Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (substantial spoilers)

This was a charming, thoughtful, often whimsical story full of a deep horror that at times wholly unnerved me. I’ll be discussing many key plot points and revelations.

For the most part set in a house of near innumerable rooms, the book Piranesi takes on the character of its almost eponymous protagonist. The man whom The Other calls “Piranesi” is quiet, compassionate and curious. He is keen to explore and to help. He is systematic and practical. He is sensitive and inquiring. Yet he is wholly oblivious to the pressing questions of his circumstance.

The House is vast and full of statues and to Piranesi (as we will call him) it is exactly as he names it: a house. To everybody else, the house is called a labyrinth. We see the house through Piranesi’s eyes and so we see nothing labyrinthine about it, other than it has unexplored sections. We never truely learn the layout of the many floors, halls, staircases and vestibules (and it may even be literally infinite) but Piranesi’s systemic descriptions imply a grid pattern — which may not be literally the case but the house is sufficiently structured as to benefit from such a description.

The only labyrinthine aspect that Piranesi highlights is the room with eight statues of minotaurs. We learn later that this room is where visitors to the house first enter. While you really can’t get a better way of symbolising a labyrinth without showing a labyrinth than a minotaur, it is notable that the presence of the minotaur at the entrance simultaneously contradicts what it means to evoke. The minotaur (singular) is at the centre of his labyrinth, to put one at the entrance (never mind eight of them) is a correction: you might think this a labyrinth but it is not.

The book plays with and keeps dismissing the myth of Minos’s prison. When a Theseus character finally finds their way to the monster trapped within in it is to rescue the quiet and hopelessly non-violent Piranesi. And while heroic, Sarah Raphael is otherwise not Theseus-like nor does Piranesi want to be rescued.

Central to this is that The House is misunderstood by all but Piranesi and that Piranesi has no idea where he is. This is important because throughout the book presents us with a problem: Laurence Arne-Sayles is correct, at least to a degree but is also the epitome of brilliantly wrong thinker who builds an abusive cult around himself. It is possible to re-conceptualise the whole book as a delusion of a victim of Arne-Sayles’s cult (or rather the victim of one of his former devotees, Valentine Ketterley) but I don’t think that reading makes much sense. The House is real (within the story) and is another world and it can be accessed by the very means that Arne-Sayles says that it can be accessed. We are even told there is video of the house made by Sylvia D’Agostino — another brilliant mind caught within Arne-Sayles’s orbit and possibly another of the skeleton’s tenderly looked after by Piranesi.

Early on in the book, I had already started considering how to lead off this review and I thought that the best approach would be to begin with one of the theme’s of this blog: collecting bad ideas. You never find a clear demarcation which helps distinguish which claims made by cleverish people who push absurdities are their genuine beliefs and which are merely intended to confuse and con others. People like Eliezer Yudkowsky, Mencius Moldbug, and Nick Land for example or the Marxists-turned-Libertarians that where the Revolutionary Communist Party or Ayn Rand & her cut-price imitators or Scientology or the pseudo-academics of Jordan Peterson. It’s a mistake to regard these people as stupid because they often make use of effective part-truths about the world and elevate them into falsehoods. Yet they also consistently misunderstand their own revelations.

Clarke takes this point and gives it a fantastical twist. Arne-Sayles (and Ketterley) do not understand and indeed deeply misunderstand nor can they make the mental leaps needed to understand. Yet (within the book) they are correct that there are other worlds that they can access. Having genuinely discovered a way to another reality, they still cannot escape from being pseudo-intellectual fraudsters and abusers (and probably murderers and certainly kidnappers). So they see The House as a labyrinth (mysterious, confusing but with a single route through to its heart) but Piranesi sees The House as both a benefactor and a territory — open, with many routes and no meaningful centre.

These reversals of perspective are throughout the book. Piranesi appears to mirror the poor soul in Plato’s metaphor of the cave. His perception of our real world is mediated through his understanding of the statues within The House. He can comprehend the non-referential world ‘university’ because he has seen statues of scholars and can imagine a place where they might gather, for example. Yet this is wholly wrong, as Piranesi points out. The statues are ideals, it is our world that reflects them poorly. He isn’t in Plato’s cave, he is outside the cave perceiving the abstract ideals of the Platonic reality.

Piranesi himself reminds me a great deal of the protagonists in Ted Chiang’s stories Exhalation and Omphalos. ‘Rationally’ is perhaps misleading as a term, but he does act systematically in his understanding and exploration of a world built on utterly different premises to our own. He embraces what might be dismissively seen to be pre-rational thought of regarding everything about him as having agency (a key point in Arne-Sayle’s more cultish beliefs) but not without cause and not typically in a way that serves him poorly. He is both passive and not passive at all because we expect our protagonist in a similar situation to be like The Doctor in Heaven Sent, the episode where Stephen Moffat traps him in a similar ocean-trapped castle for a near eternity.

Those four paragraphs are where my review was originally heading part way through the book. I’d have written some more about labyrinths, The Tombs of Atuan, and possibly the books of John Crowley. Suffice to say, the book had lots of things in it that are very much my jam.

The horror undertone was always there. Even before it was made explicit, there was good reason to think Piranesi may not have ended up in the house of his own free-will and the motives of The Other were deeply dubious. As more is revealed, the sinister aspect of the story becomes stronger. This is very slow horror, horror as understated as it can be and still be horror. It is a very gentle story of kidnapping and psychological abuse. I often find horror unnerving and I tend not to seek out and by horror I guess I mean ‘things that I find unnerving’ (e.g. ‘Alien’ is creepy but unnerving).

So I found this bit creepier than you might and I couldn’t say why:

I approached. Too late I realised that the pebbles formed shapes. Words! Words made by 16! Before I had time to tear my eyes away I had read the entire message! In letters approximately 25 centimetres high it said: ARE YOU MATTHEW ROSE SORENSEN?

Clarke, Susanna. Piranesi (p. 161). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The idea that 16 might send him mad with their words was originally humorous but I found Piranesi’s fear here quite palpable. It was not that this was a plot twist (the revelation had been signalled and clearly Piranesi was somebody with a real-world name they had forgotten) but rather that it was clear that 16’s words really might (unwittingly and without malice) genuinely undo Piranesi. The Other had deceived but not lied in saying 16’s words might make him mad.

It also felt like the book was addressing the reader at this point. Piranesi (up to this point) was something of an everyman and if we misread The House as Plato’s cave (instead of the opposite) then there is a rhetorical edge to the question. Are we not all trapped in a strange reality just trying to make do and wondering when we might get better shoes?

It was later the book really started disturbing me:

“Matthew Rose Sorensen is the English son of a half-Danish, half-Scottish father and a Ghanaian mother. He originally studied mathematics, but his interest soon migrated (via the philosophy of mathematics and the history of ideas) to his current field of study: transgressive thinking. He is writing a book about Laurence Arne-Sayles, a man who transgressed against science, against reason and against law.

Clarke, Susanna. Piranesi (p. 164). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Well I’m not Danish-Scottish-Ghanaian but hell, I do study transgressive thinking (as a hobby, not academically) and I did get their via the philosophy of maths after studying mathematics. That was a bit of a creepy goosebumps moment after finding the “ARE YOU MATTHEW ROSE SORENSEN?” line more evocative than it looked.

That was followed up with a set of titles of articles:

‘Timey-Wimey: Steven Moffat, Blink and J. W. Dunne’s theories of Time’, Journal of Space, Time and Everything, Volume 64: 42–68, University of Minnesota Press
‘“The circles that you find in the windmills of your mind”: The Importance of Labyrinths in Laurence Arne-Sayles’s Exploitation of his Adherents’, Review of Psychedelia and the Counterculture, Volume 35, issue 4
‘The Gargoyle on the Cathedral Roof: Laurence Arne-Sayles and Academia’, Intellectual History Quarterly, Volume 28: 119–152, Manchester University Press
Outsider Thinking: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, pub. 31 May 2012
‘Time-travelling Architecture’: article on Paul Enoch and Bradford for the Guardian, 28 July 2012

Clarke, Susanna. Piranesi (p. 165). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

I’ve never written blogposts with exactly those titles but I felt like the book was now rifling through my head just to creep me out. I mean I didn’t use ‘“The circles that you find in the windmills of your mind” to describe the fictional Laurence Arne-Sayles a weird creepy cultish academic, I used “Les Moulins de Mon Cœur” to describe the actual Jordan Peterson a weird creepy cultish academic. Yes, yes, obviously a coincidence but a coincidence like an animal howl in the darkness outside while you are watching a horror film. Its the closest I’ll ever get to a jump-scare while reading a bibliography.

The smugness of Matthew Rose-Sorensen, who Arne-Sayles describes as “an arrogant little shit” lies in the certainty of his own critical facilities. He’s still the hero so to speak but he’s utterly undone by his own lack of caution. The genre savvy reader knows better than to split up and explore the basement or skip over quarantine procedure or ignore the dark warnings of the local about the creature on the moor, so here is a horror story where we would blithely walk into the supernatural trap and find ourselves destroyed.

This is a brilliant book but it is not a book I have any critical distance from. I got far too embroiled in its traps and temptations. It caught me. It had my number from the start and tricked me into wandering in without caution.

8 thoughts on “Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (substantial spoilers)

  1. Ha, I just posted my review of it here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2020/10/scififantasy-book-review-piranesi-by.html

    Maybe I’m just not a horror person to really feel that horrified by it, or to find the Moffat reference more than just a bit more than an easter egg. But I didn’t love it as much as others, feeling that Piranesi’s viewpoint was kind of clear and less interesting by a point well before the end (and got more interesting once he is “rescued”). I was more interested in Raphael and in how she seems to find something in Piranesi’s world, making them a pair of contrasts: She with her feet in the real world but drawn to his world while he has his feet in the other world but finds himself feeling obligated to try to stay in reality and to protect her from getting lost within his own.

    I kind of wish we got to see some parts from her perspective, maybe even from perhaps a journal or something she had written down, to see how it all progressed. But we never can, and I wanted that a lot more.

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    1. I think it is fascinating that we didn’t get more of Raphael. Even more so given the dual perspectives of Norrel&Strange. There’s a whole other book their of this detective (with hints of a big backstory – that whole thing with the fire and her fear of heights and so on) digging into the mystery of Poor James Ritter etc. It feels like a very deliberate choice or maybe Clarke just couldn’t get that much longer book finished (or maybe we’ll get a sequel that is the same story just from her perspective).

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  2. “I got far too embroiled in its traps and temptations. It caught me. It had my number from the start and tricked me into wandering in without caution.”

    ‘Don’t disappear.’ I tell you sternly. ‘Do NOT disappear.’

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just finished reading this. I was kind of assuming that the House was benign most of the way through, but the last line really conjured up echoes of Big Brother, and that has quite discombobulated me.

    Liked by 1 person

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