Reading: THE SWAN GONDOLA by Timothy Schaffert

As always, my reviews are as much to do with my personal blather-babble as they are the book, but feel free to skip my blogtherapy session to the bold-faced headline below where discussion of The Swan Gondola actually begins in earnest. Not that my personal revelations aren’t in earnest. Oh, they are. Still, no doubt, you have something to do on Valentine’s Day, unlike me.

PS: I suppose you could say there is a spoiler within.

Schaffert, Swan Gondola

I have started this entry four times from four different angles and I have promised myself no matter how weak this opening sentence  – and I hate it already – it will be the sentence for which I click publish.

I am usually not so careful. I blog daily. A lot. A thousand words is a sneeze for me blog-wise. I blog as an exercise. I blog to get my fingers and my brain and my soul lubed up. Blog entries I can finish. Blog entries are unto those casual conversations I have with people I barely know, rarely see, in coffee shops when we recognize one another and it’s only polite to chat. Blog entries are a blessed relief from spending days at a time trying to shape one sentence – hell, to find that ONE WORD for that one sentence – in the effort to finish another of those rumoured – but many think (and not without some justification) mythical – books I have written and am writing that – for all that effort and torture – will likely never be read.

But THIS blog entry; my recounting of my experience reading Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola; deserves – no, demands as much care and love and precision and obsession as do those sentences I write dreaming they will one day grace deckled pages between hardcovers. That’s how much The Swan Gondola meant to me.

It started before I even had it in my hand. I literally stalked my local bookseller at the Curious Iguana (CLICK HERE TO VISIT MY AMAZING LOCAL INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLER) to get my copy of Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola on the day it was released. When I say stalked, I mean stalked. I had already begun following – as in fan-sessing over – Mr. Schaffert on Twitter (CLICK HERE TO STALK FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER), having much loved his The Coffins of Little Hope, and he was kind enough to reply to my Tweets. Such consideration filled me with the sort of pleasure and imputation of importance and blessedness I once experienced when I happened upon Miss Betty Buckley, who had that very night torn my heart out with her portrayal of Norma Desmond, and she took the time to stop and be kind to a babbling, unable to perambulate, weeping, crazed fan.

When people of great talent put forth the effort and make the sacrifices to share their magic with us, I have always thought that was and ought to be enough. So, when in addition to that, they reach out and extend the additional gift of a personal kindness,  I am eternally grateful and so pleased to be part of an energy exchange with someone who channels Love and Light into this all too often dark and cruel universe in which we live.

BOLD FACE HEADLINE TO WHICH YOU SHOULD SKIP FOR JUST THE REVIEW (sort of):

So, 500 words later (if you bothered to read the preceding 500 words) you might ask, WHAT ABOUT The Swan Gondola? Let me begin with the publisher’s synopsis (It’s Penguin.com):

A lush and thrilling romantic fable about two lovers set against the scandalous burlesques, midnight séances, and aerial ballets of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair.

On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, con man by birth, isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpose shifts and the fair becomes the backdrop to their love affair.

One of a traveling troupe of actors that has descended on the city, Cecily works in the Midway’s Chamber of Horrors, where she loses her head hourly on a guillotine playing Marie Antoinette. And after closing, she rushes off, clinging protectively to a mysterious carpetbag, never giving Ferret a second glance. But a moonlit ride on the swan gondola, a boat on the lagoon of the New White City, changes everything, and the fair’s magic begins to take its effect.

From the critically acclaimed author of The Coffins of Little Hope, The Swan Gondola is a transporting read, reminiscent of Water for Elephants or The Night Circus.

Well, I didn’t read Water for Elephants and I don’t remember much about The Night Circus, but The Swan Gondola seems likely to stay with me forever. Mr. Schaffert limns a world bordering on the magic-realism of Circus, but the universe he imagines into being is too throbbing with vitality and full of detail to be in any way supernatural; it pulses with the emotions and vicissitudes of real life. You know how you sometimes have dreams so vibrant and forceful that when you wake, it takes you a while to return to your real world, to realize that the dream was not reality? So it is with The Swan Gondola.

That Mr. Schaffert has such command of the language and the worlds he creates comes as no surprise to anyone who has read any of his earlier work – if you haven’t read The Coffins of Little Hope, stop wasting your time reading my blog and go do so RIGHT NOW – but with Gondola, he ascends to a new tier of storytellers, there in the rarified atmosphere of those literary magicians whose fantastical prestidigitations of artistry and facility for language, combined with a brilliantly and seemingly effortless ease of syntax and technique, all wrap around riveting plotlines and heart-breaking emotions, to make truthful illusions of such beauty, grace, and depth that one cannot help but marvel at it all, hopelessly enchanted, entranced and in love.

And, make no mistake, Gondola is a love story, but not just (or, even) the love story of Ferrett and Cecily, rather, it is the painful love story of humanity’s endless obsession with the illusion of romantic love, and the heartbreak that comes of realizing that the stories we’ve told ourselves might not – after all – have ever been true. This is a love-tragedy about a man whose trade is illusion, who travels through a world where taking advantage of the willingness of others to dwell in and embrace delusion is the norm, a man who must ultimately face the truth about and accept his own chimerical self-deceptions so that he might survive to pass his story on, to gift the magic to another.

Yes, as I said, truthful illusions. It may be oxymoronic, but it is apt. So often in life – especially in matters to do with love – we fabricate hallucinatory realities in order to cope with our truths. It is not so much a matter of denial, then, as it is a matter of survival. As another great poet of a writer, Mr. Tennessee Williams once had Blanche DuBois say;  “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.” And the characters in Gondola live in worlds cruel and sorrowful enough that they need some illusion.

It is ironic that I should write this on Valentine’s Day, because I am not a huge fan of the things that we convince ourselves qualify as love. I think romantic love is 98% delusion and a trick and a trap, so the fact that I have so loved a book touted as a romantic fable by its publisher, well, it might seem odd. But, you see, Mr. Schaffert writes about love with an insight and honesty that is rare in love stories. In the space of just a few pages, Ferrett has the following thoughts. Here, he talks about Cecily’s laughter;

With such deep regret I thought of all the times Cecily and I had strolled past the phonograph booth on the midway, where you could speak into a horn and record yourself. You’d take home your own voice, its rhythms etched into a wax cylinder. “I have nothing to say,” she’d said the first time I suggested we step inside.

She wouldn’t have had to say anything. I could’ve told jokes, and she could’ve laughed. And I’d have that laughter still.

That is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful expressions of regret I have ever read. And then there are these, in which Ferrett remarks upon his relationship with friend, August, who he knew was in love with him in a way he would never return, listen;

And in the mail was a letter addressed to me, but I didn’t have to open it to know who it was from. I’d written August Sweetbriar just once, to let him know I was alive, and he’d written back, in early November, a note so full of peevishness and disappointment, I’d had to read it several times, each time hoping to see something gentler in his screed. He’d not believed me when I’d said it was all an accident – it was as if he thought I’d gone up in the balloon and that I’d broken my leg, all as a plot to escape without saying good-bye. I don’t believe in fate, he’d written. And he’d written me a few other times since, each letter a little crankier than the one before it. I tucked this one in my jacket pocket. I knew I had done a heartless thing to him, even if by accident, and didn’t need the reminder.

… and a few paragraphs later, this …

… His (August’s) letter, unread, occupied my thoughts all the ride home … In that envelope might be the unforgiveness I needed. I needed him to be inconsolable, so that old life of mine could finally fall behind and fall away.

… and later still in the novel, August himself says;

“It’s too sad to talk about,” he said. “Everything’s too sad. Cecily died. The Fair ended.” He paused to look me in the eye. “You left,” he said. He kept my gaze for a bit, then looked toward the front window. “I don’t think winter will ever leave. Summer will come and everything will still be frozen.”

There are many such glorious passages in this novel, I could spend thousands of words just quoting. I won’t, but the above and the final one I am about to quote are as beautiful as the lyrical speeches Tennessee Williams gave his greatest characters. They transcend prose. They are poetry. Read this without weeping, I dare you;

I can see your absence everywhere, in everything. I could look at a rose, but instead of seeing the rose, I would see you not holding it. I look at the moonlight, and there you are, not in it.

Did I tell you?

Much has been made in some reviews of the allusions to Baum’s Wizard of Oz, suggesting that they add little or do not come to fruition, but I find that to be the cavil of one who has misunderstood the work. Mr. Schaffert wasn’t looking to Wicked it up, but, rather to contextualize and inculcate a suggestion of atmosphere, in the same way people use Alice in Wonderland, biblical, and other literary references and cultural tropes  to inform narratives that are not meant as re-tellings of Alice or the bible. The point is that these Gondola characters live in a world where the land of Oz could exist, does exist, and that reality makes their reality more real, more vital.

And, indeed, in the end, Ferrett’s balloon lands him in a world far more black and white than that land of illusion through which we’ve accompanied him during the course of the novel, not unlike Dorothy. And, not unlike Dorothy, Ferrett comes to revelation, but I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil your trip to the fair with Ferrett and Cecily and August and Rosie and Doxie and the one-eyed witch; nor lessen your joy of discovery as you take your own flight in this untethered, loosed and free-falling hot-air balloon of artful, diamond-sharp prose, and glorious imagery. You will want to speed along, but you will slow down again and again to luxuriate in its splendors.

In short, for me, The Swan Gondola is a triumph of a novel, and Mr. Schaffert, a national treasure.

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