Piranesi

Metadata

Summary

A nameless man (Piranesi) lives in a world that is an infinite house of statues with an ocean trapped inside. He wanders the halls, communing with the house and chronicling its details between working with the mysterious 'Other' to unravel 'The Great Knowledge'. But the house has a strange effect on the mind and there is much he once knew but has forgotten.

SPOILERS: The house is an alternate world, spilling out from our own, and Piranesi was trapped there by the Other, a former member of an academic cult following their leader who discovered this realm, as a slave for his research. The house has shaped his mind so he no longer remembers and is, in a way, the knowledge the Other seeks. Piranesi discovers the answers by piecing together his journals and is eventually freed by a policewoman who ventures into the House. He decides to leave, after much thought, but he is no longer the man he once was or Piranesi.

Themes

  • Perils & cost of continual progress
  • Identity & loss
  • Trust & innocence vs naivety

Review

"Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and must proceed according to the evidence."

I struggle to think of a novel that I overhyped more than this one.

[[B) Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell]] was a doorstop of a book that I entered with zero expectations and left with haunting memories as one of my favourite books of the year. So when I heard there was not only a new book by Susanna Clarke, but one featuring a world that was a strange, infinite house with a questionably reliable, my weird-loving brain engaged hype overdrive. That was unfortunate.

Piranesi is a good book, just not in the way I anticipated.

Grand themes, not so grand worldbuilding

If I approached Piranesi like Jonathan Strange with no background or expectations, I think it would have been at least 4 stars. Unfortunately, as a lover of weird fiction coming off reading [[!Jorge Luis Borges]]' Ficciones for the first time, I was left unsatisfied. I expected lyrical worldbuilding in an ever-stranger house hiding dark secrets. Piranesi feels more like a grander themes stretched out through a dash of worldbuilding and secrets that feel quite obvious by necessity of supporting those grand themes.

Borges did it better

The worldbuilding (an infinite house of infinite halls which is the entire world) reminded me strongly of [[!Jorge Luis Borges]]' The Library of Babel and the writing style, terse, concise and polar opposite [[B) Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell]], is also Borges-esque. Susanna Clarke confirmed the inspiration in this interview. However, I expected Piranesi to build on that material. It is, after all, much longer than a short story (even if it is still a short novel). But the house remains mostly the same and twists are so obvious that you expect there surely must be another one to explain it but there is not.

Now I have no problem with telegraphed twists but I like a plot or worldbuilding or something to fill in the gaps in that case. Here, I have to believe it is to make the grand themes of questioning whether progress is truly 'progress' and at what cost all the starker but instead it made a short book feel long. The Other is so obviously evil and manipulative, Piranesi so obviously knowing more than he currently expresses, that it all feels a bit contrived. I will be the first to throw up my hands and say I am a superficial reader who enjoys juicy, weird worldbuilding and might have missed the themes this was so obviously illustrating. If so, someone please drop me a line and enlighten me. I really want to love this book.

When it's good, it's great

"The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end."

It sounds like I hate the book and that couldn't be farther from the truth. The real problem was over-hyping the book in my head and entering with false expectations. When Piranesi shines, it really shines.

"The then-owners (dull exemplars of the prevailing mediocrity) were unsympathetic to my request to be allowed to stand in the garden for several hours performing an Ancient Celtic ritual."

The Best of Piranesi

  • The otherworldly atmosphere of the silent house, with only Piranesi wading through and the birds.
  • The economic but atmospheric details: from the oversized stairs to the drowned halls.
  • The journal entries where Piranesi discovers the secret, crammed with foreboding (because you know what happened) and dark humour made all the more impactful by the terse writing style.
  • Piranesi's behaviour, which at times seems illogical and frustrating but then makes you question why you see it as so frustrating when he is actually being good. Why shouldn't he trust? Why shouldn't he keep his word? Why should he want to kill someone?
  • SPOILER: Not gonna lie, the evil professor who discovered the house was my favourite character. He gets the most darkly humorous segments and lines.

Overall

"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."

Piranesi is worth a read, especially if you do not read a lot of weird speculative fiction and expect the concept of the infinite house to be developed more.

  • DO: Read for what feels like a grander novella exploring humanity's obsession with progress through the trappings of an intriguing world.
  • DON'T: Read for a strange, intricate adventure in the fascinating world of an infinite house or lyrical, Jonathan Strange-style writing.

Quotes (SPOILERS)

  • "They were all enamoured with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology!"
  • Journal heading: "The Other describes the circumstances under which it will be right to kill me."
  • "In May 1976 Arne-Sayles wrote a letter to the director of the museum, asking to borrow the head so that he could perform a magical rite of his own invention, transfer the seer’s knowledge to himself and so usher in a New Age for Mankind. To Arne-Sayles’s astonishment, the director refused."
  • "The then-owners (dull exemplars of the prevailing mediocrity) were unsympathetic to my request to be allowed to stand in the garden for several hours performing an Ancient Celtic ritual."

Scrapbook Concepts

  • A house with its own moon #locations
  • "I have climbed up to the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists." --> A house where the upper stories are all lost in clouds. Have their own rain? #locations
  • "The Biscuit-Box Man is a skeleton that resides in an Empty Niche in the Third North-Western Hall." #characters
  • "Thirtieth Day in the Twelfth Month in the Year of Weeping and Wailing, to the Fourth Day of the Seventh Month in the Year I discovered the Coral Halls."
  • "It howled in the Vestibules, catching up handfuls of loose snow and making them into little ghosts." --> Snow ghosts #creatures
  • Statues which sing and whistle in the Wind. Only have a voice/can speak when there is wind. #creatures #fragments
  • A room full of birds. Perched on every statue and column; silent, waiting. #locations #fragments
  • Staircase/house at a noble scale twice the normal height #locations #fragments
  • "They covered the Walls so thickly and were twisted into such tortuous forms that it was like walking under the dripping branches of a great forest of Arms and Bodies." --> A giant statue forest of arms and bodies #locations
  • "One of the Statues that lined the Wall of the Staircase was all but engulfed in a blue-black carapace of mussels with only half a staring Face and one white, out-flung Arm left free." #fragments
  • the Iron Snake constellation
  • A house of no colour. All greys. Everything inside fades #locations
  • "The students carried placards that said ‘Free the Head’." --> Professor writes letter to museum to be allowed to use ancient seer's head in ritual. Students join in. Museum broken in to. #adventures
  • The Half-Seen Door
  • "‘Time-travelling Architecture’: article on Paul Enoch and Bradford for the Guardian, 28 July 2012" --> Time-travelling architecture #locations #fragments