Review: Jessica Schneider’s The Architecture of Loss

At a mere 80 or so pages, Jessica Schneider’s novella – The Architecture of Loss – manages to achieve much within its short length. Although, being an early work of hers, it sets up many of her favorite tropes and themes that would be further refined in later works – that fact does not prevent it from being singularly unique due to the countless innovations held within and the sheer beauty of the prose. Furthermore, the novella is available for sale on Amazon, which means you can buy it now and get a taste of the future to come when the rest of her novels are published for the public to finally consume.

Since the novella is absolutely dense, and because I don’t want to spoil too much of the experience – I’ll be covering some prose sections, as well as some parts of the book’s structure, to illustrate the many things that this work has to offer. Firstly, here is the summary of the book as posted on Amazon:

Victor Erickson has recently resigned from his position as an architect due to reasons he finds too painful to disclose. His family, worried about his isolation and sanity, take turns monitoring his well-being. Finally, on one snowy winter morning, Victor finds himself enclosed within his own inner world while his daughter Anna visits. As Victor relays a tale about having almost drowned as a boy, the two find themselves discoursing about death, dream and the illusion of perception. With neither able to leave due to the impending weather, Anna too finds herself stuck within her own stillness.

At the core of the novella is the above mentioned ‘discourse’ between Anna, and her father, Victor. You would think that this would turn the book into one of those musty literary experiments centering around clashing voices. Yet, despite a bulk of the book being dialogue (and thus the subtitle ‘A Novella in Three Acts’ – jumping between play/film and prose sections), there is so much revealed in the exchange between Victor and Anna, and it is told so wonderfully, that it does not read like an experiment at all. The novella has many innovations, but they flow and cohere so naturally that the mind is caught in the scenes, of the characters and their world, rather than the artifice.

One such innovation is in how the story opens. It begins with a quick scene between Victor and his wife (initially unnamed) – showing the tension of their marriage combined with some of the lightest wintry prose ever placed on a page:

“I don’t care if it is cold. I don’t want to hear the flame,” Victor responds, still sitting in his bathrobe and pulling his blanket up close to his face. He can feel his body shivering, even though the living room is modestly warm. He is beside the shut window, and outside he can see from his chair the snows rolling into hills of white bedding, appearing almost transparent, and without human tracks. It is supposedly the coldest January the city has experienced for five decades or more.”

The second chapter then jumps to some time in the past, when Victor and his wife (Christabel) first got together – they met as teens because their parents both owned lake houses on Lake Superior. It is a longer chapter and focuses mainly on Christabel’s perspective. The amazing thing is how, after this chapter, we will hardly see Christabel in person (except two other chapters) despite the massive role she seems to play in Victor’s life – because Anna will come in and the long dialogue between Victor and Anna will begin. Yet, we will feel Christabel’s presence sometimes through the dialogue – when she is mentioned and her character slips through the gaps. This is also the only chapter-length third-person narrated flashback in the whole book. In other words, what we get, through this momentary dip into memory – is a mere hint at the foundation of all of Victor’s later suffering through a god’s eye view of his background. Although, certainly, flashbacks aren’t a new thing in an author’s repertoire – the way it is used here is truly innovative, for it where it is chosen and how it plays out. We even get a slight touch of intertextuality with Coleridge’s poem Christabel being used in the chapter itself, to further the overall atmosphere of stillness.

The character of Victor is also extremely interesting. He is a depressed unemployed architect lazing at home in utter solitude, and when you think about this description you can think about all the possible ways that this book could fall into cliché. Works centering around angsty or depressed characters – Plath’s Bell Jar or Dazai’s No Longer Human – have been prevalent throughout the whole of history. Victor is different because the book does not conform to merely his perspective, uses Anna as a foil (although she is full of angst herself), and the melodrama/solipsism/self-pity/self-suffering exists solely within the character and is not submerged into the whole book. The result is that there are moments when Victor is pathetic, and there are moments when he is wise and can see into Anna’s problems while being blind to his own, and there are moments when he glimpses into a higher cosmos of creativity – he is complex and multi-faceted, and he does not fall into the utter anomie like so many other portrayals of depression out there.

Victor also follows the trope of the overly intellectual artist (or artistic wannabe) caught up in his own dreams and abstractions – a character that does not just appear in other works by Jess, but also in the works of other creators like Bergman and Woody Allen. During some parts of the dialogue, he will jump into poetic leaps of fancy and abstract ideas. For example:

“No, it wasn’t. Because I had this overwhelming sense of peace. Granted, when I woke I was in a sweat, but during the dream, it was nice to feel forgotten. Some might say that sounds depressing, but it was a state of otherness that I admired,” he says. She waits for him to finish, pausing just enough to make sure he is not going to speak again.
“Sounds depressing, dad,” Anna says while lifting their empty bowls. They have both finished lunch.
“No, but it’s not. It wasn’t at all. It was just strange, really.”
“It sounds strange,” she says before adding, “Is that what makes you happy? To be forgotten about? Don’t you want people to remember you? I mean that’s the last thing I would have thought you’d find reassuring—to be wiped out of oblivion.”
“You make it sound so melodramatic. But I can assure you, it wasn’t like that.”

This exchange comes when Victor recounts a dream he has of being in a “giant room that was all red, and then it felt like it was swallowing me up”. The interesting thing is how, within the context of Victor’s personality – this exchange outlines his depression and angst – yet, when seen in the context of the whole novella, can be attached to so many different symbols and ideas that are brought up within the book about art and the cosmos. This is a leap of association that never appears in the solipsism of Plath’s Bell Jar – that a character can simultaneously dig internal into himself, and yet outline higher things as well.

Anna, as you can tell from the above extract, serves to viciously pull Victor out of his own head – even though the ferocity she uses to do so outlines her own flaws. So, a chunk of the dialogue focuses on these two self-loathing intellectuals, despite being father and daughter, tearing at each other and trying to assert their own ego. Once again, the novella could have gone in all sorts of wrong cliched directions – were it not for the fact that Jess took the best lessons from creators like Bergman and Allen, and never lets the internal suffering of the characters dominate the work.

In order to achieve this, the prose is absolutely important. Jess inserts little pockets of astounding natural beauty throughout her novella to contrast with the selfishness and angst of the human emotions in the dialogue. Here are just some snippets to give you a taste:

Often on afternoons Christabel would sunbathe with her sisters, reading a collection of poetry, or when her literary father wasn’t around, a romance novel. She would sun all afternoon and shut her eyes and once again pretend to sleep. She would do this until the heated slants of sun caused her skin too much color, where by then she’d force herself into the overwhelming lake large enough to be a fresh water ocean, and walk her nude feet across partly sanded stones not yet soft.

A good hour has passed since they’ve eaten, and the snow still falls with a sense of unceasing persistence. Anna worries a little about her husband, in the hopes that his drive home will be alright. She is standing near the main window, which faces their large orchard, and a small fountain her father installed several years ago for her mother’s birthday looks back at her. Water that once fell freely through it six months ago in summer now stands stubborn and covered in a sheet of ice, buried below a shroud of white. The snow continues to fall everywhere around it, even making a small, pointed cone on the top of the small stone statue’s head. It makes the small naked boy appear to be wearing a hat. Anna watches while her breath makes fog on the glass, and it is upon noticing such, that she realizes she’s been standing there for too long.

Her face is hot, and so Anna rises to excuse herself. Down the hall, the walls are colored with the shades of expired afternoons, not quite night but too late for sun. The sky is gray and the trees laden with snow. Their branches point outward in contrast to the blending forgetfulness of the sky, which appears as one solid separateness, close and contained. A lowness holds her, and so she moves with it across the dimly lighted hallways, across the painted walls that have nothing for her to hold and yet they hold her, ever loosening as an old touch, where the hand she feels ever so briefly for a time then falls away without any sense of loss.

The lighthouse, although stagnant, makes a moving point of light along the length of the sea, growing ever deeper as the aging waves, these waves that greet shores on every point of earth, saturating it and all parts of land till there is blue against all sides. And then he finds himself on the island once again, near his summerhouse, and notices that his hands are not as they are in winter. In winter they appear whiter, when the winter works to wipe away any previous stains from the sun. But now his hands look as he remembers from his youth—copper colored and unclean from having sanded away years of stone, as though he too is a block of something solid. Thinking he sees his young wife, he waves but she does not wave back. She only continues to read and sip her drink in the lukewarm sun, her frame dangling in the hammock, watching while her single toe labors against the ground to move the rest of her. How relaxed she looks, thinking then that it has been so long since he remembers her appearing in such a way.

As you can see from above, the prose is incredibly refined, and also supports the themes by contributing to the sense of wintry stillness the two characters are trapped in. The moments where prose erupts are also smartly chosen, and the lighthouse paragraph above comes from Chapter 7, which is a telling of the red room dream that Victor later mentions to Anna. Though Victor cannot adequately explain it to his daughter, the prose does the work for you and conveys what he wishes he could convey.

Now – all of the above only serves to outline bits and pieces of the work in question, but how everything comes together can only be seen when reading the book itself. I have not touched on one of the most important aspects of the novel, which is the symbols used – especially that of ‘architecture’. I want you to think about what expectations and preconceived notions comes from reading the summary and weighing the title “The Architecture of Loss” in your head. It can refer to both internal and external architecture – and the divide is put into question throughout the novella, as the environment seems to seep into the characters, and vice versa. When I first read the title I was thinking, stereotypically, in terms of the loss of someone close – but the way in which both words – ‘architecture’ and ‘loss’ – are played with, and expectations subverted all the way to the very end, and constant layers of meaning built and overlapping – it is something that I feel has to be experienced rather than explained.

I hope this review will help spur you on to purchase The Architecture of Loss for yourself and experience the journey in full. It is merely an appetizer compared to the rest of Jessica Schneider’s plentiful corpus, but great nonetheless. And, for any publishers out there – you’re missing out on one of the greatest prose writers of our time (and not just one, but two!) – so get publishing!

Advertisements