November 2004

Randy Schaub

fiction

Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey

Edward Carey’s novel Observatory Mansions looms over the reader like the decrepit building in the title. The story is clothed in shadows and mold, its population of lonely shut-ins bleeding regret and longing as they stumble nervously through the dimly lit corridors of their prison. Observatory Mansions, certainly one of the greatest books I’ve read in the last five years, is a book about people and their objects (or objects and their people -- the line is indistinct). Carey writes with gothic formality, narrating the story through the person of one Francis Orme, the young heir to a once proud and thriving clan whose ancestral home, Observatory Mansions, is now a run down stack of flats populated by seven forgotten souls. The story begins when news of a new resident reaches the ears of the inhabitants, and their uncomfortable but predictable lives are threatened by the prospect of change.

The books central preoccupation with the distinction between the world of the living and the inanimate seeps into view as we meet the characters: Mr. and Mrs. Orme, the protagonist’s parents, exist as little more than furniture during the novels first pages, still and emotionless, gathering dust -- only after the stranger’s arrival do they show signs of life. There is the stranger, Miss Anna Tap, who is herself struggling against a sort of reverse version of this evolution that causes her eyes to harden slowly but inevitably into wood. There is Peter Bugg, a schoolmaster whose formerly well controlled life was shattered by the loss of a family heirloom, and Twenty, a woman whose sole possession, a dog collar, defines her very behavior. There are others as well, but chief among them is our hero, Francis Orme. Francis is a professional statue -- a man imitating an object which imitates a man. He is the curator of his own private museum of “significant objects," a series of stolen items which Francis chooses based on how well loved they were. We get glimpses of Francis’ collection throughout the story:

"Lot 1: a till receipt.

"Being the property (briefly) of either: 1- a bus conductor; 2- an inventor’s assistant; 3- a pregnant housewife; 4- a policeman; 5- an air hostess; 6- a rat catcher; 7- a street cleaner; 8- a trumpeter; 9- a kindergarten teacher; 10- a cloakroom attendant; 11- a pigeon fancier; 12- a head librarian; 13- a jukebox maker; 14- a boy who committed matricide.

"(All of the above have been most thoroughly considered.)"

Note above another of Carey’s conceits: the use of lists. Repetitive sentence structure and lists appear throughout the story. This serves to enhance the neurotic quality of the narrator, his obsessive attention to order and detail. Here’s another favorite example: "My mother’s bedroom contained a mother, a bed, books, paintings, photographs, hats, shoes, mirrors, knickers, bras, magazines, gramophone discs, empty bottles, umbrellas, pressed flowers, teacups, sherry glasses, a man’s wristwatch, a walking stick, an abacus, and many other things besides."

And this is where the real story of Observatory Mansions lies: in the writing. Edward Carey has a unique voice, a calm, somehow snake-like quality that slips around the reader and entertains even as it disturbs him. The novel marches on Frankenstein feet through a tunnel of bizarre settings and bleak moods, all related in careful, simple words through the singularly bizarre Francis Orme. Carey’s characters are flagged as surreal by his Dickensian choice of names (Bugg, Tap, Higg, etc.), but they are made living through Carey’s well observed knowledge of behavior and visual detail. The main character’s quirks pile up before the reader, adding dimension to his experience. Here’s a bit of what I mean:

"Later that same summer, Anna came up to me in flat six and told me that my bottom lip was swollen. I knew this very well, I was entirely aware of every feature, handsome and not so handsome, on my thirty-seven-year-old body. Anna held in her hand a small tube of cream. I bought this for you, she said. It is for your lip, it will stop the swelling. I held the tube of lip cream in my white hands. For a few moments I considered it and then said: I can’t accept this. I mustn’t get cream, whether it’s white or transparent, on my fingers."

Francis breathes after a detail like this. I’ll bet, when reading the above passage, that you didn’t even question the existence of "lip cream."

Carey himself has even peppered the book with illustrations of his players. Illustrations are a rare treat in modern novels, and Carey’s drawing style -- stark grays deepened by cross-hatching, reminds the reader of early twentieth century etchings from which Carey draws much inspiration. I am reminded, when reading Edward Carey, of the similarly-named Edward Gorey, who is most certainly a crucial influence. Carey’s short, declarative sentences, repeated in succession (I was not a waiter. I was not a magician. I was the attendant of a museum…), resemble the nightmarish faux-children’s-book style of Gorey’s best work. I remember, after having finished this novel, immediately rereading my old copy of Gorey’s The Insect God, and finding that the general style agreed well with that of Observatory Mansions.

But don’t let my rambling put you off. Observatory Mansions is a love story, a character study, an allegory, and a horror novel all at once. I couldn’t think of a single reader to whom I wouldn’t recommend this gem, though certainly fans of Kafka, VanderMeer, Walser, and Gorey would be most intensely entertained. The book is a few years old now, so you may have to dig for it, but the true brilliance of this book will last longer than any of schlock on the best seller shelves. Observatory Mansions will itself become a prized item on your shelf, a target of your obsession -- a significant object for your exhibit.

Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey
Vintage
ISBN: 0375709231
368 Pages