THE COLLIDESCOPE, April 12, 2020
Reviewed by George Salis
About Wendy Walker, from her website: “Up to 1994 I worked in known genres: the novel, novella, tale, poem. Since that time I have turned more to critical fiction, writing with constraints, and cross-genre writing, splicing these together to develop new ways of addressing problems at the crossroads of literature and history. I begin by listening to the demands of a given subject. The subject suggests approaches from a variety of directions, and I try to shape a form to open as many of those approaches as possible. The form is satisfactory if it honors the complexity of the subject addressed, rather than diminishing it, and resolves the material in an elegant manner. […]
“I am a writer, and books are my primary work, but I am always on the lookout for fragments of order. I have learned how to find in writing as much from learning to draw as from learning to write. Similarly, looking at painting and sculpture has been as important as reading to my thinking about composition and fiction. For me writing is necessary as a way of trying to see, of which the written artifact is a happy side-effect, much in the way that a drawing is the remnant and record of the artist’s investigation of a subject.”
“…that which ever lives and ever changes is, like Proteus, beyond the power of man to harm.”
The title of Wendy Walker’s first novel, The Secret Service, might suggest a book on the intellectual and literary level of, say, James Paterson, Tom Clancy, or perhaps John le Carré. The cover itself features a quaint if elegant still life depicting a pitcher, a goblet, a cup and saucer, and a bowl of fruit, among other things. Don’t let this fool you. The title and the cover are as deceptive as the objects within Wendy Walker’s highly original novel. For while there is intrigue and devious plotting that threatens the 19th-century British Empire, this is a modern fairy tale infused with fictional science, surreal dreams, and prose that’s stunningly baroque.
The plot involves raising changelings and orchestrating deceptive incest as a means to raze the royal family and take control of the crown. While entertaining and not without twists, this plot is subordinate to the truest treasure of the novel, which is the metamorphosis of human beings into seemingly inanimate objects, those in the employ of His Majesty’s Secret Service. Hence, the novel opens up with this transposition of consciousness: “I am a mousseline goblet, upside-down, set aside to dry, the banquet done.” This reminds me of the interesting, but not as interesting, first line in Ian McEwan’s novel Nutshell, about an intelligent fetus: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.”
The banquet in question sees in attendance three elements of potential destruction to the British Empire: an Italian baron, a French cardinal, and a German nobleman. These constituents are in collusion when it comes to the coup. Seemingly, they’re at this banquet to determine the current state of the royal treasury, for the banquet is a measure of the royal army itself. “A monarch’s strength is measured by his potlach. Can he afford the not despicable expenditure that such official celebrations must imply?”
The King is able to hold a lavish banquet because his Secret Service members can become the much-needed decorations, such as silverware, chandeliers, and more. But the Secret Service doesn’t exist solely as a complicated method of sentient bedizenment. On the contrary, there is more to it than meets the eye in their disguises. The protagonist Polly is the goblet and thus she is there to swoon the baron who loves such wares and their materials, later to infiltrate his abode by means of a gift. The same is true for the cardinal, admiring as he does the Corporal who “despite the gout, held beautifully the pose of a Milanese Thisbe, imploring and receiving answer, her ankles lapped by waves whose crests expose a delicate patina, on the mirrored mantel….” And also the Italian baron, a fanatical gardener, who falls for Rutherford, “a peak rose, salmon, in the centerpiece….”
Unlike the banquet, the infiltration doesn’t go so smoothly, as one might predict, but the reason for the complication is that Polly the mousseline goblet fatally falls upon a table. Her destruction was precipitated by the disturbed bombarding consciousnesses of infants stemming from the baron’s dastardly and diabolical experimentations using the bones of babies to create a living porcelain that will be able to give him a kind of immortal flesh. Polly’s tumble caused the goblet, her temporary body, to have “snapped just where bowl and stem meet,” after which her spirit flies away.
This espionage incident instigates a rescue mission spearheaded by Rutherford, and he gets to know a young woman named Rosamund who, true to fairy-tale fashion, is locked in the baron’s tower at the center of a hedge maze, and Rutherford also receives unlikely aid from Rosamund’s secret friend, the cardinal’s adopted boy Ganymede who had been found by the cook as “a naked infant fast asleep in the household’s largest wine bowl….”
But what happened to Polly’s spirited-away spirit? Later in the novel, she awakens in a kind of layered purgatorial dream, a fantastic and digressive chapter that lasts for about 120 pages. She completes tasks that are on par with a fantasy journey, encountering a metamorphosing statue, a massive monster, and a city that could very well have been featured in Italo Calvino’s travelogue of the invisible and the impossible, the city of Or where citizens steal only things they yearn for while essentials, such as food, are free: “There was a woman who stole dreams, leaving the sleep of those from whom she stole blank and uncharacterized. And there was a man who stole sleep itself, so that he hibernated like a bear, and left his victims staring, on the verge of despair and madness, night after night into the indifferent dark.”
The question remains: how can people transform into objects? “To learn to create matter, and then scale down or refine this process to the creation of the appearance of highly specific forms of matter: this was the problem, the conundrum….” Whereas a lesser work would take this concept for granted or give an ad hoc explanation in passing, Walker graces the reader with an amazing pseudoscientific treatise, complete with a diagram, involving the key ingredient of opals, which were “celestial microcosms, tiny dioramas of the universe.” The stones in question were extracted by the Corporal from the cliff face of a Tibetan mountain, and they “came off cloudy, bruised, surrounded with the blonde crust of the mountain, but he trimmed the crust, and buffed and polished them; the little fires within would begin to show, like candles underwater, but burning pink and blue, or like the eyelids of harlots on a foggy night.”
What is particularly wonderful and uncanny about The Secret Service is the exploration of what it’s like to be a conscious goblet or rose. It echoes Joseph McElroy’s Plus, which is about a brain orbiting the earth in a capsule and reawakening into sentience, but Walker’s treatment, applying as it does to non-human entities, is entirely original and expertly executed.
Here’s a little bit of what it’s like to be a goblet: “The space she perceived was preternaturally round; the very shape of the room was circular, but its curvature was enhanced by the nature of her vision now, for she perceived what lay beyond her surface at every one of the three hundred and sixty degrees of the compass with equal distinctness and clarity. […] All objects, though exceptionally fine in outline and strangely luminous, as if a film of the purest water ran between herself and them, nevertheless warped in a peculiar horizontal attenuation that made them seem like the squat shapes of midday shadows, though highly colored and vivid.”
And what it’s like to be a blooming seed: “As his roots awakened to the surrounding soil, and his myriad pores opened to the mordant, wormy, mineral flavor of the earth-draught which, as he now realized, he had been longing for hungrily, he felt his thin subterranean tendrils reaching out like peculiarly sensitive fingers that can also taste, or digital tongues, and all the subtle familiar flavors of burrowing creatures, and annelida and the vagrant dilutions of zinc, magnesium, and copper, swam into his senses as though he had never been absent from the perennial welcoming earth.”
Extending from the concept of conscious objects, what if one thing or everything in your room was a spy out to undermine you if not assassinate you outright? I’m reminded of an author I’ve read only once as a kid but whose definition of terror has stayed with me, Stephen King: “…when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.” This is a recipe for perfect paranoia that Walker takes advantage of with hilarity near the novel’s end.
Overall, it took Wendy Walker a total of 15 years to write this ensorcelling and crystalline novel and perhaps that’s why no one would ever guess that it’s a first effort. And yet, having been published by Sun & Moon Press in 1992, there is so far no second novel, and a hefty part of the blame is shared by those who would rather read the works of James Patterson or Tom Clancy, books devoid of consciousness.