Raymond Roussel, trans. from the French by Rupert Copeland Cunningham. New Directions, $14.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2645-5
At his expansive estate on the outskirts of Paris, brilliant and eccentric scientist Martial Canterel leads a group of visitors on a tour through seven jarring, otherworldly exhibits that combine alchemical techniques with strange objects of fascination. Originally published in 1914, Roussel’s extraordinary novel still feels fresh more than a hundred years later; John Ashbery, Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, and Michel Foucault have all cited it as a major influence.
Narrated by an unnamed colleague of Canterel’s, the story follows an episodic structure that feels like walking through a private museum, taking time to soak in the works, before reading a detailed program of the show. Each stop of the tour opens portals into meta-fictional worlds where Roussel makes use of his full arsenal of rhetorical gifts. An African statue stands under three colorful reliefs depicting a young girl, a one-eyed puppet, and a jester dressed in pink beside a marble slab. A complicated device that relies on weather patterns places decayed teeth into a massive mosaic. A clear tank resembling an enormous precious stone is filled with mystically oxygenated water that allows for underwater breathing; inside, a beautiful actress plays music by flicking her head to make her hairs resonate, while seven self-automated Cartesian divers plunge up and down in reenactments of seemingly unrelated historical events, and a hairless cat powers the whole show using a metallic horn. Behind glass partitions, eight recently deceased subjects—reanimated by a special a concoction of Canterel’s—go through the motions of their most important memories.
Although explanations of each exhibit’s intricate mechanics can be tedious, Roussel opens up the narrative at the end of each chapter to enter the lives of Canterel’s subjects—many of these can be read as complete stories in their own right. Some tales within the tale are the product of Roussel’s imagination: an ancient French king, approaching death, melts down his crown and hides it in an enchanted cave where only his daughter will be able to go; a dwarf, afflicted with a condition that makes him sweat blood, attempts to trick the people of his town by making them think his sweating as a sign of the harvest to come. Others are references to actual people, events, or legends: Voltaire, on a walk with Frederick the Great, questions his atheism after seeing a young girl at prayer; a fatigued Atlas drops the world and, out of frustration, kicks Capricorn to create the constellation’s strange shape. Much like the writers he would influence, Roussel concerned himself with ideas that proved too expansive for straightforward techniques. Both a guide to a deranged scientist’s estate and a prism for refracting Roussel’s diverse stories, this incredible novel is somehow both Gothic and modern at the same time. (Mar.)
Seth Satterlee is a reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.
Reviewed on: 10/24/2016
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