A poetic meditation on Russian literature, bubonic plague, Venice, and the multiverse.
And how might all that hang together, you ask? In Sheck’s second novel (A Monster’s Notes, 2009), tenuously, though its lyricism softens its digressive style. The narrator, Ambrose, is a hunchbacked man who once toiled scanning books, and an unnamed former co-worker has sent him a letter beckoning him to visit her in Venice to help her locate a notebook that might shed light on an illness that’s made her sleepless. From there, things get woolly: Ambrose dreams of encounters with Pontius Pilate and the Italian painter Titian, receives more letters thick with references to Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, then discovers a notebook by an epileptic man who read to an ailing woman from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The story is salted with historical anecdotes about Venice’s suffering during a 16th-century plague (the title refers to a quarantine site near the city), and early on Ambrose’s trip there suggests a literary detective story. But the novel ultimately becomes too free-wheeling in plot and language to hew to such convention. Chapters are usually a page long and often as brief as a sentence, expressing sorrow and loss but without much characterization or context to make those expressions substantive. (“Her sleeplessness carried her into a vulnerability that grew oddly beautiful and porous even as it filled with struggle.”) What Sheck means to get at, in an abstract and indirect way, is the way loneliness and distance persist through the ages, both in life and literature, and how we might be able to transcend it through words. No question, there’s a rhythmic force to Sheck’s repeated tropes—swatches of red cloth, grim plague journals, the complexities of the space-time continuum. But one also feels that, for all the book's innovation, a lot of time-folding storytelling and dour invocations are serving a well-worn truism about our being alone in the universe.
A brash but overly tangled poetry-prose hybrid.