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The Delphi Room Paperback – September 15, 2013
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“My mother was on her way over the day I hung myself.”
With this startling, mysterious line, author Melia McClure begins The Delphi Room, a fascinating and engrossing novel that is at times beautiful, heartbreaking, terrifying, and perplexing. It’s even funny. Often, it’s all of these things simultaneously.
After taking her own life, a young woman, Velvet, lands in a kind of afterlife where she’s relegated to a room full of artifacts from her childhood. The room also contains other notable items: a mirror, a writing desk, and a pad of paper. Though she tries every way she can think to escape, Velvet is trapped in the room. She’s not alone, though--before long, she discovers that the room adjacent to hers is occupied by an also-dead man named Brinkley.
Through letters passed between their spaces, along with viewed episodes from each other’s lives--seen through the mirrors in their respective rooms--Velvet and Brinkley start to become intimately acquainted. For Velvet, these pivotal life scenes revolve around her relationship with her mother, her mother’s troubled love life, and Velvet’s often volatile connection with her own friend Davie. Brinkley’s scenes mostly focus on his interactions with his mother.
These viewed life episodes make up a significant portion of the novel and are presented in screenplay format, which is an interesting and effective authorial choice for a number of reasons. It not only reflects both characters’ professed love and appreciation for cinema, but it allows us to “see” the scenes from a distant, presumably objective point of view, creating the impression that we’re seeing what actually happened rather than relying on the character’s account. It’s also significant that both Velvet’s and Brinkley’s mothers are presented as dead ringers for Hollywood golden age stars, Mae West and Rita Hayworth, respectively.
It’s not quite that simple, though. Some of Velvet’s episodes also feature a dark entity called the Shadowman, a person she’s known for most of her life. Similarly, a number of Brinkley’s clips—which we see through Velvet’s mirror—feature his own “other,” the silent film actress Clara Bow. Both the Shadowman and Clara Bow appear from time to time, advising Velvet and Brinkley during trying situations. (Now that I think about it, “advising,” while technically a suitable word, has too benign a connotation, but you’ll have to read the novel to find out what I mean. And read it you should.)
The Delphi Room, as I mentioned earlier, is engrossing, and it’s a difficult thing to quit. Not only is McClure’s prose lush, beautiful, haunting, and, as I mentioned before, often funny. She also draws us through the story by tantalizing us with questions: How did Brinkley die? Is he lying to Velvet? Is she lying to us? Who is the Shadowman? How did Velvet and Brinkley become the way they are? What’s the purpose behind them being in this mysterious place? Is there a purpose at all? Is what’s happening to them real? Does that even matter?
Not surprisingly, the tension between subjective and objective reality is a theme McClure returns to again and again throughout the novel. “It’d always irked me how doctors outright dismissed the reality of people they couldn’t see,” Velvet muses. “What a limited and selfish perspective. Not to mention condescending. Reality is by its very nature subjective, to varying degrees.”
Here’s the bottom line: When I first finished reading The Delphi Room, I couldn’t think of what I wanted to say about it. I had to take some time to formulate my thoughts and assess what I'd read. Sometimes it’s easy to review a book, to tell readers the most important aspects of the story, the major points and themes, to pass judgment on whether it “works” or not. Not to say that those kinds of books are inferior, not at all, but with this one, there are so many rich elements and such complex personal histories woven throughout, that I wanted to take care in writing about it, to make sure I did it justice. Because I believe it’s such an imaginative, daring, and important work, I felt it was especially important that I get that across.
Generally, I’m hesitant to mention the length of time it takes me to finish a book, not wanting to create the impression it’s an “easy read.” With this novel, though, it’s significant that I read it in one sitting and that I sacrificed valuable sleep time in doing so. It was well worth it.
So, read The Delphi Room. Me? I’m going to read again.
This is the interesting question at the heart of The Delphi Room, although I might suggest that the book also explores the question of finding love for oneself after death.
In a beautiful opening chapter, Velvet commits suicide at the urging of her psychosis Shadowman. Afterward, she finds herself alone, locked in a room in what she believes is Hell. Her only companion is another recently deceased prisoner who is locked in a room of his own. He has a psychosis of his own in the form of Clara Bow.
As the two of them learn about each other (in a manner both novel and effective -- see below), they also learn about themselves and we see each reflected in the life of the other.
Reflections and the shifting nature of perception are explored on a number of levels and wrapped in sumptuous prose. It's a literary mille feuille, if you'll excuse the metaphor. (I probably shouldn't write when I am hungry!)
Lush Writing and Creative Design
The crown of this particular mille feuille is rich, velvety descriptives. We perceive the settings, both in the characters' purgatorial present, as well as their rebroadcast pasts, in a way that is sharper, yet softer, than we do the everyday physical world. For me, this conveyed a heightening of senses after death and gave a dream-like sheen to the experience.
Velvet and Brinkley learn about each other by turns via notes passed through a grate and vignettes played out in mirrors in their respective rooms. You might think that the narrative shifts would present transitioning and contextual problems for the reader, especially for a story told in the first person.
As it turns out, not so much.
Great writing style and creative book design (the vignettes are formatted as excerpts from a screenplay) keep the context clear and make the transitions effortless. A big tip of the chef's toque to the author as well as to ChiZine designer Danny Evarts for making it work so very well.
I have to confess that I didn't absolutely love either Velvet or Brinkley, but I was utterly captivated by the various layers of reflection and perception at play. I was constantly drawn forward through the story and felt the loss when it was over.
Note: Melia McClure will be reading from The Delphi Room on Wednesday, November 13th at 8:00pm as part of ChiSeries Toronto.
Originally posted at cheffojeffo.wordpress.com
I think McClure set the bar pretty high for herself, and met those goals. This isn't your ordinary paranormal romance, but something much deeper, much more visceral. Give it a peek.