- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
The writer Joanna Scott is perhaps best known not for her three fine previous novels -- including The Closest Possible Union and Arrogance -- but for being the happy recipient, in 1987, of the mother of all cultural awards: a MacArthur "genius" grant. Scott's new novel, The Manikin, is flush with her particular kind of literary genius -- her keen, unsentimental eye never fails to astonish -- but the book also picks up a strange, somewhat strained, gothic quality that clashes with her observant style. The result is as odd as it is fascinating.
The novel takes its name from a rambling mansion near Rochester, New York originally built by a famous taxidermist -- the so-called "Henry Ford of natural history" -- to store rooms full of stuffed specimens (gibbons, skunks, quetzels, crocodiles, you name it). Among these glass-eyed manikins lives the taxidermist's now elderly, lonely widow, Mrs. Craxton, and her dutiful housekeeper, Ellen Griswood. The story, unfolding from 1917 to the late 1920s, mixes a light mystery with the sexual coming-of-age of Ellen's beautiful, willful teenage daughter, Peg.
Scott's prose, and the exacting authenticity of her setting, simply dazzles. As in the novel's opening, in which an owl's eye view of upstate New York's wintry countryside is vividly evoked, her descriptive powers fuse a heightened sensual perception with gracefully over-arching intelligence. Young Peg's crush is portrayed thusly: "Lilian Stone may be a slender-thighed, small-breasted, fashionable nymph, but the effect of her is that of a boulder rolling down a hill, crushing everything in its way." The process of taxidermy --"the combination of surgery and art" that brings "life to death" -- is detailed to chilling effect. But the almost spoofishly gothic-style plot -- complete with an illicit master-servant romance, a dark, knife-wielding stranger, and a dramatic reading of a will -- appears in stark contrast to the unique fictional universe it inhabits. Although a fluid, believable narrative never quite emerges from under the weight of so many finely-etched images, Scott has nevertheless composed a gorgeous -- if cerebral -- meditation on love, death and art. -- Salon