By Edward Carey
Observatory Mansions is a dark fantasy about a young man who collects bits and pieces of other people’s lives and puts them into an exhibition he keeps stored in his basement. As a novel it is also a bit of an exhibition, and one of the richest fictional creations to come out of England in recent years.
In part it is a haunted house story. The Mansions of the title are all that is left of the Orme family’s once-great country estate, Tearsham Park. The stables have been paved, the servants all dismissed, and what is left is a dingy, dilapidated home for freaks and oddballs with a ghost in the cellar.
The house is a symbol of the Orme family’s falling fortunes. Like many another haunted house – Poe’s House of Usher, Jackson’s Hill House – it is imagined as having a life of its own, though in Edward Carey’s world the form it takes is that of a flabby, constipated old man. The porter is likened to an inefficiently operating sphincter, and the place is said to be in perpetual danger of pyloric stenosis.
The inhabitants of the apartments in the Mansions comprise a gallery of grotesques (Carey, who is also an illustrator, includes a number of his own drawings). The hero of the story, Francis Orme, lives in one apartment with his virtually catatonic parents. Francis has learned the art of “inner stillness” from his father, and works as an imitation dummy in a wax museum and a living statue in a public square. Other residents include a woman who thinks she is a dog, another who can’t tell the difference between television and reality, and a retired schoolteacher who is perpetually leaking sweat and tears.
They are all shut-ins, hiding from any contact with the outside world or each other. The house itself is located on a traffic island in the middle of the city, making it hard to get in and out of. Francis always wears white cotton gloves to avoid having anything touch his skin. If one of his gloves gets as much as a speck of dirt on it he carefully files it away in his “glove diary” and breaks out a new pair.
Crazy? Yes, but Francis has a different way of looking at things:
I liked to think of these people as pure people, as concentrated people, or, to put it another way, as how everyday people would be if they were subtracted from work, friends, family and all the motions of life which we are told we should take part in.
This is, of course, a very sick view of humanity. These “pure people” aren’t fully human at all, but only the objects of some mad scientist’s study. Observatory Mansions spins a twisted fiction out of this obsessive-compulsive urge to observe.
The Mansions take their name from a telescope that used to sit on the roof, and Carey makes much of the way a telescope turned end-for-end becomes a magnifying glass. Francis’s father is nearly driven insane when he sees insects under a microscope. The Mansions present life in the same way, not looking out at the world of “friends, family and all the motions of life,” but rather exposing the small, secret worlds within.
Francis’s job as a living statue is typical of the way the book works. People become objects, and objects, like the items that Francis collects for his weird Exhibition of Love, are invested with special emotional meaning. The exhibition’s catalogue (reproduced as an appendix) is an inventory of fetish, and Observatory Mansions may well be the great anal-retentive novel. Pyloric stenosis isn’t just a metaphor for what is happening to the house.
Things begin to get interesting when a newcomer to the Mansions, Anna Tap, tries to pry the residents out of their shells before she is herself shut in by blindness. To his credit, Carey doesn’t play the relationship between Anna and Francis as a simple story of redemption. The purity of their romance is too dark with ambiguity to allow for any happy endings.
Observatory Mansions is Carey’s first novel, and it provides an excellent showcase for his peculiar vision. The world he describes is not realistic, but distorted. His characters are like the giant bugs seen under a microscope: the real made unreal, unsettling, and uncanny. It is a wonderful bit of weirdness and a very impressive debut.
Review first published May 26, 2001.