By Christian Holub
September 17, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Bloomsbury

With more time at home in this era of social distancing and self-isolation, we've got a lot more time for reading, right? It's hardly so simple. In this new EW series, staffers discuss how they're coping with experiences of anxiety and isolation through books. In this entry, Christian Holub writes about getting lost in labyrinths. 

Hello EW readers, I’m checking back in with our Quarantine Book Club! What’s it been, six months since my previous entry in this column? I think we can all agree that it feels more like six years, if not longer. In fact, the whole reason I want to revisit this column is to discuss a new book that unexpectedly nails the time-distortion feelings of our endless plague year. The novel is called Piranesi, it was written by Susanna Clarke, and this summer it almost destroyed my mind (with help from everything else going on in the world, of course). 

Piranesi is available in bookstores this week, but I got an advance copy earlier this summer. Before you get jealous, please know that this was a very double-edged sword. I was certainly excited about it at first. Clarke’s debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is one of my favorite books ever. I use a selection from its prophecy of the Raven King as my Twitter bio (“The rain made a door for me and I went through it. The stones made a throne for me and I sat upon it”) which I feel the need to clarify because no one has ever recognized it. The novel’s immense readability does clash with its intimidating doorstop size. Clocking in at 1000 pages, Strange & Norrell is a true epic that mixes the real-life Napoleonic Wars with an alternate history fantasy of terrifying fairies, dueling magicians, and nameless slaves. Naturally, I expected similar fare from Piranesi, especially since the only other book Clarke has published in the intervening years (The Ladies of Grace Adieu) is a collection of short stories set in the same universe as Strange & Norrell.  

The initial tease for Piranesi, first announced last fall, seemed promising in this regard. This was and is the basic back-cover plot description: “Piranesi has always lived in the House. It has hundreds if not thousands of rooms and corridors, imprisoning an ocean. A watery labyrinth. Once in a while, he sees his friend, The Other, who needs Piranesi for his scientific research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi records his findings in his journal. Then messages begin to appear; all is not what it seems. A terrible truth unravels as evidence emerges of another person and perhaps even another world outside the House’s walls.” 

We’ve got normal words capitalized, mentions of physics-defying phenomena like imprisoned oceans, and the ancient mythic resonance of labyrinths. Sounds like some of that Good Fantasy Stuff, right? It is indeed (there’s even a tight-knit circle of occult academics if that’s your preferred flavor), but we so often associate fantasy with adventure, and Piranesi is the farthest thing from adventure. It’s a trap. 

I won't spoil Piranesi since it’s just out and don’t want to deny others the powerful impact it had on me, but suffice to say it is essentially a story about being trapped inside — both within a physical space and within your own mind. We know the main character as “Piranesi,” but that’s not his birth name. He is dimly aware of this; he just can’t remember what he used to be called. He is called this name by the Other in what soon clarifies as a condescending insult: It is a reference to the 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. The Other tells him that this name is “associated with labyrinths,” because that’s what the House is: An endless succession of nearly-identical halls filled with columns and statues, very easy to get lost in (and the more you lose your way, the more you lose your memories). But the real-life Piranesi’s most famous series of prints isn’t called “Labyrinths,” it’s called Imaginary Prisons. They are fantastical, surreal, reality-defying structures, yes — but they are encircling you, blockading you, jailing you. 

Credit: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Piranesi lives in a place he can’t leave, performing tasks for someone who doesn’t compensate him. That makes him a prisoner, and a slave. One of the things that makes Piranesi so devastating is that its protagonist doesn’t think of himself this way when we meet him. In fact, Piranesi has one of the cheeriest narrators you’ll come across. The novel is almost entirely epistolary, composed of the title character’s journal entries to himself. The opening chapters are exuberant with exploration: The joy of mapping out dozens of different halls, the happy surprise of an albatross’ arrival in the halls, a detailed analysis of the statues that populate the House.

The statues are particularly interesting. No two are alike, and Piranesi eventually deduces that they each represent ideas or concepts from “The Other World” outside of the House (which would be our world, real life, or something like it). His favorite statue, and the one that adorns the cover of the novel, is a faun — that half-human half-goat creature from myth, like Narnia’s Mr. Tumnus or the Greek god Pan. Piranesi tells us that this statue “smiles slightly and presses a forefinger to his lips. I have always felt that he meant to tell me something or perhaps to warn me of something: Quiet! He seems to say. Be careful!” 

He might as well be reminding you to put your mask on before you leave the house. That’s what I’m getting at here: I read Piranesi, a book about being trapped in one place for so long that you lose track of how much time has passed, at a time when I had been in the same place for so long that I was losing track of how much time had passed. Although everyone on Earth has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have surely all experienced it in different ways. I myself have been living through quarantine in New York City, which meant April was a very dark month: Sirens that sounded endless, freezer trucks outside hospitals, hardly anyone leaving their residence besides weekly frightened grocery runs. Like other immunocompromised people, my type 1 diabetes made me even more paranoid about possible sickness. 

That early period contained both the terror and the excitement of the unknown. The clash between Piranesi’s sunny, can-do attitude and the nightmarish reality of his life reminds me a lot of how the early days of quarantine felt. Lockdown was scary from the get go, but those initial weeks had the frisson of disruption. People embarked on projects — baking sourdough bread, organizing Zoom reunions of friends and family that may never have happened otherwise, participating in book clubs — to take our minds off the collective death that surrounded us. 

Credit: Heritage Arts/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Not unlike Piranesi, I myself turned to writing and observation to cling to some kind of sanity. In my case, I decided to watch a ton of movies, making use of the quarantine downtime to finally put my various streaming service subscriptions to use checking off movies I had long meant to watch and never got around to before. In place of a quarantine journal, I have my Letterboxd diary, where I try to write down a few notes or miniature reviews for each film I watch. Piranesi cites two reasons for his own bookkeeping: “The first is that Writing inculcates habits of precision and carefulness. The second is to preserve whatever knowledge I possess for you,” the reader. I don’t know that my movie diary would be useful to anyone else, but when I look back over my entries from the last six months, I can remember what was happening and how I was feeling when I saw and wrote about each movie. 

At the same time, anyone who loves movies knows that they are meant to be seen in a cavernous theater alongside dozens of strangers. Much as I admire the work of Christopher Nolan, I won’t be going to a movie theater again until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine, so all my recent viewings have occurred via streaming service or home video. They were still thoroughly entertaining and intellectually stimulating, but still a lesser version both of moviegoing and human experience — just as the statues in Piranesi are lesser inanimate representations of stories or ideas from elsewhere. After all, the reason I’ve had so much time to watch movies is that I haven’t been spending that time interacting with friends or co-workers. Under these conditions, my grappling with the themes of Blue Velvet or Stalker is not unlike Piranesi trying to analyze the Statue of a Gorilla (“he represents many things, among them Peace, Tranquility, Strength, and Endurance”) or the Statues of Horned Giants, half-embedded in a wall (“they represent Endeavor and the Struggle against a Wretched Fate”). Eventually, Piranesi talks to someone outside the labyrinth, who tells him “here you can only see a representation of a river or a mountain, but in our world — the other world — you can see the actual river and the actual mountain.”

I was eventually reminded of this too. First by the Black Lives Matter protests that arose out of outrage against police killings of Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which brought so many of us outside again to declare our solidarity with each other and scream for justice. Although we now know that precautions taken at those protests prevented a COVID-19 spike, that wasn’t entirely clear at the time, so I kept to the outer edges of crowds while supporting others. Even when I did join a march, it remained within walking distance of my apartment. 

My real escape from my personal labyrinth came last month, when after much preparation and precaution I flew home to the Chicago suburbs to spend a few weeks with my family. Even before reaching the house I grew up in, just driving there from the airport was an astounding experience — looking out the window at the passing buildings and thinking about how I was in A Different Place than the area of Brooklyn where I’d exclusively spent the last half a year. Thankfully I haven’t been alone during these months; although one of my two roommates departed for California early, the other one remained with me, and we saw each other a lot more frequently than Piranesi and The Other (usually on better terms, too). Even so, seeing my sisters and parents again face-to-face (and not just via Zoom screens) was revelatory. 

Alas, it was also brief. I returned to Brooklyn at the end of August, and only just wrapped up my mandatory two weeks of self-isolation required by the state following travel. Until that vaccine arrives, I suspect a lot of us will be coming in and out of our personal labyrinths, seeing people when it’s safe but still isolating best we can from collective activity for the health of everyone. Winter is coming now, so the release valve offered by outdoor, socially-distanced activities in summer weather will soon be gone for a while. Hopefully, by now we can at least remember that we’re not alone in here. 

This has been my individual account of life in 2020, but of course, it has all affected everyone differently.  Even though my pandemic experience has felt mentally torturous at times, I’m well aware that it’s nothing compared to the people who have suffered directly from the ravages of COVID-19, or those who have lost loved ones to it. Almost 200,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus so far, with the number increasing every day. So much death in so little time is a devastating blow to our society. We need to let ourselves grieve for those we’ve lost, and honor their memories. Even those of us who haven’t directly lost loved ones can spend time with the New York Times’ obituary compilation to see these deaths not as an overwhelming statistic but as the individual unique human lives they were.  

Credit: Sarah Lee

This is something else that is present in Piranesi: Caring for the dead. The protagonist goes out of his way to honor the remains of people who have died in the labyrinth — to the point that he often generates confusion by talking about them as if they were still alive. Piranesi knows the difference between a living body and a biscuit-box full of bones, but he also knows (perhaps better than we do) that they are still people. When natural disaster strikes the labyrinth (because an ocean = tides = storms), a top priority for Piranesi is moving the skeletons to protect them from the weather. He talks to one in particular: “Your good looks are gone, but you mustn’t worry about it. This unsightly condition is only temporary. Don’t be sad. Don’t fear. I will place you somewhere where the fish and the birds can strip away all this broken flesh. It will soon be gone. Then you will be a handsome skull and handsome bones. I will put you in good order and you can rest in the Sunlight and the Starlight.” 

Although it is a fraction of the size of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, clocking in with fewer than 250 pages, Piranesi hit my mind and soul like a thunderbolt. It is a work of deep power that has given me a lens through which to understand my 2020 experience — both the despair and the catharsis. I’m glad that it’s widely available now, because the other torturous thing about reading a book whose character can’t communicate to anyone was that I couldn’t talk about it with anyone! This piece is not a blueprint, though. In the manner of great art, I’m sure Piranesi will affect all its readers differently — but this is how it affected me. 

Eventually, towards the end of the story, Piranesi asks an outsider, “what is the Other World like?”

“There are more people,” they respond. 

Indeed there are, and one day we’ll all be able to see each other again, out there in the sunlight and the starlight.  

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