Ah, the Victorians. Lori Baker's debut novel "The Glass Ocean" (she has three published short story collections) has been praised by none other than Thomas Pynchon for its attention "not only to the closely woven texture of their days, but also to the dangerous nocturnal fires being attended to in their hearts." But while Baker's prose burns with a dreamlike intensity, her Victorian characters seldom bring their passions into the light of day, and too often the story feels as if it's floating in its own lyricism without a compass.
Our story begins in the 1840s, when Leo Dell'oro falls in love with Clotilde Girard on the deck of her father's ship, the Narcissus. Leo, a gifted young artist raised in a jet-carver's shop, has been hired to sketch specimens during a scientific voyage to the Yucatan. A tragedy throws Clotilde into his arms, at once precipitating their marriage and destroying all chances that it will be a happy one. The narrator probes and dissects the marriage — which can't be said to disintegrate, since it was never whole — as if it were itself an unknown specimen in need of classification.
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About that narrator. Her name is Carlotta Dell'oro, and she has a decided investment in understanding Leo and Clotilde, since she is the product of their ill-fated union. Carlotta introduces herself in a paragraph that faintly echoes the opening passage of "Lolita" — shades of Dolores in the last name Dell'oro — but this is a heroine in full possession of herself: with hair that is "long, red, bright as flame," she stands "six foot two in my stocking feet." Carlotta is setting sail for the New World at the book's start but delays her journey, launching into her parents' troubled relationship instead. Over the next several hundred pages, Carlotta wanders glumly through the halls of their not-quite-love story, imagining the minutiae of day-to-day lives shrouded in silence and populating them with motives she admits are purely speculative.
If you haven't already seen the drawbacks of the narrator's Tristram Shandy-ish interest in her own creation, you should know that her parents' failed marriage does not present any sort of action that could compete with Carlotta's promised voyage, nor any characters as passionate as Carlotta herself. Frustrated by Clotilde's terminal depression and disinterest, Leo turns to glassmaking as a creative outlet, a turn that gives us fascinating glimpses into an arcane world of craftsmanship rife with metaphorical possibilities. But alas, metaphor is not plot, and many readers will feel caught in the raised foot of a narrator who keeps announcing she is about to step off the edge of the world but never does. Although sprinkled with mysterious disappearances, bitter rivalries, smudgy street urchins and slow-burning passion, the book never really steps off the edge of its world, creating the claustrophobic feeling of being enclosed inside a richly decorated exposition.
That's not, however, to disparage the decor. Baker is gifted with a surreal, descriptive imagination, and her Victorian world is densely populated with the kind of objects you want to pick up and examine: kaleidoscopes, mechanical birds, glass eyes, hanging orchids. The novel is a cabinet of curiosities stuffed to the gills with fascinating things, and Baker is at her best when breathing life into them. An animal's vertebrae are displayed on velvet "like broken links in a lady's necklace"; lizards expand and deflate their throats "like gentlemen about to utter unwise remarks of which they have suddenly thought better." The careful lyricism in these passage hits its mark.
But human beings are a moving target, and if the objects in the book seem almost alive, the actual characters too often resemble objects in their stiffness and inscrutability. Leo's attraction to Clotilde is portrayed as the interest of an artist in a beautiful, complicated object, a view that the narrator endorses by constantly describing her as one: "The whorl of her ear like a seashell. Her teeth are pearls, her lips are corals." Although she occasionally seems aware that this is problematic — "She is a sphinx, a cipher. We have projected upon her in turn, first my father, then me. We are making her, he in his way, I in mine" — it is not entirely clear why Carlotta's imagination of her father's thoughts is so much more vivid. Both have disappeared, and both are her creations. Why is Clotilde given such a sluggish interiority? And why should readers feel invested in the actions of a cipher, or those of a man in a cipher's thrall — especially when those actions are imagined?
With questions like these hanging in the air, the stakes of "The Glass Ocean" are often difficult to locate; they always seem to be slipping around the corner, or shifting with the turning kaleidoscope that is Baker's dreamy prose. Some readers will be fascinated. Others will grow weary of looking at beautiful pictures that come together for an instant, only to fall apart just as quickly.
Amy Gentry is a writer, performer and blogger.
"The Glass Ocean"
By Lori Baker, Penguin, 352 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun