Piranesi Redux

On April 21, 1990, the second through sixth places on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart of pop music were occupied by “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love” by Jane Child, “All Around the World” by Lisa Stansfield, “I Wanna be Rich” by Calloway, “I’ll be Your Everything” by Tommy Page, and “Here and Now” by Luther Vandross. At the top, in its fourth week on the chart, was “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Sinead O’Connor’s arresting and unmistakable recording of a song written by Prince. More than 30 years later O’Connor still turns up on the radio, and her version of the song stops my heart as surely as it did the first time I heard it.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi‘s emotional valence is nearly the opposite of “Nothing Compares,” but it stands out from the rest of the Hugo finalists in best novel the way that O’Connor stood out from Jane Child or Lisa Stansfield, or even Luther Vandross. The other novels on this year’s ballot are doing recognizable things: Jemisin’s book is Lovecraftian horror against superheroes who personify cities; Kowal’s is a combination of alternate history, accelerated climate catastrophe, and colonization of the near solar system; Roanhorse’s is fantastic adventure in a setting based on the pre-Columbian Americas; Wells’ is the continuation of a beloved series about a sentient construct. I haven’t finished Muir’s book just yet, but it’s a sequel, a continuation of the science-fantasy horror of Gideon the Ninth.

Piranesi isn’t much like anything else. Like “Nothing Compares,” its execution is stripped down. Piranesi offers readers its title character’s diaries and nothing more; everything about the world has to be inferred from what he chooses to record. It turns out to be enough to leave a lasting impression, maybe even one that will be recalled just as clearly thirty years from now.

While O’Connor’s recording is a study in heartbreak, Clarke’s novel is a study of goodness. As a character attribute, goodness can be tricky to make interesting. Clarke succeeds by letting her readers work Piranesi’s character out for themselves. Where protagonists in another story might boast of their resourcefulness in living for years on what they gleaned from the sea, or others might have bemoaned their fate, stranded in an endless labyrinth with no apparent source of food, Piranesi sees himself as the Beloved Child of the House, richly provided for and given both opportunity and means to explore the whole of creation. As readers accumulate evidence that the Other does not have Piranesi’s best interests at heart, Piranesi himself looks for ways to explain the Other’s behavior that would show him still as good a person as Piranesi. Even when his circumstances change greatly, Piranesi holds on to his fundamental outlook, and to what the House has taught him. He is offered a way out of his apparent dilemma, but he refuses to repudiate what has gotten him so far; instead, he finds a way to incorporate both his nature and the offer.

Piranesi, like “Nothing Compares 2 U,” is unlikely to inspire a wave of similar works. It is so singular as to defy any author who tried, and so complete that it renders the attempt superfluous. It is a wonderful story and an exquisite work of art that stands apart from its contemporaries, and will probably be just as complete, just as arresting thirty years and more from now.

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Optional musical accompaniment to this post: Nothing Compares 2 U.

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