there is a certain flair about this novel, a bit of garishness amid the melodrama. (That's not a dis, by the way.) Carey's talents as an illustrator are made use of here as well, with sketches of each of the primary characters. Carey's style is not very like Mervyn Peake's, but the sketches serve much the same function as those in the Gormenghast books, that of pulling the reader further into the moody and gothic world of grotesqueries and dark secrets.

The difference between Observatory Mansions and Gormenghast, however, is that the titular domicile of Carey's novel exists out of context, and thus the absurdity quotient is ratcheted up high. Whereas the lords of Groan and their sprawling estate cast a melancholy shadow over the landscape and people around them, Observatory Mansions has become irrelevant, a moldy relic in a city which has grown up around it and forgotten it. The inhabitants seem both aware of and oblivious to this fact. There could be a lot of pathos here, but Carey is primarily interested in the Byzantine machinations of how the Orme family estate became destitute and was converted to apartments, and in the sagas of its various inhabitants, past and present. They are caricatured to the point of being inhuman. Whereas, for example, Flay in Gormenghast became a sympathetic, even tragic figure, the Porter in Observatory Mansions is made so cartoonish by his plotting--both real and imagined--against the kleptomaniacal, obsessive-compulsive protagonist Francis Orme that it is difficult even to see him as human. The same is true of Francis, for whom I never developed more than the most rudimentary empathy.

I hasten to add that I don't think this is a bad book. There are some interesting vignettes, and the structure of the story is imaginative. But primarily those are technical considerations, and to the casual reader I think this may not be worth the effort.


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