Genevieve Valentine
Mechanique Cover


Leslie D

of note: I am going to exorcise some demons right off the bat, afterward you will find that I actually did enjoy Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique.

Beginning Mechanique I wondered what I had gotten myself into. It was not the short chapters that exchanged narrators, shifted person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), and moved in and out of time. For the first hundred pages read and often set aside for life-interruptions, I mentioned aloud some form of: It's like a short story that has been stretched and contorted rather painfully into a novel. It's like myself with the long jokes, getting parts out of order or forgetting something key and attempting to restart or go back and Sean is trying not show his impatience, while N is rubbing her temples at the clumsy world-building. Mechanique had me rubbing my temples. I could come up with some clever literary explication about how the chapters' movement and their disjuncture mimic in form the renderings of a travelling circus through a devastated landscape. But all I could think was, will this smooth out?

The skirting of a secret via sly reference from lip corners and oblique cuts of the eye can be tantalizing but all I can only take so many had I only noticed-type asides. I love non-settings and characters made up of context as much as the base coat of an adverb-adjective-noun, and imagery so precise as to lay the page bare. Bird was fairly featureless but for the reactions people had to her. I was working to form her out of negative space. It was exhausting, in part because she wasn't the only one.* I (lover of the parenthetical) wondered what the deal was with all the parentheticals. Some could've been footnoted if not excised altogether but for the idea that they are yet not an aside of the narrator-of-the-chapter. I was tripping over them. They fit and yet not. They were metal bones, inorganic among the easier flow of text; only sometimes they didn't make their aerialist lighter.

Mechanique and I were moving rather clumsily around one another—and can easily I incur some blame here. I'd hardly surrendered to the wonder of anything, especially upon entering into the circus tent to be wooed out of my wits. No doubt I identify more as the government man. I couldn't fall under the Ring Master's thrall, because I'd yet to really hear her voice. There was a patience required that I hadn't expected nor felt I had time to give. But I was curious what the hell this little book was about and I was glad to have persevered past slow beginnings. The fondness I now have for the novel making the earlier difficulties begin to fade as if it were a mere fit of histrionics.

After 100 pages I was accustomed to the non-rhythm of the parentheticals and loose patterns emerged; the departures from a linear story to flashbacks that would flesh out character and story before increasingly fluid returns. More characters are given chapters to reveal themselves instead of remaining subject to others' perspectives. Moments begin to layer and overlap. The story gains ground when the older members of the circus add to the history of themselves and others. The personality of the circus and the situation of the world around them deepens in time for the reader to worry over outcomes.

The audience is ever kept at a distance, even the 2nd person asks us only to imagine this time instead of observe or overhear with 3rd and 1st. The conflicts lack investment without our caring for their human manufacturers so plot dynamics hold tenuous balance with characterization—thus all those allusions to something more sinister awaiting in the offing. We are to be enticed by mystery for the meanwhile. The characters are shifting imagery, much due to those shifting perspectives. The reader must wait to find the sort of solid form they might take hold of and begin to care about. If Valentine had left an important character as simplistic a figure such as they were declared for the first third of the book (Elena being just one), I would have been seriously disappointed and wouldn't have bothered to reassure that I'd enjoyed her novel.

Mechanique, like any relative of Frankenstein's dilemma, likely carries a bit more horror for those less inclined toward a morbid fascination with the body mutilation of war and mechanical intervention. The magnificence of what the Boss has done and is able to do battles endlessly with the grotesque. The wings symbolize this struggle perfectly, as I'm sure they are intended to do.

I am still debating mood as generated by diction/tone versus our conscious parsing of codes. Surely there were the creeping icy fingers in the desolate landscape, but one shouldn't consciously wonder if they should be horrified by killing humans, mechanizing bodies, or driving them to madness by grafting them to ghosts. Which comes first: the feeling or the knowing? Can it work either way, successfully, for you?

Mechanique is too stark in setting and theme to luxuriate in overwrought prose (read: refreshing! and brilliant). The very first lines: "The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn't look shabby until you've already paid.)" Unlike Little George, the avatar that would, we wake to the strange and the slightly sinister right away. We are denied the distraction of the sparkle—and in a way, that in itself is a distraction. I sometimes forgot we were supposed to be heading anywhere for the lovely string of bare chapters and the questionable reliability of those bits of mirrors. The Circus Tresaulti is a curious contraption and I was enjoying its bizarre and terribly human landscape. And yet, I was happy, too, when the government man came to call on page 131. He essentially trips the wire that calls everything previous into action.

Mechanique was entertaining, imaginative, and I do enjoy the short story-ist in the writing. Allowing for the flexibility to move between characters created nice layers of context and well-timed revelation. And I can see pursuing more of Valentine's work for her characters and the ways she makes them tick; especially the ones she gave edges to. So there were bumps that bruised a bit and my own mood, but I really would recommend Mechanique to most, especially those more inclined to short story or looking for respite from the expansive. Mechanique settles in and it really doesn't let go until it is good and ready (which would be about page 284), the acts build and they get more death defying, you wouldn't want to miss any of it.

recommendations: For lovers of Steampunk, post-apocalyptic dystopia, and/or Fantasy (which Mechanique is easily more F than SF (as students of osteology would figure out pretty quickly).

of note: Is not to be read alongside Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus if you considering a themed read, you would not do either work any great favors.

*I eventually cast Tilda Swinton as Bird, "Spike" from Buffy as Stenos, and Lucy Lawless as the Boss.