Author Justine Graykin describes this novel as, “a story for grown-ups who are tired of grown-up books.” At a time when it seems that every kind of fiction from literary to YA to fantasy finds it necessary to rub its readers’ noses in endless sex, trauma, violence and dirt, Archimedes Nesselrode (Double Dragon Publishing: 2013) provides a welcome respite. This gentle love story between two quirky characters is reminiscent of an earlier school of writing. At the same time, there is more going on here than meets the eye.
Thirty-two year old Vivian Mare was born into service, as they used to say. Her unmarried mother traveled the world as the personal maid and secretary of a benign and tolerant wealthy couple, and Vivian spent her childhood traveling with them. When she came of age, Vivian pursued the same line of work as her mother, taking positions in the households of the rich and famous, but she never stayed very long. No employer was as interesting as the peripatetic travel writers she grew up with. She is therefore unconcerned when Frank Shekle, agent for a mysterious and reclusive artist, warns her that the home in which she is about to become housekeeper is rather…strange.
To say the least. When Vivian — or Ms. Mare as she is usually addressed — arrives at Mr. Nesselrode’s “rather old, three-story New Englander” house, she immediately enters a Wonderland of oddities. Hidden by a wildly overgrown garden and badly in need of upkeep, the house is surrounded and filled with fantastic creatures. A basilisk guards against intruders while miniature blue sheep keep the grass trimmed. A heron wearing a long skirt and spectacles takes care of Mr. Nesselrode. A giant starfish, a winged snake, an outsized emerald-green lobster and a troop of unruly marmosets roam the house along with seven cats.
All of these creatures — except the cats — have been created by Archimedes Nesselrode, who has the ability to transform inanimate matter into living, sentient and autonomous creatures. His fame as an artist rests on clear plastic cubes containing delicate illusions of fabulous animals and plants which interact with the observer but have no substance. These are exhibited and sold to collectors for enormous prices, but the live creations are for Mr. Nesselrode’s companionship only.
The no-nonsense and business-like Vivian overcomes her initial shock very quickly. At last she’s found a situation stimulating enough to hold her attention. She launches into returning the disgracefully neglected house (in the state you’d expect from a bachelor artist who’s lived alone for ten years) to a civilized condition, and more gradually adjusts to living with Mr. Nesselrode’s creatures — and their master.
Archimedes Nesselrode himself is tall, pale and slender, seemingly vulnerable and fragile, hiding from the world. As Vivian discovers when she looks up old news stories, he had once been a flamboyant showman until some obscure crisis ten years earlier led to his secluding himself. He never leaves his property. As time passes, Vivian learns more about her employer, his past and his strange powers, and is drawn into the magical world he not only inhabits, but entirely creates. But Vivian is changing Mr. Nesselrode’s delicate equilibrium as much as he is changing her. Consequently, the real world, in the form of art galleries, reporters, dentist appointments and old entanglements, pulls Mr. Nesselrode out of his refuge, with unforeseeable results.
The story is written in a consciously archaic vernacular, suggestive of fantasies published a century or so ago, but always clear and accessible. The time period remains hazy. Although the narrative presumably takes place in the present day, very little technology or other details are mentioned that pinpoint a date any more closely than “late 20th century to present.” Mr. Nesselrode’s house has a phone, but no television. Vivian does her research at the library, and she keeps in touch with her mother via written letters. Mr. Nesselrode’s car is an antique. Very little in the book interferes with the sense that we’re in a slightly alternate reality, one in which Mr. Nesselrode can create the things he does and be greeted with amazement rather than paranoid suspicion or abduction by some shadowy government laboratory.
The book presents a lovely, and only somewhat metaphorical, portrait of the mind and lifestyle of an artist. Mr. Nesselrode’s sensitivity and daily existence ring with familiar tones to anyone in the real world who is truly creative as an artist or writer. We all know that sense of joy in doing the impossible, the compulsion to bring something into being that no one else has even thought of before, and the shifted consciousness that renders so much of the world and other people incomprehensible. But along with this, Archimedes Nesselrode challenges us to accept people with unusual limitations and qualities for what and who they are. It’s very tempting to feel that people who are “different” should be “fixed.” But what if being “fixed” destroys the essence of their beings? Is “different” the same as “damaged?”
Invoking shades of the play Harvey, the Mary Poppins books (which are heavily imbued with the philosophies of G.I. Gurdjieff) and one of my all-time favorite “grown-up” fantasies, John Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost, Archimedes Nesselrode is a rare pleasure for modern-day readers. Justine Graykin will make you believe that love and art truly can make a better world, even if only by the light of the full moon.Powered by Sidelines