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How big is the House? It is limitless. Its towering rooms are the size of two soccer fields or more. Connected by passageways and staircases, the rooms extend in every direction as far as Piranesi can explore. He writes in his journals that he has traveled nearly a thousand rooms from what he believes to be the center of things and has never reached the end. Even the staircases are huge, their steps much taller than a man can comfortably climb, as if, Piranesi writes, “God had originally built the House intending to people it with Giants before inexplicably changing His Mind.”
It’s curious, then, that a novel set in the House feels so small. This is not a critique. Unlike the House, Piranesi, the new novel by Susanna Clarke, abides by limits, and within those limits—thanks to those limits, in fact—it is a wonder.
Piranesi has been in the House as long as he can remember, long enough that he’s charted the tides that occasionally sweep through the halls on the main level, where he lives, and can predict when a room will be suddenly flooded. He knows how to fish and collect seaweed from the lower halls of sea and foam. He knows how to collect fresh rainwater from the upper halls, where lightning flashes in the clouds. He has begun the long work of cataloging the statues who inhabit each room, classical-style representations of fauns, men fighting beasts, or children at play. He has located “all the people who have ever lived,” 15 in total, the bones of 13 of whom are located in various halls that he cares for tenderly. He knows the times he is supposed to meet the Other, the one living person who also inhabits the House, a well-dressed man who quizzes him on his knowledge of the House but treats him with mild disdain. And he speculates about “the Sixteenth Person,” the person he is writing his journals for. “Who are You?” he writes. “Are You a traveler who has cheated Tides and crossed Broken Floors and Derelict Stairs to reach these Halls? Or are You perhaps someone who inhabits my own Halls long after I am dead?”
Piranesi thinks “Piranesi” is probably not his actual name. The Other calls him that. Piranesi doesn’t know about the Renaissance engraver, famous for his drawings of fanciful prisons, but we might. The House is the world on which Clarke exerts her formidable world-building skills in her first novel since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was published in 2004. That bestseller spanned decades of counterhistory in 19th-century England and many other worlds besides; in Piranesi, we are restricted to the House and Piranesi’s limited understanding of his own circumstances. The book is, therefore, a kind of puzzle for us to solve, and its effects depend on the pace at which Piranesi uncovers the truth of his imprisonment, and how far ahead of him we are as we read.
This is gonna sound weird, but at times Piranesi’s naïve enthusiasm for (and blinkered understanding about) the House reminded me of no character so much as Buddy, Will Ferrell’s character in Elf. Like Buddy, Piranesi can only process information within his own conceptual framework, and therefore he dismisses information that doesn’t fit—even words he’s never heard before, like the names of places outside the House. “What meaning could words such as ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Perugia’ possibly have?” he wonders after reading those words in journal entries he himself wrote long ago. “None. There is nothing in the World that corresponds to them.”
And as with Buddy, it takes a long time to convince Piranesi that someone might not have his best interests at heart. Well after we’ve determined something’s shady about the Other, whom Piranesi believes lives in the House with him but who just happens to have access to, say, nice clothes and new shoes, Piranesi is writing lines you could read out loud in Will Ferrell’s voice: “I have made a list of all the things that the Other has given me, so that I will remember to be grateful and thank the House for sending me such an excellent friend!”
What’s unsettling about the book, and what I loved most about it, is that this dramatic irony is not played for comedy or for pity. Instead, it illuminates the unbridgeable gap between us, the readers, and Piranesi, and puts forth an argument that the differences between us may be just as damaging to us as they are to him. He may not be able to see how life in the House has warped him, the way we can—but our understanding of the majesty of the House is nothing like his. His enchantment at the wonders of the House, at the world he lives in, is alluring. Early in the novel, a family of albatrosses roosts in a nearby room but struggles to find materials to build a nest. He brings to the birds some of his stores of dry seaweed, a gift that he knows will leave him colder during long winter nights. “But what is a few days of feeling cold,” he asks, “compared to a new albatross in the World?”
What Piranesi doesn’t like is the Other’s insistence that the House is an object of study. The Other wants, Piranesi feels, “to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted.” Which is ridiculous, Piranesi knows. “The House is valuable because it is the House,” because of the beauty it contains and the gifts it gives, not because it is a well of knowledge to tap. (We, the readers, the puzzle-solvers, know that he disapproves of our curiosity, too.)
Of course the Other’s stories begin to fall apart, and of course Piranesi begins to understand the nature of the House and of his existence. That he trails us a bit in that understanding means that the book didn’t quite astonish me, the way Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell so often did. Instead, Piranesi is after a quieter kind of magic, exploring the ways human beings can adapt and find meaning in even the direst of conditions. Ought we all be devoting more of our energies to appreciating the beauty of our own lives and less to determining the circumstances of our imprisonments? My colleague Laura Miller’s wonderful profile of Clarke, who has herself been somewhat housebound in the past decade or more by a debilitating illness, explores intriguing resonances between Piranesi’s life and his author’s. Perhaps Clarke is analogous to her hero, enclosed in rooms that loom large but feel small. Perhaps Clarke is, instead, the one who trapped him. Perhaps she’s the Sixteenth Person. Or perhaps I am. How big, after all, is my House?