The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
(Morrow, $24.95, 307 pages, hardback; published June 4 2002.)
In Victorian Manhattan, fashionable
Piero Piambo receives a most unusual commission. His client, Mrs. Charbuque,
demands that he paint her portrait without ever once setting eyes upon
her or upon any other likeness of her; instead, she will sit for him
only behind a screen, telling him tales about herself from which he
must attempt to deduce her appearance. Piambo would of course normally
reject such a nonsensical commission out of hand -- he has plenty of
rich potential clients drooling to give him their business -- but the
fee Mrs. Charbuque offers is an enormous one and, perhaps even more
important, the challenge is so unique that it inspires a jaded Piambo,
although at first he is not fully conscious of this, to revert to the
ideals of art he embraced so passionately in his youth, before cynicism
and commerce turned him into the darling of the well heeled chic set
he is today.
The tales Mrs. Charbuque relates over and through the screen are almost
beyond -- sometimes completely beyond -- belief, and yet Piambo, while
knowing at one level that they are not to be accepted at face value,
is driven to try to research what he can of the facts behind them, and
uncomfortably often his researches seem to show that the tales may,
after all, be true. It is as if the tales' fantastication itself is
giving him the gift of art in place of the slick picture-manufacture
at which he has become so adroit -- or, rather, that they are forcing
him to regain what he once had but discarded. And real life intrudes
all too bluntly on occasion upon his dreamlike obsession with these
strands of fantasy that have come to dominate his perceptions: there
seems to be a Mr. Charbuque, who is none too keen on Piambo's assignations
with his, Mr. Charbuque's, wife. Piambo's mistress is not especially
pleased, either. It is of no use for Piambo to protest that, far from
engaging in amorous congress with his sitter, far from even touching
her, he has yet to clap so much as a fleeting glimpse upon her; partially
false, too, for him to protest too much, because the truth is that there's
a decidedly erotic element in his fascination with the voice that tells
him these wild stories.
Not all of the tales have equal charm. The tale of the seer who bases
his divinations upon the morphologies of snowflakes, and who one day
is confounded to discover two of them impossibly identical, is exceedingly
beautiful. That of his copromantic counterpart ("turdologist", to use
Ford's term), who is thrown into consternation by discovering two identical
turds, comes across not so much as a delightful flight of fancy as profoundly
unfunny schoolboy scatological humour masquerading as arch wit behind
a gauze of elegant articulacy.
But that elegance is truly remarkable. Consider this:
"How did you know it was me?" I called after him.
Before he disappeared into the night, I heard him say, "The
smell of self-satisfaction; a pervasive aroma of nutmeg and mold."
Or this, concerning a numerological system:
An abracadabra of addition, division, and multiplication
would follow, capped off by the subtraction of the digit one hundred
forty-four, the numerical constant for human error.
Or this, describing a professional lockpicker:
"There is no ring of keys," said Wolfe. "I'm the ring of
keys." He held up his open hand, knuckle side out, before my face. It
was a rather squat, round mitt, the fingers like sausages, but from
their tips grew exceedingly long nails that had been precisely trimmed
to the thinnest width. At their very ends, those of the pinky and ring
bearer were cut in a serrated pattern, the thumb bore a three-inch hat
pin, and the remaining index and middle sported eruptions of nail that
evidently would fit a lock's baffle.
(There's also the occasional instance where the conscious stylistic
elegance trips up over its own two feet, as in this: "Upon voicing my
question, the door opened and Watkin announced that my time was up.")
I'm quite certain that the term "magic realism" will be bandied about
quite widely concerning this book, and indeed it does have a strong
magic realist feel -- which is in no way diminished by the serial-killer
aspects of its real-world plot. However, its concerns seem to be somewhere
else entirely; one should look for similarities not among the magic
realist writers but instead to a writer like John Barth, obsessed with
the power of Story in such novels as The Last Voyage of Somebody
the Sailor (1992). For really the real-world elements of The
Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque -- dramatic as they become, personally
threatening to Piambo as they are -- fade almost into insignificance
in our minds as well as his beside the Story-empowered alternative truth
that Mrs. Charbuque creates. The real world becomes just a jostle of
trivial stories; hers is Story, and therefore truer --
even though, as with its creator, for it to be perceived (which it can
be) one must strain to perceive the invisible.
Which is, of course, something at the very core of human fantasy.
Despite any minor criticisms, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
must be one of the best novels of 2002. The fact that Ford has chosen
to use fantasy as a means of investigating fantasy is of course its
appeal to die-hard fantasy readers; but really this is a novel of interest
to all, whatever their normal literary palate. This novel is a deftly
constructed creation every bit as lovely as any of the invisible sitter's
flights of fancy. The sense of it -- its air -- lingers long in the
mind, and is welcome there.
Review by John Grant.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: