Story, Architecture, Piranesi
Updated: Oct 22
Story and architecture have at least this in common: they create, not exactly an experience, but the possibility of experiences.
A good story - a good story for me, your mileage may vary - is first and foremost a new place to visit. When I'm writing, I think in terms of showing new lands to my readers, and those lands shouldn't look too much like the place they have Instragrammed only last weekend.
The best stories don't spoon-feed us meanings and values, because then they would be deciding exactly what kind of experience we are supposed to have; but neither they give us only the manic thrill of pure action, for the same reason. Allegories are not my jam, and neither are hamster-wheel stories, in which readers run and run without ever getting anywhere. The best stories open up a new vista and let us play there.
The best buildings do the same. They enfold emptiness to create a place where we can play and make art and work and cry; where we can seek refuge or go to battle. Buildings, like stories, are contexts.
Consciously or not, writers have always been aware of this kinship. Architecture is everywhere in literature: haunted houses, futuristic palaces, office blocks. Then along comes Susanna Clarke, with her new, slim, book, Piranesi, and rewrites the rules.
Piranesi is a story, a cathedral, a possibility of who knows how many marvellous experiences. It's an unholy mess of architecture, metaphysics, human longings and sheer strangeness which shouldn't work and yet it does. As a reader, it makes me excited, and as an author, it makes me jealous (and also excited).
Ms Clarke is a show-off: one of the greatest writers working today, she achieved more with her first book than most of us do in a whole career, and then she built up from there.
Long may she keep on building.