Saturday, May 10, 2008

Edward Carey, "Observatory Mansions" (2000).

Before my last trip to the library, I did a lot of research on Amazon in an attempt to devise a list of intriguing books by authors I haven't read. Some of my exploration was guided by theme, but there were a few titles that seemed to pop out of nowhere. Such was the case with Observatory Mansions, by Edward Carey. While reading this odd book, I tried to recollect why I would have identified with it in the first place. So when I was was done reading, I made a point to return to its Amazon listing page to try to figure out why I was drawn to it. I noticed right away that the Publisher's Weekly editorial review name-drops David Lynch- a sure way to grab my attention. Anything that elicits such a comparison earns a closer look from me.

Of course this is an easy way to court disappointment. Very little deserves to be placed in a category with the undisputed king of weird American cinema. It seems increasingly popular to try to sell a consumer by identifying his/her demographic, attributing a typical reference point, and then associating it to anything that vaguely resembles a landmark work that might appeal to the target. There is seemingly no end to the stream of contrived entertainment that gets passed off as "Lynchian-weird". So it's a bit unfair to be moved by this tactic, and then suspicious of any work that is marketed this way. In the case of Carey's first novel, it is only vaguely applicable- yet enough so not to add insult.

Francis Orme (our protagonist) is a strange figure. He is strangely detached from all other life forms. He works as a "living dummy" in a wax museum, has very few friends, and refuses to ever remove a pair of white cotton gloves shielding his hands. Francis is clearly plagued by one or another fashionable mental affliction. Maybe he's autistic or maybe he's got obsessive-compulsive disorder- either way, credit Carey with not saying. In fact, we should applaud the author for taking the time to describe his characters through their interactions, rather than force-feed his readership with expository details. The strange tenor of the story lends itself well to slowly-revealed mysteries.

Why does this peculiar individual keep an exhibition of odd objects in a tunnel underneath the building where he lives? Why do his parents sit mute in the background of his tales for the first half of the book? Who are the strange folks who live in Observatory Mansions, and how did they get the way they are? Carey is in no hurry to explain any of this. He is content taking his time and shining the barest hint of light on his delightfully idiosyncratic subjects. There is a woman who believes she is a dog. There is a fusty old tutor who is continuously pouring sweat and a hundred scents from his body. And there is the enigmatic young woman who throws an entire building of flats into upheaval with her facility for encouraging memory and its communication.

Observatory Mansions is not a particularly easy book to read. It is instead fully imagined and surreal without being contrived. The behaviors of these queer fish are never simply arbitrary, and thus they don't seem artificially rendered (this is not a Wes Anderson movie). Sometimes they are brutal, but there is a core of tenderness to many of their actions... if the reader can get beyond the oddity of surface descriptions. Carey has found a way to animate the conflict between modern life and an anachronistic courtly existence, and the deterioration of what was once a grand country estate reverberates in the resignation of its inhabitants. This is a periodically perverse journey into the emotional isolation that can ultimately keep those in close proximity apart. But I'd say it owes less to David Lynch than to Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, Amelie).

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