Mannerist Narrative:

The Secret Service by Wendy Walker

We're living in a time of fantastic dreams with human consequences, a time of fatalistic escapism. It's something in the air, like an approaching storm. The scent of acid-tongued rain. Not the familiar flat zaniness of parody or plagiarism. Something less controllable, more mistrustful of its own nostalgia, more awkward in its flippancy: expensive material which insists on rumpling with damp.

Maybe it's an adaptation to the multinationals' marketing of safely multinationalized myths. Pop frivolity no longer protects us. Instead, it seems to be buckling under forces both external and internal, the elaborately arranged fissures lushly decorated. The moment finds expression in Delia Sherman's novels. It also finds expression in Hong Kong films such as Peking Opera Blues and Swordsman II, although the buckling forces differ.

Some years ago, Donald G. Keller did a splendid taxonomic job on its expression in American genre publishing, listing influences and concerns of what he called "fantasy of manners". Since then, he and others have begun using the art-historical term "mannerism" instead.

Mannerism most commonly identifies the post-Renaissance pre-Baroque styles of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the period encompassing Tintoretto and El Greco, John Donne and John Webster. "Mannerism means experimental response, tentative commitment, learned but personal research, overcleverness in handling conventional forms and elements." (All Mannerism-related quotes are taken from an 1955 Anchor paperback, Four Stages of Renaissance Style, by Wylie Sypher. If only for the pleasure of citing his name.)

The "mannerist" label seems out of place when applied to innocuously parodic or derivative work. But applied sparingly and with reference to its origins in art history, I find the label useful. More precisely than "fantasy of manners," it points to what most interests me in a cultural moment which crosses media, genre, and language.

For example, in The Secret Service, by Wendy Walker. Published by the perfectly wonderful Sun & Moon Press, specialists in experimental poetry, the novel hasn't been marketed as contemporary fantasy. Its writer shows no signs of having been influenced by contemporary fantasy. Still, it's as clearly a mannerist narrative (and as murkily sui generis) as Swordspoint, Moonwise, Winterlong, or Through a Brazen Mirror.

It begins:

I am a mousseline goblet, upside-down, set aside to dry, the banquet done. Some daggle-tail scrub-girl has cleansed me. I am also the lacy midinette, binding the bouquet for the courtly gentleman come to purchase camellias before the party, at my aunt's flower shop; I count the change, he glances at my petticoat, ready to turn me upside-down and ring me like a bell.
Both complex assertions are literally, manneristically, true. Polly, narrator of the moment, is shopgirl by day and mousseline goblet by night. She is a member of the Secret Service, and the "Service" is both a government agency and a table setting. Literalizing still further, the closely observed-and-observing gentleman will in fact soon ring Polly-the-goblet like a bell.

An explanation can quickly be cobbled together from jacket-copy or contents. In an imaginary England half-Regency, half-Edwardian, a means of transforming oneself into any non-conscious object has been discovered. This would be an incalculably harmful weapon if it fell into the wrong hands, but, by definition, the English have the right hands.

The plot which necessitates the weapon's deployment is too obvious to even make for good slapstick: a shell game of infant girls which will supposedly create a scandal capable of destroying the British royal family. Only the Service stands between the kingdom and certain doom, etc.

The novel's characters are easy to cast -- or would be, if Powell-Pressburger's stock company was still available. Our heroes are a stouthearted mustachioed Colonel (disguised as a bronze Thisbe), and a clever but overly impetuous young man (disguised as a rose). There's a spunky young heroine à la Wendy Hiller, and a sensible matronly heroine à la Angela Lansbury. The Continental villains (one French, one Italian, one German) reek of absinthe and garlic, cloak themselves in Catholicism and connoiseurship, arrange incestuous marriages and grind children's bones. And new familiar figures keep drifting in: a beautiful princess locked in a tower, a beautiful boy named Ganymede....

So a romp is promised. ("The whole effect is one of melodrama and levity -- or demented ingenuity." -- Sypher on the Chigi Palace.) But in the best mannerist tradition, this proves misleading. The romp leads us into traps so painful as to seem almost lifelike.

The first sticking point is the very pleasure of the prose. Not that its vocabulary wraps itself as rapturously in exotic translucency as Greer Gilman's, for example. But somehow, even while describing action, it seems to drift away from narrative, fascinated by the very processes of perception and description. The gaze simultaneously skims the dark ornamentation of the surface and loses itself in deep water.

Of course, one might expect a novel in which characters are so often mineral or vegetable to seem a bit static. And it's likely that next, the reader will be struck by the stubborn refusal of characters to continue content in their action-driven roles. ("Often in mannerist portraits the cliché becomes a mask. ...the iconography does not correspond to the psychology." -- Sypher.) The characters' truest instincts are for withdrawal; their basest desire is control; their noblest desire is to not feel, to (at most) observe. Sometimes this passivity is protested. The rose-knight, Rutherford, chafes in his thorns:

For the first time he anticipated the fact of his imminent blossoming with a positive physical awareness. Inevitably, following the course of his own growth, he must let down his guard, relax, become open, and how could he allow this? Was it really so natural to allow every passing insect to probe one's most defenseless portions? He would be vulnerable to every curious creature, and how could an agent function with such a liability?
But Rutherford's grotesque, sometimes fatal, attempts to take action end best by sitting down and listening to a story.

The frequent intrusion of new stories -- not subplots so much as alternative plots -- provides another clue to the novel's mannerist intentions. The Official Plotline vanishes beneath the attention of its attendants. The most extreme interruption is a 120-page chapter detailing the hermetic Alice-like adventures of a comatose character. Fascinating in its own right, it (like the similarly interpolated "heroic fantasy" of Lucius Shepard's Green Eyes) is likely to irritate many readers. What's the point?

The point is to intrude, to distract, to delay. ("The logic of the structure does not coincide with the structural elements." -- Sypher on Michaelangelo's Medici Chapel.) The sub-Dumas intrigue dissolves, swamped by the deeper concerns of the book, until it can be plucked away so easily that its resolution hardly registers. The narrative structure resembles the aimlessly intent inward drift of the characters. Both model the book's true concerns in their process, if not always in their content.

In The Secret Service, the aim of possession is to take the place of the thing possessed, and self-possession is therefore a hall of mirrors. ("This device for self-contemplation is dramatically immediate, but preposterously contrived, like some of the self-regarding poems of Donne." -- Sypher on Parmigianino's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.") Heroes, villains, and victims all seek transformation into the simple and inanimate, and, reluctantly, with toll paid, seek to return again. The price is their humanity, as the extravagantly artificial characters grow colder and more damaged.

The book is a series of variations on the old dream of irresponsibility, of striking out for the interior: an interior simultaneously frontier and self and womb.

Then in the growing lassitude of her temptation, a thought returned to her, of a box she had seen... in which a marble hand served as a cot to a sleeping child.... She drove on through the ooze, the image of the baby floating before her, growing in her mind until it drowned out the dreadful bogs. She envied its clean, supple nakedness, glowing with warmth and sleep; how entirely secure it was, ensconsed unconscious in the protective hand.
Irresponsibility finds its most extreme expression in lifelessness, and so the lifeless are envied, and even emulated. Responsibility cannot be evaded indefinitely, however. While the observer may be jealous of the marbleized hand's gentle warmth, the meat cooks within.
This is the other source of the heat, that it cannot disperse itself through my skin and is thus ever increasing inside it.... You would not guess to look at my hand, or to touch it, that it was boiling so inside. Even as I writhed Mme. Lenore held my hand, but could feel nothing of what was causing me such agony.
Over character or plot, the book concerns itself with the tension between soul and matter (as expressed in the contrast between understanding and observation), and the unsatisfiable desire to retreat into -- just one? No, it's perfectly clear that both pure soul and pure matter mean death. No, to somehow retreat into both, but safely, cleanly. ("The vacillation between flesh and spirit is the true metaphysical tension; and there is no resolution beyond a dramatic accomodation." -- Sypher.)

Obviously, the literary conventions of stiffly-upper-lipped British and unflappable aristocracy are well suited to Walker's theme; they are not simply parroted or simply satirized. At its best, the arch Eurocentric nostalgia typical of mannerist narrative is as misleading as the pretense of science in the best science fiction. The mannerists' true force shows itself in the cracked surface, in the need to escape their own affectations. ("The insolence and calculation in mannerism do not arise from self-confidence, but are really signs of anxiety and repression.... Mannerism is not only decorative but also expressive in a taut uneasy way, as if the figures had the resistance of the coiled spring. Yet they appear passive, suffering mutely from internal and unintelligible strain." -- Sypher.) Thus the climactic scenes in mannerist novels: breaking a window, breaking a horn, breaking one's own stilled stone limbs....

Given Sypher's description "of the mannerist depersonalization or frigidity as lacking an appearance of humanity although the sensitivity to experience is extreme," Walker's novel of inanimate spies is a direct translation of mannerism into narrative. As is so often the case with mannerist narrative, the perfection implicitly promised by the ostentatiously worked surface is not fulfilled. The structure is awkward, the shifts more disclosing the crafter's hand than disclosing craft. The antiquated plot adds neither depth nor luster to the surface it supports.

Nevertheless, as is also so often the case, the force and originality of the work win out. It is pleasurable, moving, and memorable in ways incompatible with smoothness. It delivers the mindfuck missing from the mainstreams (including the mainstreams of science fiction and fantasy). Yes, the mindfuck may seem absurdly contrived, artificial, bitter, fetishistic; entangled with questions of class, commerce, and power -- but that's the '90s for you. The time in which we and The Secret Service live.

Copyright 1994 Ray Davis