All Labyrinths Are Queer, Actually
Or, a review of Susanna Clarke's Piranesi, kindof
Publication Date: September 2020
Attributes: adult fiction, short novel, general fiction
Tags: The Plot Is The Myth, protagonist with amnesia, labyrinths, vaguely bisexual, fantastic travelogue
The trouble with queer specfic: It's nearly impossible to filter for it without setting some arbitrary constraints.
Both “queer” and “specfic” are two categories both wildly broad and obnoxiously debated.
Specfic itself is gigantic, covering every genre as long as the writer applies the right type of speculation. (What's the right type? Good luck getting a consistent answer on that one.) And academics have argued that queer covers everything from dyed-in-the-wool ~HoMoSeXuAlS~ to robots that look at you with a certain je ne sais quoi. The queer community tries to narrow that, but then you end up with arguments that some gay people aren't queer, and asexual people aren't queer, and... and... and....
In fiction, you end up with months-long fandom debates about, say, what it takes to queer-validate a popular media property depicting two immortal beings who don't really jive with gender but do present as men and have essentially lived as life partners for millennia. Do they have to kiss on screen? Is holding hands enough? Does a cheeky slip of an implied handhold juuuust out of viewer sights count as queer, or queerbaiting?
All of this to say, Piranesi isn't queer by a lot of definitions. Okay, yes, the main character does lovingly detail the sartorial choices of a man he repeatedly calls “handsome.” But many would say the author's refusal to use on-the-page identifiers or depict romance or mention the gender of past lovers — however plot implausible — disqualifies it from queerness.
I'm writing about it here anyway. One, because I feel like it. Two, because I'm not really interested in a “textual gate-keeping definition of queer.” Three, because I've never read a truly straight book about getting lost in a labyrinth, and I'm not going to start with this one. (A labyrinth, as with a book, is just as much about what you bring into it as it is about what's already there.)
For people who came for a proper review, I'll say this: Piranesi is a puzzle of a book, and its unraveling is a delight. The story is told in the form of journals written by a man who lives in a great labyrinth. The format is deeply relational: Instead of Julian dates, the writer marks time by important things that occur; he tells time and space from the goings of inexplicable tides and grand statues. The unnamed narrator knows the halls of the labyrinth better than he knows himself. In fact, he does not even know his own name, in the beginning.
The journey is as much about discovering the world-truth as it is discovering the narrator; the two are well-twined. As he learns more about himself, the mystery draws him to places beyond the labyrinth.
Fans of Patricia A. McKillip will enjoy a more restrained approach to a similar storytelling ethos. (I never read Clarke's beloved 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, so I can't say how that compares.)
Though there is a “plot,” and a “mystery,” and a sort of “battle” between some people who mean the narrator harm and some people who hope to help him, the book is as much meandering travelogue and fable-esque architectural digest as it is a linear narrative.
It joins a long line of delightful fiction that serves as an ode to the people who feel lured to imagined worlds. This one also follows many of my favorite pieces, which are interested more in getting lost than getting to a destination.
More like this: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, much by Patricia A. McKillip, Imaginary Prisons: Giovanni Battista Piranesi Prints
Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.