Desideria by Nicole Kornher-Stace
Published by Prime Books on December 1, 2008
Not enough people are reading/talking about this one. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s recent Archivist Wasp got a fair amount of attention, which is great. But I wish some more Wasp fans would go back and read Ange St. Loup’s amnesiac trip through a crooked asylum as she pieces together her identity as a stage actress who’s maybe a little too good, all set in a gaslamp city populated by thieves and thespians and other oddballs.
For me this is still Kornher-Stace’s best work. Her prose here is lyrical and atmospheric as hell. And what I like most about it is she doesn’t hold your hand. Before grabbing this book randomly off the shelf at my local library I read a string of dry novels by authors who don’t trust the reader to understand them so they pull over to explain everything immediately after writing it. Not so with Kornher-Stace. It’ll be a little while before you have any comfort of narrative security here. You’ll be doing some head scratching along with Ange as she tries to figure out what the hell is going on and even who she is. In this madhouse where she awakens (with her mouth sewn shut), the fabric of time and space and identity are a little fragile, so watch where you step.
There are plenty of flashbacks to Ange’s life and relationships before her being committed. A less capable writer would’ve let this fall flat in comparison to all the interesting mind-voyaging in the asylum. But it’s all there so we can walk with Ange on the thin line between reality and fantasy, between sanity and madness, that actors precariously straddle in their craft (echoes of Mulholland Drive here). Plus, narratively, the world of the city and the ensemble cast that lives in it are wonderfully weird and compelling. Even minor supporting characters are fully realized and some of them are even cool enough to be the stars of their own novels. (I’m looking at you, Cassel.) We also get the script to the mysterious play Ange and her company of actors is rehearsing. Not all of this information is totally essential and sometimes it can take away from Ange’s arc and make the book overall a bit scatterbrained. So that may bother you. But I have a hard time criticizing that too much. All the individual components are so up my personal alley I don’t mind if they’re not wrapped up in a tidy little linear bow. After all, Kornher-Stace refreshingly isn’t going for the conventional here.
And the prose alone is worth it.
“Almost immediately sleep claimed Ange, both of Ange, and held her fast in its abysses. She dreamed, or she did not, having nowhere for the wandering. She lay alone in the moon-spurned dark with the mirror which, like the onstage curtain, clove worlds in two and pieced them back together, all their edges slightly skewed. Which, like the onstage curtain, knew everything.”
So if you read Archivist Wasp and would like to see the author’s rich well of imagination less restrained and used for edgier adult material (in a really good way), then check this one out. But if this would be your first exposure to Kornher-Stace, like it was for me, this is the best place to start anyway. I read it over a year ago and it still invades my head from time to time.
Desideria is available on Amazon.