Mr. Puss-Boots dreams a story like this, a story where a prince goes creeping down into the underworld after twelve dancing princesses because some king decided the girls were having too much fun and wanted to rub their faces in how hard he owns them.
Like several of her previous books and short-stories, Catherynne Valente’s latest book (well, novella) is loosely based on a fairytale, in this case The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Very loosely based. In fact, without a couple of brief asides by the narrator and the actual description from the book cover, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect this with the original fairytale.
Set in the fantastical hotel Artemisia in the middle of New York at the high point of the Roaring Twenties, Speak Easy is filled with Valente’s usual luscious descriptions and a cast of thousands (dozens, anyway), each with their own story. So many stories in fact, that the book could have been stretched out for at least a few hundred more pages. As is, there’s not enough room to give most of the characters more than a brief mention; the results are tantalizing, but also a little cluttered.
I fell in love with Catherynne Valente’s writing from the moment I read her novel In the Night Garden, and her prose is up to her usual standards here: beautiful, decadent paragraphs giving all the lovely details about life and love (or not) in the Jazz Age. Many of the passages are just shy of poetry, sometimes a little wistful, sometimes quite a bit cynical. The narrator has a somewhat folksy tone that reminded me of the narrator from her book Six-Gun Snow White. Some reviewers have commented that the narrator sounded a little too self-satisfied and patronizing, but I thought it worked well with the story. When I could actual understand what the story was about anyway.
The setting is as gorgeous as the prose; an impossible hotel with an impossible clientele, hundreds of socialites and dignitaries and hangers-on and dreamers, all spending as much time shmoozing and partying as they can in the self-contained world of the Atemisia. Meanwhile the real party going is on in the basement (and lower), where the mysterious Al offers all his guests the best booze and the finest surroundings and – best of all – the chance to pull talent and real art out of their dreams and into the real world as easily as breathing.
Through one door Frankie K can see a naked girl standing in a washtub pouring champagne over her head and reciting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner while everybody throws dimes over their shoulders like she’s the goddamned Trevi Fountain.
So the writing and the setting are perfect, it’s just when you get to the actual story that things get a little too chaotic.
In one book you have the story of Zelda desperately trying to be good at something other than being beautiful. Opposite her is Frankie, the would-be writer who’s decided he’s in love with Zelda. And you have Caspar, the copper magnate who owns the Artemisia, his beautiful and unhappy would-be writer wife Pearl, and their mostly-neglected son Little Cass. There’s also Zelda’s roommates, Frankie’s roommates, Caspar’s lover Lilly, Zelda’s three swains (one of who’s names she sometimes can’t remember), Georgie the hotel madam with her husband the locksmith Harry, and Zelda’s pet pelican Puss-Boots. And of course there’s Al and his whole entourage, including his little troll Vollstead, who has Tommy guns for legs.
Did I mention that this novella is only one hundred and forty-four pages long?
That’s a lot of detail to try to pack into such a small space. I would have liked to read chapters and chapters about each and every one of them, but most only get a few more sentences than they get in the above paragraph.
The main story (if a book this crowded can be said to have one) centers around a reimagining of the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, and how how it echoes the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, or at least the part where someone blunders into a world that’s not his own and pretty much ruins things for everyone all because of love (or “love”), and a desire to earn his fortune. Being familiar with historical tidbits like the fact that F. Scott apparently took bits of Zelda’s writing and used it in his own stories makes the plot a little clearer. Even knowing that though, I felt like I was too distracted by all the different stories – plus not being quite sure who Al represented (looking up “Volstead” helped quite a bit with that) – to focus on Zelda’s and Frankie’s story until the whole thing had been wrapped up with a prophecy about a few years of fame followed by an unhappy penniless death for everyone, the end.
It’s not a bad book, there’s just not enough of it. I want more gorgeous prose, more wry commentary with paragraphs that all have a little sing in the tail, more follow up on all the intersecting storylines. Don’t tell me about Frankie’s roommate who creates beautiful drawings on all the places in their hotel room where their boss won’t see – like inside the frame of the closet door, or underneath the lip of the window – and then toss that story aside like a plot device that wasn’t working out.
Valente’s upcoming novel Radiance promises to be a lot longer and just as fantastically strange as her shorter works. I’m really hoping she uses all that extra space to give the storylines and characters the attention they deserve, rather than have all the little snippets of story tossed into the air like a handful of confetti.