A common compliment to give a novel is that it has been, or ought to be, devoured in a single sitting. Praise sometimes even tends toward the pathological, with descriptors like “compulsively readable” and “obsessively good.” I myself am guilty of using such phrases, but The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge made me pause to consider the merit of such intensity. There are many ways to enjoy a book; please don’t take it as a criticism of The Carnival of Ash when I say that it does not require such furious ingestion.
Instead, the interconnected short stories about a mythical Italian city called Cadenza are better appreciated over a longer period of time. Pick up the novel, laugh over the foibles of the poet or sigh at the melodramas of love, and then put it down. Come back later and find the next tale, which will be extremely different in theme and tone. Among others, there is a story of tightly-wound political machination, a monastic murder mystery, a gothic entanglement, and a revenge narrative steeped in body horror. The list goes on, with a range impressive in any short story collection, and all the more so here because the stories collectively tell the tale of Cadenza unraveling thread by thread in the background.
The Carnival of Ash is definitely channeling Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century collection of prose narratives The Decameron, which likewise features a series of short stories that range widely in subject and tone. There’s even a plague (The Decameron’s tale-tellers gather in the shadow of the Black Death), although it comes much later and does not provide the framing device. Indeed, there is no frame narrative in The Carnival of Ash. Instead, the characters all want something, so it doesn’t matter as much that the narrative lacks a central impetus until later.
I’ve been missing this kind of fantasy: the kind that doesn’t start in medias res and get right to the kingdom-, world-, or universe-devouring threat; the kind that meanders a bit, delighting in character rather than whipping the plot into a headlong charge. We get to meet all sorts of people and see all kinds of things we’d never otherwise encounter if the plot were laser-focused.
The first canto is about Carlo, a young poet whose eagerness for fame outstrips his skill and sense. Carlo arrives in Cadenza from the countryside on the very day that Cadenza’s ruler, Tommaso Cellini, is found dead, and Carlo immediately bungles his introductions by trying to win favor during a time of mourning. He adopts increasingly desperate measures to repair his mistake, each one failing more spectacularly than the last.
As a 50% shareholder in Dramatic Bitch Inc., I was immediately fond of Carlo’s completely over-the-top histrionics. Especially since we’re not meant to take them too seriously—his companion Ercole’s sardonic commentary undermines Carlo’s actions at each turn, making a mockery of his youthful excess. I wouldn’t have minded a whole novel that stayed with Carlo as he tried to repair his disastrous first impressions in the city. But once the POV shifted to Vittoria, a celebrated author of erotic literature in her capacity as what Cadenza calls an “ink maid,” I was easily persuaded to put aside Carlo’s operatically high pitch to train my ear on the whispers and intimations swirling around her.
In this twelve-story collection Cadenza itself is the thirteenth tale, the palimpsest over which all the other stories are written, and its ruler the absent but haunting presence. Tommaso Cellini’s rule, according to our first impressions via Carlo, was ruthless but effective, the kind of poet-king worthy of a city of words like Cadenza. The city’s politics remain unseen but heavily felt in Vittoria’s tale, Cellini more of a gravitational absence, but by the third canto we learn that Cellini was more despotic than previously understood; and by the fourth we glimpse his truly sadistic appetites. Details continue to emerge over the course of the remaining stories, until we move from Cellini’s personal crimes to the corruption he spread across the whole of Cadenza, weakening its very foundations.
Not all of the stories are equally successful in serving this double duty. While I found the paranoia in “The Palace of Ink” to be a very effective emotional backdrop, for example, the resolution of the story’s standalone mystery was a bit thin. Similarly, the murder mystery of “St Peter in Chains” was as darkly lurid as Beckerlegge doubtless intended, but I’m not sure the themes entirely came together. As a librarian I’m certainly in favor of the refusal by one of its characters, Fra Bernardo, to burn books, but as a reader I’m less convinced that its themes really fell into place. Beckerlegge sometimes struggles in his dark and serious stories to really nail the endings, so while the body horror in “Lazaretto” is excellently gruesome from beginning to end, the haunting in “Palestrina” is too vague: its protagonist Lucrezia’s vengeance is already in motion; what does she think she can accomplish by confronting the ghost of Tommaso Cellini? And why don’t we get to see that confrontation? The story ends not with a cliffhanger or an ambiguous so much as with an abrupt halt.
Beckerlegge’s romance and humor are overall more compelling. “The Siege of Caterina” is comedy gold from start to finish, one of the best stories in the collection, about an unwilling wife whose bridal gift becomes a bastion of chastity even after her wedding. It’s a farce that turns unexpectedly earnest, the inverse of another of the successful comedy pieces, “Phobos, Muse,” which starts earnest and turns ironic. There, themes of deception remain consistent as a band of poets tries to enact a criminal caper, only to bear accidental witness to a miracle—or so they think.
Carlo, Vittoria, and a handful of others turn up in these and other stories, and their appearances mark both their individual development and the downward spiral of the city. It’s nice to have these touchstone characters, a bit of familiarity as the mayhem and murder keeps spinning further out of control. There’s something Shakespearean about Beckerlegge’s treatment of Cadenza, which is to say he shares Shakespeare’s attitude toward Italian settings and characters, all but breaking the fourth wall to say, fondly but emphatically, wow, these people are nuts, huh?
Leaving aside the fact that every culture and person is a bit nuts when you think about it, I don’t think Beckerlegge is wrong. I can’t claim to understand the Italian spirit, but I can at least tell you that he’s spot on in evoking the Italian American experience. Emotions soar and plunge at the slightest provocation, everyone loves purehearted sincerity only slightly less than ribald sarcasm, and characters treasure grudges far more than gold. To illustrate: I have been holding a grudge since I was two years old. I don’t really remember, but apparently a shop owner chided me a little too harshly about poking at a sign, and thenceforth everyone in my entire family hated the place, refused to shop there, and told everyone about how I had been insulted. I feel it bears repeating that I was two. I could not reliably hold a conversation or my own bowels, but I could hold a grudge.
So yes, I can believe that two former best friends have been feuding for entire decades, splitting the city between them instead of sitting down, having it out, and maybe apologizing. “The Lions of Libya” may not be flattering, but it certainly isn’t inaccurate. More than that, it’s a satisfying meditation on the folly of youth through the lens of age, the way that we become nostalgic for past joys even while those same pleasures sour in the present from long repetition.
Beckerlegge crams as much chaos as he can into The Carnival of Ash, and I appreciate that, I really do. Going for broke is always better than playing it safe, especially since it’s so appropriate to the setting. That being said, the riots, murders, and literal explosions at the finale can’t quite obscure the fact that, while chaos in the narrative is all well and good, chaos of the narrative doesn’t make for a great reading experience. Cadenza being undone in a spectacular conflagration by its own hubris and excess may be a fitting end for the book, but it leaves a lot of the characters at loose ends—and not in a cool, ambiguous way, but in a head-scratching, brought-up-short way.
Vittoria’s story in particular ends in a bizarre, unsatisfying moment of waiting. While an erotic writer undone by her own desires is, I suppose, some kind of abstractly literary resolution, we never really understand the origin or purpose of her apparently all-important tattoos, and though we see her weaned off a sudden drug addiction, we don’t have any resolution to her search for her servant’s killer.
(Yes, let’s pause there for a second—addiction, murder, supernatural tattoos, dangerous affairs, and literary demise. And that’s just one character!)
Carlo fares a bit better, as does Maddelina, another POV character. Although Lorenzo’s end is horrifying, it must also be said that it’s fitting, as is the madness that finally overtakes the poet Rinaldi. Most of the minor characters have good little arcs: Raffaele and Paolo become far worse people than they were in the beginning, but their fates are likewise appropriately poetic. Even a character mentioned only briefly early on, Fiametta, gives us a brief glimpse of her own story. These are all nice grace notes, evincing a rewarding attention to detail.
However, many more—and more significant—balls are dropped. The revelation that the barmaid Anna is Ercole’s daughter has potential but no payoff, and the even bigger revelation that Ercole is some kind of supernatural mastermind behind the destruction of the city is just odd. The snarky old guy is suddenly a prince of darkness? There weren’t enough hints that such a thing was even possible, let alone that he might have some kind of stake or motive in Cadenza’s downfall. While I appreciate a low-magic setting, the supernatural here was insufficiently defined for it to be affecting.
The unevenness of the many endings, not just in the final tale but throughout, mar the overall impressions of The Carnival of Ash. Wild, witty, and deeply committed to its own insanity, there’s a lot to love here. But in the perpetual upping of its ante, the collection leaves a lot by the wayside.