How to Pay Attention: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

Sometimes you get a book that reminds you how to live. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi can be interpreted in many ways, but  so far, in the trudge through the Dead Marshes that is 2021, I’ve found it most helpful to think of it as an instruction manual.

The main character (who is called Piranesi even though he’s pretty sure his name is not Piranesi) is a perfect metaphor for our time. He lives in near-total isolation, in a House that is, as far as he knows, the entire World. Twice a week he spends a single hour with “The Other”, a man about twenty years his senior. Piranesi’s understanding is that he’s assisting the Other with an ongoing experiment, but his understanding is also that he has always lived in the House, and that he is somehow about 30 years old, but he also only seems to remember about five years of his life.

His understanding might be a little off.

When the book came out last fall there were two common themes in coverage: Many reviewers noted how odd and perfect it was that were were getting this isolated character at a time when most of us had to shut ourselves away in our homes, and only venture out for necessities; there was also attention paid to Clarke’s own history, the publication of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, her ensuing literary stardom, and the chronic illness that has kept her at home for years, and which informed her character’s isolation.

Both of these threads are good to have in mind when you read. I’m not a fan of the Death of the Author (either in the critical theory or [usually] the literal sense) and I think it’s useful to read this book knowing that the author wrote much of it in short bursts of energy amidst terrible fatigue, never venturing far from a small home in the country, because travel was physically impossible—in short that this book was a work of immense determination, the will to put one word after the other no matter how exhausting it was. It’s also valuable, I think, to know that Clarke has a certain style and reputation from her previous two books, and that she chucked all of that out the window to serve the needs of her latest characters.

But as I read I wasn’t too preoccupied with Clarke’s life, or even with my own forced isolation. What I found myself dwelling on, more and more, was Piranesi’s capitalization of certain words, and his relationships with certain birds.

Piranesi lives in a House that, so far as he knows, is the entire World. The first story is drowned by a mighty ocean, and Piranesi descends to its shallower section to Fish and gather Seaweed. The second story is (usually) dry and habitable, Hall after Hall of Pavement and Statues. This is where Piranesi lives. He explores the halls, contemplates the statues, and befriends the Birds who swoop through the House and sometimes nest on the Plinths. Finally, the highest story is filled with Clouds, and Piranesi sometimes braves the higher reaches to contemplate the Stars.

Piranesi visits the other thirteen People who reside in the House, namely the Dead, whose skeletons Piranesi visits and honors with offerings of food, water, and lilies. He doesn’t do this on any particular day, just holds to a loose cycle of visiting the Dead and telling them about his discoveries, the Birds he’s met, the Stars he’s named.

While his life is stark, it isn’t exactly impoverished. He loves the House. He has studied the Tides, the movement of the Stars, the waning and waxing of the Moon, and each day is an unfolding of experience. He capitalizes words the same way we capitalize proper names in English—it’s a sign of intimacy and regard that goes above objectification. Piranesi names all Birds with the capital because he regards them all as his siblings; the Fish he eats are gifts from the House, the Statues are his companions in the House, the House is Parent, World, Home, God.

Piranesi’s way of experiencing Life and the House is in gentle opposition to the Other. First of all, the Other calls the House a Labyrinth, which immediately shows that he doesn’t feel comfortable there. The House is a trap, not a home. But more than that, he only thinks of it in terms of secrets he can extract and power he can gain. He thinks that if he cracks the House’s secrets, a great and secret knowledge will be revealed to him, which will grant him power. Meanwhile, Piranesi doesn’t care about any of that, he just loves the house, and feels like it loves him back. Eventually, Piranesi decides to push back on the Other’s need for study:

This realisation—the realisation of the Insignificance of the Knowledge—came to me in the form of a Revelation. What I mean by this is that I knew it to be true before I understood why or what steps had led me there. When I tried to retrace those steps my mind kept returning to the image of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight, to its Beauty, to its deep sense of Calm, to the reverent looks on the Faces of the Statues as they turned (or seemed to turn) towards the Moon. I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

Which leads to the book’s plot, which I shall not spoil here. There is a horrifying twist, and it’s important, but I don’t think it’s exactly the point of the book? Clarke could have written a book in which the twist is the key to understanding her character, and the crux of the story. Instead she has written a story that works more in themes and tones than plot. However, the twist does manage the improbable feat of making Piranesi even more lovable.

And while we’re on the topic of love. You know that thing where you’re supposed to love your neighbors? When I first moved into my new place, two months into quarantine, my neighbors seemed to be hellbent on make me hate them. The stomping, the doorslams, but most of all the music, bottom-heavy bass, that usually starts at about 10:30 at night and ebbs around 4:00 in the morning. Are they DJs? I’ve lived beneath DJs before, and, at the beginning of quarantine, under a drummer. But this is constant, loud, jagged, stop-and-start, maddening. Thus I’ve become an aficionado of white noise apps on my phone. “Heavy Rain” helps me sleep; “Thunderstorm” makes me homesick for Florida; “Creaking Boat” is perfect for reading Piranesi, with its obsession with Waters, Tides, and Gulls.

With the sound of the Sea in my ears, the dance party upstairs transformed into a gentle reminder that even if I felt alone, I wasn’t—the people upstairs were having fun, I was down here reading my book, and it was great.

As I finished the book I kept coming back to the way the plot played with the themes. The skeleton of a very different book lurks within Piranesi. Change even a few scenes and you end up with a taut, violent thriller. And yet that is not the book Clarke chose to write.

As I said, I don’t think this book has a key—actually I think that assigning one symbol more importance than the rest would miss the point. But the more I thought about this story, the more I thought about the albatross. Er, sorry, the Albatross.

Does everyone remember the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”?

If you’ll allow me to be the Ghost of English Classes Past: the Ancient Mariner accosts a young wedding guest and relates a terrifying story of ghosts, guilt, and expiation. In his younger days, the New Adult Mariner was on a ship that went terribly off-course, becoming trapped in the icebergs of the South Pole. Just when the crew had resigned themselves to freezing to death, an albatross showed up. The wind lifted, and the bird seemed to lead them through the ice into open water again. It stayed with the ship, responding to the sailors and happily swooping around the mast. The sailors were pleased by the idea that they might survive the trip, the bird loved the fish they threw to it, life was great. And then the Mariner, for reasons he does not disclose, shot it with a crossbow.

Not cool!

The other sailors cursed him at first, but when the ship came out of a fog safely they changed their minds and decided the bird was evil. At which point, their betrayal of the albatross awakens some sort of Elemental Spirit that lives under the South Pole (???) who then chased the ship and trapped it in a dead calm. The sailors changed their minds again, tackled the Now-Presumably-Prematurely-Aged Mariner, and made him wear the albatross as a necklace. (Because apparently they kept its corpse???) And then a spectral ghost ship sailed up and everyone but the Mariner died. The dead eyes of his crewmates stared at him, full of the curse they were laying on his head in their last moments.

All of this is fantastic—every classic metal album cover come to life, full of fabulous horrific imagery that’s popped up in everything from Frankenstein to Pirates of the Caribbean. If Coleridge had just wanted to create a terrifying ghost story, he more than succeeded. But like a good Romantic, he had to bury some layers.

The Mariner doesn’t explicitly say why he killed the albatross in the first place (yes, there’s some Christ/Judas imagery at work here, but I’m stepping around that for once) but his act is a rejection of the natural world. Rather than seeing himself as part of life, welcoming the bird as a sign of that life, and being grateful to it as it helped them escape a sea of icebergs, he snuffed its life just because he could. He asserted his will and strength over the bird’s. Because of this he’s cursed with “Life-in-Death” where his body is technically alive, but he’s not really part of it.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

The way that he begins to get out from under the curse is that, days later, he looks at these same “slimy things” and realizes that they’re actually beautiful:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware…

He still has to suffer through a pretty hellish voyage back to England, but at least now he’s part of the world again, feels regret for his crime, can pray for redemption, etc. So one of the points of the poem (other than that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was super fond of opium) is the Romantic ideal that the point of life is to feel connected to nature. To remember that you, as a human, are part of a larger system, a continuum of other humans, animals, plants, etc. That ideally you experience life as part of the world.

It could be argued that one of the reasons that our world is in such turmoil at the moment is that for at least a few hundred years, humans decided that the world was a labyrinth, and that their role in it was to unlock its secrets and suck it dry of power.

That doesn’t seem to be working out too well for us?

The reason I mention all this is that Clarke seems to be telling a story where, each time she could have chosen to focus on Plot, she chose instead to dig into Theme—specifically the same themes that Coleridge was circling in a lot of his work. And that as much as I don’t think this book has a key, I do think it’s fascinating to note what happens when an Albatross shows up in Piranesi’s life.

When Piranesi meets an Albatross, first he sees it as a “vision” before realizing it’s a huge Bird. He does what I usually do when presented with a new animal: throws his arms open to hug it. The albatross, crashes into him, and it takes both of them a few minutes to get back up and sort themselves out. But here is where the story turns in a beautiful direction. Maybe you’d expect some slapstick? The lorge bird attacks the hapless Piranesi? but no, it just squawks at him. A few minutes later, its mate joins them. And Piranesi sacrifices some of his own seaweed to help the pair build a safe nest.

As much as the Narnia references, and echoes of the historical Piranesi, I think it’s vital to understanding the book that when an Albatross shows up, it’s welcomed. Piranesi helps the pair build their nest, and he names the Year after them: “The Year The Albatross Came to The South-Western Halls.” It goes further than this, though. During the horrifying plot twist, he discovers some notes that are vitally important. And he knows they’re vitally important. But, the gulls have used these scraps of paper to build their nests, and he would have to displace them—maybe even disturb their eggs and chicks—to get them. In most books, this would be either a moment of tension, or, again, a moment of slapstick humor. Will Piranesi sneak up to steal the notes while the gull are fishing? Will there be a tense few moments as a bird attacks or tries to tear a note from his hand? Will the inevitable bird attack be rendered as a comedic set piece? But in Clarke’s world, neither of these things happen. Piranesi doesn’t consider himself, or his needs, or the plot, to be more important than the gulls and their nests. Rather than putting himself first, he decides to wait until autumn, for the young gulls to grow, and the gulls to abandon their nests, before going back for the notes.

The most important plot point in the entire book is put on hold so the baby birds can grow up and learn to fly.

Unlike the Other, Piranesi lives in harmony with his World.

Piranesi was an especially good read for right now. The plot, as I’ve said, is horrific. Awful things happen in this book. But in a strange way, the horror feels distant. What’s immediate is Piranesi’s daily life and the joy he finds in Nature, Seaweed, his Bird Friends, etc. It was an interesting way to spend a few days, as I realized just how much the book is a mirror of my current life.

The book is about a particular kind of resilience, surviving trauma by finding joy in an impossible situation. By making the book a fantasy, Clarke removes the horror just enough that you can get through the story in one piece. But I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. I’ve written and rewritten this essay a couple dozen times at this point to try to capture why it’s so important.

Obviously, we are all living through horror right now. But because I’m fortunate enough to work from home, and I’ve become kind of a hermit, that horror is further away, it’s numbers on a TV screen, it’s anecdotes on Twitter, the horror itself has become what Jeff VanderMeer calls a “hyperobject”—it’s so huge you can’t fully see it, even though you know it’s there. My day-to-day life is often full of moments of joy: laughing with friends over Zoom, catching up on movies and TV I’ve been meaning to get around to, the TravelMan marathon I dove into over New Year’s. But I know all of this is happening in the context of The Horror. (Or, really, multiple horrors. There was that coup, after all.) But wouldn’t it also be a horror to deny the joy, when so many people are suffering? Aren’t I obligated to embrace it?

When I first got to this apartment I was furious about the noise. Now, though, hearing my neighbors’ music, hearing them talk, hearing cars drive by with thumping bass, even just hearing people walking around upstairs, reminds me that I’m not actually alone.

These days I usually only go out, at most, once a week. If I can manage it, I stay in for two week stretches, packing laundry and groceries into one brief trip. I’m extremely lucky, because my pod and I have been able to do strict quarantines so we could hang out a few times—for instance, that’s why we were able to be in one room for Tor.com’s first Trivia Night. Other than that, I’m alone in my room, and my head, all the time. (This might be affecting my writing? There may be cracks in the Yellow Wallpaper? I doubt I’ll know for months yet.) The isolation has had an interesting side effect: when I do go out, the world seems more 3D than usual. Hearing people talk or laugh, walking through clouds of weed and perfume, checking in on the health of the Laundry Guy and the Bodega Family—it’s all infused with a level of meaning that I can’t really put into words.

That’s what I felt when I was reading Piranesi. Somehow Susanna Clarke has taken her own isolation and refracted it into an expression of difficult, complicated joy, and I am capital-G Grateful that I had this book to keep me company this year.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another shall rise in its place! Come join them in the endless parched desert that is Twitter!

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