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The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque

by Jeffrey Ford

(Morrow, $24.95, 307 pages, hardback; published June 4 2002.)

In Victorian Manhattan, fashionable cover scanportraitist 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.

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