by Elizabeth Hand
April 12, 2012
The idea of this story as an Orpheus myth is introduced to us by the author, but it's more than that. It's Orpheus and Jesus wound together in something that resembles both "Kate and Leopold" and "Once."
A young woman named Merle, a scholarship student at DC arts college, gets the boot when she stops and realizes that living in the moment supersedes anything she might learn in class. When she then loses her shelter, her bag full of drawings and supplies, and her emotional rock, all she has is the moment, this rock bottom moment.
That's when she meets Ted Kampfert, a legendary musician and fisherman tramp. He gives Merle the key to a shelter, and a key to life. Meanwhile, in 1870 France, poet Arthur Rimbaud has run away again and, destitute himself, encounters a similar eccentric who directs him to what turns out to be the same shelter Merle has found herself in, across the Atlantic, some hundred years later.
This is one of those novels that favors the id completely - anyone may relate to it because the desires involved are so universal. Right and wrong blend together to create a grand web of events so beautiful that the judgement of its morality would be inherently wrong. Of the story's morality, that is.
The actual construction of the novel does leave a bit to be desired: the supporting characters are more caricature than flesh and blood, and do a poor job of supporting the main characters whose fleshing out, as it were, is unstable to begin with.
The narrative's transitions between place and time are clean, but by labeling them we lose some of the mystery and luster: the reader would be better-served by not having things announced to them at the top of each chapter and by being left to our own devices to discover where and when we are, and might be going.