Aurorarama

Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorarama is a toothsomely sweet serving of Baked Alaska that conceals an anarchist's time bomb inside.  Melding the droll, rococo politesse of Jack Vance with the phantasmagorical realpolitik of China Miéville, Valtat conjures up an exotic, polychromatic world too real not to exist somewhere, if only in a luckier, more delirious and glorious universe adjacent to ours.  Exemplifying Italo Calvino's mandate for "lightness" in fiction—Valtat's bold and capricious direct-to-English prose, not translated from his native French, dances across the page like Saki's or Firbank's—while also embodying Mark Helprin's nostalgic moral seriousness—think Winter's Tale on ecstasy—this opening salvo in a snowball cannonade of fantasy promises to attract discerning and sophisticated readers galore, those fans of the fantastical who are tired of second-hand visions and stale conceits.

 

Valtat's premise:  at some point in the nineteenth century, during the great burst of polar exploration, an Arctic city named New Venice was founded, roughly five hundred miles from the North Pole.  "…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."

 

In the present day of the novel (1908), the historied metropolis is a unique hive of decadence, fermenting art movements, and "poletical" turmoil.  We experience its intricate backstory, current imbroglios, scandals and rivalries through twinned narrators.  Brentford Orsini is the more respectable figure of the two, keeper of the city's greenhouses.  His good friend Gabriel d'Allier is a louche professor and bohemian.  Accompanying them in alternating chapters, the reader will visit dozens of bizarre venues and experience plenty of weird technology, delightfully eccentric characters, consumated and frustrated romances, much mystery and many thrills.

 

Valtat's invention of names and history for New Venice is prodigious, and some new startlement leaps out of every page.  Consider the confectionary description of the Blazing Building in Chapter XV, for instance, with its elaborate marble and mosaic floor.  Not content with the lushness of that imagery, Valtat adds, "In the very center of the Hall, the North Pole was represented by a fountain rising from a basin of snowflake obsidian; its dangling stalactites, kept contantly frozen, were sculpted in the shapes of Northern divinities of different traditions.  Through the stained-glass openings in the base of the lofty dome overhead, various shades of light fell on the translucent fountain to simulate, even by day, the colours of the Northern Lights."  Marvelous, perfect, and perfectly marvelous!

 

Valtat's novel is Little Nemo in Slumberland as retold by a trio of Jeff Noon, Steve Aylett and William Burroughs.  I can hardly wait for its sequels.

 

--PAUL DI FILIPPO

 


The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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