Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Voice of the Air


The Voice of the AirThe Voice of the Air by John Howard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I already knew that John Howard is an amazing wordsmith. And I knew that Howard knows something about architecture, as is evidenced by a few stories in his earlier collection Buried Shadows. What I did not know, and what was proven in The Voice of the Air is that Howard can sustain that beautiful writing and demonstrate architectural acumen at the novel length. Don't be fooled, yes, these are three novellas, but all of them tie neatly together in the character of Christian Luca, a Romanian architect with a gift that I shall not reveal, but that is pivotal to the long drama that unfolds here.

Christian Luca is a complicated character made even more complex by the multiple viewpoints from which Howard examines him, not the least of which is Luca's own view of himself. Though of one voice, the narrative is kaleidoscopic, morphing through perceptual changes. One must always ask "who is speaking now?" as each perspective sheds new light, casts new shadows, and reveals new aspects of this mysterious man.

Even the simplest of constructions serve Howard's auctorial purposes here. It's amazing what a little phrase uttered by a character can do to your perception of them. The phrase I am referring to: "How much can keep on being subtracted?"

There's more weight to this than that carried by the simple words. Much more. When you read it, in context, you will know . . .

One (ironically consistent) aspect of change throughout these novellas is that of shifting political winds before, during, and after the Second World War. This brings about an intriguing double twist: regime change and the questioning of whether Lucas' greatest architectural achievement (so far) ever even existed. Eerie brought on by weird. Mark Fisher (RIP) would have loved this.

Luca himself simultaneously acknowledges and preserves the mystery of his fluctuating appearance, vaguely referenced political ambitions, and apartment building, which may or may not have existed in this reality or never existed at all. Because of this, there is a note of sustained tension that plays through all three novellas, effectively tying them all together. It's difficult to find three novellas, each published separately, that "infiltrate" each other so well. Not only is the voice consistent (though varied), but the plot(s) layer on top of one another. And this is reflective of Christian Luca's very strange "talent," which, again, I will not reveal.

Eventually we get the view from inside Luca's head. The monologue about ghosts on pages 80 - 82 is a fantastic piece of writing. Too long to quote, but the thread from poetry to postage stamps to sedition to coup to ghosts embedded in the architecture is a thing of beauty, the sort of prose that a writer will devote to study in order to glean some insight into how it was created. I'll be studying those two pages for some time to come.

Luca is haunted by his past, and yet as he pushes toward the future(s), he, in some ways, inevitably moves backward, toward it, by trying to move forward. I don't know if this was Howard's intent in writing Luca's story, but this is the impression I get: a sort of "push-me/pull-me" action of past happenings, present action, and future possibilities. Like a tempo-spatial slinky toy.

Finally, Howard intertwines Luca with his architecture throughout. The man's life is a reflection of his building(s) and vice versa, including the demolition of both. He has his "secret stairway", built in the spiral of the public stairway, both in his building and in his soul. That is not to say that Luca is merely a meek architect, always withdrawn and introspective. No, there is action in the man, a conniving, plotting side. One does not survive so long by merely being passive. But one is strengthened by passing through things, or having things pass through . . . I must stop the utterance there . . .

I may have said too much.

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