Cy Parks is the Electric Michelangelo, an artist of extraordinary gifts whose medium happens to be the pliant, shifting canvas of the human body. Fleeing his mother's legacy a consumptives' hotel in a fading English seaside resort Cy reinvents himself in the incandescent honky-tonk of Coney Island in its heyday between the two world wars. Amid the carnival decadence of freak shows and roller coasters, enchanters and enigmas, scam artists and marks, Cy will find his muse: an enigmatic circus beauty who surrenders her body to his work, but whose soul tantalizingly eludes him.
This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.
About the Author
Sarah Hall was born in 1974 in Cumbria, England. She received a master of letters in creative writing from Scotland's St. Andrews University and has published four novels. Haweswater won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (overall winner, Best First Novel) and a Society of Authors Betty Trask Award. The Electric Michelangelo was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Eurasia Region), and the Prix Femina Étranger, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Daughters of the North won the 2006/07 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. How to Paint a Dead Man was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Portico Prize for Fiction. In 2013 Hall was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, a prize awarded every ten years, and she won the BBC National Short Story Award and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Hometown:Charlotte, North Carolina, USA and Carlisle, Cumbria, UK
Date of Birth:January 6, 1974
Place of Birth:Carlisle, Cumbria, UK
Education:B.A., The University of Wales, Aberystwyth; M.A. in Creative Writing, St. Andrews University, Scotland
Read an Excerpt
The Electric Michelangelo
By Sarah Hall
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Sarah Hall
All right reserved.
If the eyes could lie, his troubles might all be over. If the eyes were not such well-behaving creatures, that spent their time trying their best to convey the world and all its gore to him, good portions of life might not be so abysmal. This very moment, for instance, as he stood by the hotel window with a bucket in his hands listening to Mrs Baxter coughing her lungs up, was about to deteriorate into something nasty, he just knew it, thanks to the eyes and all their petty, nit-picking honesty. The trick of course was to not look down. The trick was to concentrate and pretend to be observing the view or counting seagulls on the sill outside. If he kept his eyes away from what he was carrying they would not go about their indiscriminating business, he would be spared the indelicacy of truth, and he would not get that nauseous feeling, his hands would not turn cold and clammy and the back of his tongue would not begin to pitch and roll.
He looked up and out to the horizon. The large, smeary bay window revealed a desolate summer scene. The tide was a long way out, further than he could see, so as far as anyone knew it was just gone for good and had left the town permanently inland. It took a lot of trust to believe the water would ever come back each day, all that distance, it seemed like an awful amount of labour for no good reason. The whole dirty, grey-shingled beach was now bare, except for one or two souls out for a stroll, and one or two hardy sunbathers, in their two-shilling-hire deck-chairs, determined to make the most of their annual holiday week away from the mills, the mines and the foundries of the north. A week to take in the bracing salty air and perhaps, if they were blessed, the sun would make a cheerful appearance and rid them of their pallor. A week to remove all the coal and metal dust and chaff and smoke from their lungs and to be a consolation for their perpetual poor health, the chest diseases they would eventually inherit and often die from, the shoddy eyesight, swollen arthritic fingers, allergies, calluses, deafness, all the squalid cousins of their trade. One way to tell you were in this town, should you ever forget where you were, should you ever go mad and begin not to recognize the obvious scenery, the hotels, the choppy water, the cheap tea rooms, pie and pea restaurants, fish and chip kiosks, the amusement arcades, and the dancehalls on the piers, one way to verify your location was to watch the way visitors breathed. There was method to it. Deliberation. They put effort into it. Their chests rose and fell like furnace bellows. So as to make the most of whatever they could snort down into them.
There was a wet cough to the left of him, prolonged, meaty, ploughing through phlegm, he felt the enamel basin being tugged from his hands and then there was the sound of spitting and throat clearing. And then another cough, not as busy as the last, but thorough. His eyes flickered, involuntarily. Do not look down, he thought. He sighed and stared outside. The trick was to concentrate and pretend he was looking out to sea for herring boats and trawlers returning from their 150-mile search, pretend his father might come in on one of them, seven years late and not dead after all, wouldnt that be a jolly thing, even though the sea was empty of boats and ebbing just now. The vessels were presently trapped outside the great bay until the tide came back in. Odd patches of dull shining water rested on the sand and shingle, barely enough to paddle through, let alone return an absent father.
Outside the sky was solidifying, he noticed, as if the windowpane had someones breath on it. A white horse was heading west across the sands with three small figures next to her, the guide had taken the blanket off the mare, the better that she be seen. As if she was a beacon. Coniston Old Man was slipping behind low cloud across the bay as the first trails of mist moved in off the Irish Sea, always the first of the Lake District fells to lose its summit to the weather. So the guide was right to uncover the horse, something was moving in fast and soon would blanket the beach and make it impossible to take direction, unless you knew the route, which few did in those thick conditions. Then youd be stranded and at the mercy of the notorious tide.
-- Grey old day, isnt it, luvvie? Not very pleasant for June.
-- It is, Mrs Baxter. Theres a haar coming in. Shall I be taking this now or will you need it again shortly do you think?
-- No, I feel a bit better, now Im cleared out, you shant be depriving me. And if I need to go again Ill try to make it to the wash room. Youre a very good boy, Cyril Parks, your mammy should be proud to have a pet like you helping her around here. Well spoken and the manners of a prince. Is it a little chilly to have the sash open today, luvvie?
The woman watched him from her chair. She resembled a piece of boiled pork, or blanched cloth, with all her colour removed. Just her mouth remained vivid, saturated by brightness, garish against her skin, and like the inside of a fruit when she spoke, red-ruined, glistening and damp.
-- Yes, Mrs Baxter, Im afraid it is. Would you like some potted shrimp? Mam made it fresh today.
-- Oh yes. That would be lovely. I do so enjoy her potted shrimp, just a touch of nutmeg, not too heavy . . .
Excerpted from The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall Copyright © 2005 by Sarah Hall.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
‘Hall conveys an arresting, colourful and complex world.... Even the most miniscule of nuances fanatically thought through and delivered.”
Reading Group Guide
An Introduction to the Novel
In Morecambe Bay, a seaside resort town in Northwest England, consumptives take the air and a bit of rest from their jobs in the mills and mines. Many stay at Bayview, a hotel run by widower Reeda Parks and her son Cyril.
Cyril is befriended by Eliot Riley who teaches him the art of tattooing. It isn't until both his mother's and Eliot's deaths that he plans to make use of his talent, and heads for America where he settles in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
In the splendor and decadence of 1930s Coney Island, Cyril becomes the Electric Michelangelo and meets his masterwork, an Eastern European circus performer, a woman who would become, at his loving and talented hands, The Lady of Many Eyes.
Sarah Hall's lyrical portrait of love, human suffering, and the art of tattooing is extraordinary.
Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. Cyril is keenly aware of Coney Island's impending decline. Discuss tattooing in relation to the public's insatiable appetite for the new thrill, the bigger and better.
2. Hall calls the English seaside towns, "harmless, farcical, if slightly uncouth" where "things never went too far." "The Island, on the other hand was absolute consumer-driven modernism, it was in-vogue anthropomorphism, a swim through the guts and entrails of the world." (page 190) Is there still a clear division from European popular culture and American culture nowadays or not?
3. Is tattooing destructive or liberating? Why?
4. Did the book make you want to go out and get a tattoo? Did it provide you a better understanding of the reasons people get tattoos?
5. The book is as much about the world of boardwalk culture, with the carnival folks, freak shows, circus acts and resort town underbelly as it is about tattoo artists. Discuss these other elements and what they contribute in regard to the Hall's overall portrayal of humanity.
6. In your opinion, is The Electric Michelangelo a hopeful or hopeless view of human nature and relationships?
7. Why doesn't Cyril make a bold play for the love of Grace?
8. Much is left unresolved in The Electric Michelangelo. Grace and Cy's love is never consummated. We also never learn what happens to Grace. Why has Hall chosen to leave out major events in Cyril's life?
9. Hall writes of Cyril going back to Morecambe Bay and taking up his old tattoo parlor on Pedder Street at the end of the book. In your opinion, what is she saying about the art of tattooing in relation to emotional pain and suffering?
About the author
Born in Cumbria, England in 1974, Sarah Hall divides her time between North Carolina and the north of England. Her first novel, Haweswater, won The Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book. The Electric Michelangelo, her second novel, and was short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker prize.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I really enjoyed reading this book. Would I recommend it? Most definitely -- to an audience who is willing to take time to savor each and every word, not to an audience who wants your average storyline & a pat ending. This book rises high above most books out there on the market or even on the bestseller list.The Electric Michelangelo is Cyril (Cy) Parks, who grows up in Morecambe, a seaside town in England where "When the tide ran out the crowds came in...Hundreds of pale and lumpy legs appeared from under clothing. Skin pinked and peeled, lotions were applied to late to sore knees and rosy shoulders. Flowery-capped heads bobbed up and down in the water and feet splashed in the waves...Even the rain, reliable and persistent when it decided to appear, could not dampen the celebratory spirit of the promenade, people ran laughing and shrieking either into the sea where wetness would not matter, or into the cafes and public houses of the town, leaving sand prints on the seats and tablecloths when they departed..." (32-33). There Cy lived with his mother, Reeda, who ran a hotel for consumptives among other things. Book One of this novel traces Cy's childhood years up to the time when he eventually becomes the apprentice to a tattoo artist named Eliot Riley. Riley meets a tragic end and Cy decides to take himself to New York, to Coney Island and open his own tattoo stand where he is known as the Electric Michelangelo. Book Two follows Cy in New York,where he meets a mysterious woman named Grace who asks him to tattoo her entire body (except face neck & hands) with the same design over and over again...an eye.Sarah Hall writes about pain and healing, damage & scarring, redemption and loss, a yearning for a time and place that no longer exists and acceptance of new situations. understand. A fine work, and I'm very happy to have read it.
The Electric Michelangelo has to be one of the most beautifully written novels I have read in a long time. Hall obviously revels in description and human scenery, and she has a rare gift for it. This is not a book to be rushed through and, despite the text being broken up into small sections of a page or two, it's probably not a novel you should read while commuting. This is a subtle, captivating book that is best savoured and read slowly. Cy Parks is a sympathetic character, and a wonderful creation, but it his surroundings and the characters that he meets, in both Morecambe and Coney Island, that seem to dominate the text, yet it is the fleeting quality of these encounters, and the almost surreally larger-than-life settings, that give the story its almost dream-like quality. Despite this, Hall does not shy away from the less salubrious aspects of both Cy's professional life as a tattoo artist and the underworld that he inhabits. It is the fact that she can still write beautiful prose while describing acts of horrific violence or sickening illness that truly marks Sarah Hall out as a first-class writer in my book.The only real criticism I can make of The Electric Michelangelo is that the end felt a little rushed to me; after a couple of hundred pages of marvellous prose, all perfectly paced, it was anticlimactic to have several decades passing in the blink of an eye and I personally wanted something more spectacular to happen to mark the end of such a memorable and eccentric work of fiction.
A feeling of doom hangs over the Morecambe boarding house run by Cy Parks' widowed mother. Death stalks the TB patients who spend their holidays there and sometimes die in situ, while late at night in the off-season the Bayview Hotel becomes the site of illegal abortions performed by Mrs Parks and the mother of one of Cy's friends. And of course there is the sea, with the treacherous quicksands and fast-racing tide of Morecambe bay, ready to catch unwary tourists and foolhardy children, and great storms like the one with killed Cy's fisherman father. So I wasn't surprised that Cy ended up leaving town, and as he loved his home town I wasn't surprised either that he ended up in another seaside resort on the other side of the Atlantic.When Cy asked Paddy, the landlord of the Dog and Partridge, Cy's local pub, whether the world is a better place than Morecambe, he replied 'Well I believe it's bigger. And there are no doubt fewer donkeys', but in Coney Island Cy finds himself in a hellish version of Morecambe, in which Paddy's counterparts in Cy's new local, the Varga Oyster Bar, are the Siamese twins Mary and Valerie. This was Morecambe of international proportions and inconceivable wealth, it was Morecambe gone putrid and suffering without any of its former inhibitions, as if the Tory councillors had packed up their belongings and documents banning distasteful shows and left town, taking their collective prudish notions for ever with them and leaving the occult industries to sprout and run amok. Here there was far too much attention to detail, far too much gruesome investigation into what would titillate and far too much anarchy of demeanour, and it blew Cy away as if he's placed a gun to his head and squeezed the trigger. As if this truly was the nation's purgatory, where any prurient display was advocated, any misdemeanour was acquitted, any sin suspended before a hopelessly hung celestial jury. I'm very impressed by Sarah Hall's powers of description - Within the first 50 pages there were wonderful descriptions of the Bayview Hotel, the town of Morecambe, the burning of the pier, the quicksands, the effect of WWI on the townsfolk, as well as things that Cy himself didn't really understand as a small boy, such as the abortions and the visits of the suffragettes. It's strange that in a book so full of colour, of life and death, not much seems to happen. It's unusual for me to like books with so many descriptive passages and so little plot as much as I liked "The Electric Michelangelo", but I found the world of the fairgrounds and boardwalks fascinating. It did take me ages to read though - I started it on 10th May and finished it today.
The Electric Michelangelo is a beguiling book with a fascinating plot and a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters . It focuses on Cy (Cyril Parks) and chronicles most of his life from childhood to late middle age. Growing up, he helped his widowed mother, Reeda, with her boarding house full of consumptives taking the fabled soft air of Morecambe. Seemingly accidentally he falls into an apprenticeship with the manic, drunk and immensely talented local tattooer Eliot Riley whose death eventually enables him to set up as a tattoo artist in his own right.Over the course of approximately 60 years, he travels from Morecambe to Coney Island and back again, lives through two World Wars, falls in love twice and encounters pretty much the full gamut of humanity's strengths and weaknesses.On the whole, I enjoyed this book. It was a satisfying, intriguing read and well written. Mostly, it felt authentic. There were tiny little pinpricks of dissatisfaction, however. Firstly, the narrative voice initially feels too old and knowing for Cy. I was surprised to discover, a few paragraphs in, that these were intended to be the thoughts and reflections of a seven-year-old boy. Secondly, some of the names seemed a touch anachronistic. At one point the names of various sweethearts to be tattooed on sailors are recounted - Anita, Josephine and Clara. Josephine and Clara ring true, but Anita? Given that at this stage of the novel it is the 1920s, I find it hard to believe that there were many Anitas of courting age at the time! Thirdly and finally, the author's northern born and bred status notwithstanding, some of the language felt inauthentic. For example, she has 1920s Lancastrians referring to things or people as "old-timey". To my ear this is an American phrase (which I primarily associate with Bluegrass/Appalachian music). I would have thought "old-timers" to be a more likely usage.But still, these are minor quibbles. As I say, in general, I liked the book. It introduced me to a world with which I was hither-to unfamiliar. While I am still not keen on tattoos (and, if anything, this novel has made me even more disinclined to get one done!), I have a greater appreciation of tattooing as an art form and am better able to detect the beauty there. I would, therefore, highly recommend "The Electric Michelangelo" and intend to explore more of Sarah Hall's work.
The Electric Michelangelo is the story of Cy, a dreamy boy who becomes a tattooist - not exactly by accident but not exactly by choice either. It's more by the force of will of Eliot Riley, master tattooist extraordinaire who chooses Cy to be his apprentice. Riley is a force of nature, a fighter and drinker only at peace with a tattooing needle in his hand. "He had a visage that was photographic, not attractive in its looks but memorable, bringing back images of it during previous meetings with a flash of the brain's bulb and the fizzle of recollection like burnt celluloid." In the second half of the book, Cy leaves Morecambe Bay and winds up with his own tattoo booth on Coney Island, and forms a relationship with Grace, a circus performer who is as fierce and strange as Riley, in her own way. As a tattooist, Cy sees a bloody and brutal world: not just the nonconforming milieu of Coney Island folk, but the stories with which people explain either the marks already on their bodies or the ones they ask him to put there. (An important, and fascinating, theme of the book was the symbolism of drawing on the body - and what events or elements of their lives people choose to mark.) Some of these stories are actually quite hard to read. At other times the book is fascinatingly grotesque, like a Victorian museum of oddities. But it can also be surprisingly lyrical and even tender, in the relationships that Cy has with his mother, Riley, and Grace. An excellent read.
beautifully written and superbly descriptive.
Sarah Hall begins her tale in the English seaside resort town of Morcame Bay, where young Cy Parks is raised by his single, feminist mother in a boarding house that caters to vacationers with tuberculosis. After her death, he is taken in by his mentor Eliot Riley, the unstable tattoo artist to whom he has been apprenticed. Soon, Cy becomes an expert at the trade. When Riley dies, Parks ¿ calling himself The Electric Michelangelo -- relocates to Coney Island in the United States, where he meets an array of freaks and side-show characters who befriend him and love him as only his mother did before. The most marvelous of his new friends is Grace, the circus performer whose request is startling, marvelous and tragic. Hall¿s writing in this 2004 novel is more complex and dense than in her more recent How to Paint a Dead Man. Her characters here are more tortured, her topics darker and more disturbing. Yet her skill shines through on every level ¿ plot, character and voice. She has all the signs of being an exceptional literary talent on her way to greatness, and I can¿t wait to get my hands on more of her work.
This was a beautifully written book with a most uncommon protagonist. I congratulate Sarah Hall for picking a tattoo artist for her main character to tell this incredible love story.
this was a WONDERFUL book. i found it by accident, and am now recommending it to EVERYONE. if you have a tattoo, if you've ever considered getting a tattoo, or if you've wondered what the draw to tattooing is...this book gives you the inside look. it's an incredibly moving story and the way it's written makes the reader feel like they are a part of the action, they're watching it all happen first hand. very beautifully written! i swear that i could smell the ocean air and feel the crush of the crowds at coney island while i was reading! i was reading a bit every chance i got...a page here and there on my lunch break, till all hours of the mornings...i couldn't put it down. I LOVED this book.
I consider this book to be a modern classic. It is flawless. This is the sort of writing that seems to be completely devoid of rough drafts. This is the sort of writing that seems as though it simply poured from the core of the author. Every sentence is a little masterpiece. Each page is littered with alliterations, metaphors, imagery, tastes, smells. Positively beautiful.
The beautifully descriptive language haunted me as I read the book and I could not stop thinking about it when I wasn't reading it. The characters are so deep and intriguing -- an English tattoo artist trained by a drunk artistic genius moves to Coney Island and falls in love with a horse-riding circus performer. I haven't read anything this wonderful since Bel Canto.
Your phrase 'one of the most uniquely talented novelists' is absolutely unforgivable misuse of the English language. Something or someone is either unique or is not. There is no degree to unique. One is not most unique or quite unique or mildly unique. Unique is just that. Nothing more. It requires no adjective or superlatives. I should expect better from a publisher, an entity dealing in the buying and selling of words.
I have been reading for years and this is one of the worst books I have ever read. I kept asking myself...'Who cares about any of these characters' and 'why am I wasting my time?' The story never picked up for me. I believe Sarah Hall has talent, albeit misdirected.