By Jean-Christophe Valtat
For all the complaining by genre authors about being pigeonholed, the fact is genre fiction likes labels. Fans want to know exactly what it is they are getting. Indeed, dig a little deeper into any genre and you’ll start finding sub-categories strictly marked out. The cozy vs. the hard-boiled mystery, for example, or, in the SF universe, “hard” SF, cyberpunk, slipstream, and steampunk.
The last is a label referring to SF/Fantasy fiction set in an alternative nineteenth century, and it has been applied somewhat freely to Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama (Valtat himself rejects it, in part because the novel doesn’t feature the use of steam power). Steampunk is a curious amalgam of the past and future, a speculative re-imagination of the historical novel that takes us back to the century of that form’s invention. For SF writers the importance of the industrial revolution and the rise of the machine no doubt contribute something to the attraction, but I think that’s only part of the story. Back in 2002 I wrote an essay on historical fiction (you can read it here) that suggested the appeal of this period might also lie in “the re-creation of a world where the novel mattered (note how many historical novels are set in the nineteenth century), [thus enacting] the revenge of the book – a technology currently being written out of history.” Valtat is more eloquent on this score:
the 19th century is a time where extravagant beauty could be enjoyed without guilt or second thought. It is moreover my theory that all writers belong, more or less consciously, to the 19th century, that time when literature was taken (too?) seriously and regarded as able to educate, elevate, delight and even change life. Perhaps that is what we are missing, too. After all steampunk writers may not be more nostalgic about the 19th century than people who like to read a novel by Balzac or Dickens, or a poem by Hopkins or Rimbaud. Perhaps it’s a certain idea of literature as a power that we are nostalgic about.
The nineteenth century, at least with the benefit of hindsight, was pre- so much. Most notably, I think, it was pre-WWI, a time before Europe committed suicide and America became the undisputed global hegemon. Aurorarama is set in the magical Arctic city of New Venice, a place with a distinctively European flavour (and just a dash of Japanoiserie). But while all Europe seems to have gone into making up New Venice (“the quintessence of what Mankind was all about”), the United States (now placing their dibs on our melting pole, and everything beneath it) is almost entirely absent. Bliss was it in that dusk to be alive! The nineteenth century saw itself as having evolved beyond politics and having experienced its own end of history. And so New Venice is not the town that time forgot so much as the town that wants to forget time. Witnessing a public demonstration, one of the characters is made to feel present during
a piece of history in a city that had always strived to keep out of history, nay, a city whose very aim, as proved by the Seven Sleepers’ decision to reverse Time and impose an “After Backward” calendar, was to avoid it at all costs.
Of course, it couldn’t last. As the reference to the diktat of the Seven Sleepers indicates, New Venice is both a dream state and a model of repressive state control. I don’t recall seeing the bocche dei leoni, but there are sinister Gentlemen of the Night (“dressed to kill in top hats and Inverness coats, their dreaded sword-canes in hand”) keeping tabs on the populace and breaking heads. And of course the army is always on call if the natives start getting restless. It is with some wistfulness that one reads of a time when socialism (and not just “real existing socialism”) was still a Utopian dream, religion (even the fanatic and fundamentalist kind) wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and terrorists – anarchists and suffragettes here – were the good guys.
As for the dreaming part, Valtat constantly works in references to the Arctic being a place not quite real. The pole itself is a fantasy, a hollow point one can never arrive at. The crystal castle and caves of Crocker Land don’t even exist all the time. New Venice, in turn, is the dream city par excellence, appearing blanketed in snow “as if the city were dreaming about itself and crystallizing both that dream and the ethereal unreality of it.” No maritime republic, its real wealth is “imaginal wealth, the generosity of dreams, the ever springing fountain of the inner eye, coming from sensory deprivation in the night and in the snow, a culture of fata morgana and aurora borealis.” Scenes play out under hypnosis, in dream chambers, in drug-induced hallucinatory states, in trances, as visions seen in magic mirrors and mirages beneath the polar sky.
All of this makes New Venice seem, if not the quintessence of what Mankind was all about, perhaps its collective unconscious: “a city made to fulfill all appetites . . . in itself a fulfilled appetite, or a dream come true.” As with any such fantasy, it is a pastiche of weird borrowings and free-range connotations. These go from the costumes (the New Venetian dandy favours “black double-breasted frock coat, floppy cravat, and Regency collar”) to a use of language that emphasizes puns, allusions, and other misdirecting signposts. The other-worldly architecture of New Venice is typical in its eclecticism (and worth quoting at length for the energy, precision, rhythm, and inventiveness of its prose):
They were now entering the centre of the city, an off-white grid of frozen canals and deserted avenues, lined with impressive Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings. In the twilight, their incongruous stuccoed, statue-haunted silhouettes, rising darker against the darkening horizon, gave the eerie impression that they had been cast down from the sky like palaces from another planet. You could not, by any stretch of the mind, imagine an architecture less adapted to its surroundings. An Ideal City punished and banished to the Far North for its marble hubris, it loomed titanic and mad, its boulevards, arches, and palaces a playground for the caterwauling draughts that sharpened their claws on its flaking façades. And as it did almost every day in late winter, that typical moist fog known to the locals as cake was now seeping everywhere, slowly dimming the scene in a way that gave Brentford the impression that, too tired to will themselves further into existence, the very buildings evaporated, fading like the ghosts of their own unlikely splendor.
The Air Architecture of the Arctic defies sense. If there is a logic to the plot of Aurorarama it is the logic of the imagination. At least one reader will confess to having had trouble following what was going on, or what was “really” happening as opposed to what was only being dreamed. Some elements, like the Phantom Patrol (who even do a Pynchon-on-Ice song-and-dance number) and the Macropus Maritimus Maximus or Polar Kangaroo, seem pure polar moonshine. Which doesn’t make them any less real.
If I could supply another label of my own to go with some of the others that have been thrown at it, I would like to call Aurorarama a great Canadian novel. Not just because the hero hails from Nova Scotia, or because New Venice itself seems to be located somewhere in our icy waters, but for the book’s sensibility. The ménage of Old World and native peoples, the “poletics” of British understatement and noblesse cross-bred with French passive aggression, the survivalist/garrison mentality of New Venice, and the various nods to polar explorers (those giants of our own national unconscious), combined with all of the richness of its mythical thinking, give Valtat’s work as much the feel of an imaginative guide to CanLit as an alternative pre-modern history. I think it perfectly fair and justified that we claim this Frenchman writing in English and published in the U.S. as one of our own.
Review first published online January 24, 2011.