Have you ever read a novel that was both wonderful and annoying, and also both wholly original and unashamedly derivative? Welcome to The Starless Sea. I had been waiting for Erin Morgenstern’s next book for quite some time, as have a lot of other people, and now here it is, an enormous meander that loops back on itself like ribbons, beautifully written and as filled with stray bits of this and that as the below-ground realm where the story (if it’s a story, and it seems to be, but can one be entirely sure?) unfolds. Sometimes nothing seems to be happening. And then something happens, but Morgenstern has crafted the narrative in such a clever way that you’re not sure what happened, or what it means, or if it really happened at all.
Let’s get the derivative bits down on paper. Maybe we should call them postmodern. There are overt references to Narnia, to Harry Potter, and to Alice in Wonderland. To the universal library of Jorge Luis Borges. Near the end a line from a Leonard Cohen song drifts onto the page, without an overt hint where it came from, and I’m sure there are other clever bits along the way that I missed. The prevalence of owls and cats is bound to suggest Edward Lear, and of course the title of the book is a not very oblique reference to Coleridge. One of the main characters is named (or may be named) Dorian, so we have our Oscar Wilde reference. Oh, and text adventure games and choose-your-own-adventure books.
Two points of reference may or may not be strictly in my own mind: The plot (if it’s a plot) bears more than a little resemblance to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. And the business of an invisible library, which has everything to do with The Starless Sea, may or may not suggest that Morgenstern is acquainted with Genevieve Cogman’s light-hearted series.
In Neverwhere, an ordinary man stumbles upon a magical London that exists beneath the London everybody knows and has great difficulty finding his way out again. Morgenstern’s conception is larger and deeper than that, less gritty and more surreal. But if you’ve read Neverwhere you’ll know that one of the main characters in that book is a young woman named Door. In The Starless Sea, magical doors are everywhere. They never lead where you expect them to, and they’re seldom where you expect them to be.
Morgenstern’s postmodern conception involves books that tell fragments of stories that are also about the real people (or are they real? are they people?) in the novel. There are bees in the story, lots of bees, and swords, and keys — lots and lots of keys. There’s an Owl King, who may or may not appear in the form of a stag, so Cernunnos gets a nod, along with Persephone. Doorknobs hanging from ribbons. A man with one hand and a woman with one eye. A burned doll house. A pirate. An innkeeper. And if you think I’m just tossing a jumble of barely connected elements at you, you’re starting to get the idea.
Grad student Zachary Rawlins finds a strange book in the university library. An oblique clue in the book leads him to a masked costume party in Manhattan, where he meets Dorian and a woman named Mirabel. Before long Mirabel paints a door on a blank wall, Zachary goes through the door, and … well, I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself. He asks a lot of questions of the people he meets, and nobody ever answers any of his questions. He falls in love with Dorian. There’s also a subplot about Simon and Eleanor (except her name isn’t Eleanor), who also fall in love and all that. But it isn’t a love story. It’s about following clues scribbled on scraps of paper that have been folded up into stars. Or about honey and beeswax and snow and discovering a painting that you’re in. Or about time and fate and the moon. Or something. And of course the ending loops back into a new beginning, which is probably not an intentional reference to Finnegans Wake but how can we be certain?
I’ve read The Night Circus twice. The second time, I felt very put off by the ending, because the two magicians who have shamelessly manipulated the young lovers’ lives are never punished for their evil machinations. But I think now that I was judging it by the wrong criteria. I was judging it as plotted fiction, and it isn’t: It’s a myth. The Starless Sea is more plainly mythic in scope, and less linear, more a dreamscape.
When all’s said and done, it’s a beautiful and lovingly written book; but not, I would say, a book that will tickle every fantasy lover’s fancy.