Speak Easy, by Catherynne M. Valente

This week, I’m going to recommend a thin volume that goes by the name Speak Easy, by a woman whose ideas are like cataclysms and whose words are like silk:  Catherynne M. Valente.  You should especially take this recommendation if you like Miles Davis and John Cage and Pablo Picasso and Frederick Fellini.  If you like what makes up ideas better than the ideas themselves, and don’t care if a work of art’s substance gets lost in its glorious style.

Because this book is gorgeously written, evocative of the Roaring Twenties and straight outta the Prohibition Era.  Every page, every paragraph has absolutely stunning prose.  Jazzy, smoky, decadent prose:

There’s this ragamuffin city out east, you follow?  Sitting pretty with a river on each arm, lit up in her gladdest rags since 1624.  She’ll tell you she’s seen it all, boy howdy, the deep down and the high up, champagne and syphilis, pearls and puke.  Oh, she’s a cynical doll, nothing new to her.

Don’t you believe it.

Treat her right and she’ll open up to you, as innocent as Eden and twice as naked.  She’s got secrets, sure, who doesn’t?  Pour me a snort and I’ll spill, mister.  Spot me a meal and I’ll show you the goods.

But the book is not about the city, it’s about a hotel in the city, the Artemisia, “stuck like a pin all the way through the world.”  And it’s about the people who live in the hotel – showgirls and starlets, jazzmen and bootleggers, composers and artists and bankers and baseball players, tenors and molls, high rollers and glitter janes and velvet fellas.  And above all, it’s about Zelda Fair, up in Room 1550.

She drank like a Czar and sang like a broken squeezebox and danced like the Sugarplum Fairy cutting loose at last.  Zelda was winter’s best dame:  pale and dark and thin with a shimmer of Christmas in her eye, a flash of New Year in her laugh.  Every Tom, Dick, and Rockefeller threw themselves at her, showered her in emeralds like green candy, sent a regular parade of dresses in long grey boxes…

Almost half of the book is pure description, of Zelda and her roommates, of the men who fall in love with her and women who are jealous of her, and other residents of the hotel who she may or may not know, whose lives may or may not intersect with hers.  It’s about parties and love affairs, wants and desires, about hopes and dreams, and about living in the moment, any moment.  At least until the moment when the Artemisia’s celebrated It-girl disappears.

The second part of the book is about Zelda’s journey to the basement of the hotel, via a door that appears in the back of her closet, and what she finds when she reaches the bottom.  It’s also about Frankie Key, the bellhop (kind of) who’s in love with her (who isn’t?) and  goes looking for her (well, and for the wife of the man who runs the hotel, who has also gone missing, because that man is his boss and he does what his boss tells him).

Ah, the basement, the underworld of the hotel, which is where Al lives – Al, who rules it all; short, ugly, flamboyant Al, who goes by many names (such as “Scarface”, “Boss”, “Big Daddy” and, oh yeah, “King of the Dead”) and who is the undisputed top dog of the Artemisia.  If Zelda thought she had been to parties before, she had been mistaken.  And down in the basement are a host of people – some she knows, some she doesn’t (and yes, the hotel manager’s wife is there)- and everything, everything is surreal and mad and wonderful.  Or at least it feels wonderful.  Unless maybe it isn’t.

Speak Easy is loosely – very loosely – akin to the Brothers Grimm folk tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, but it is totally unlike anything you’ve ever read.  I would recommend this book to anyone, but I would also suggest that it be read in small doses, for ultimate enjoyment.  Or, as the unnamed narrator of the tale might say:  Relax, kitten, and let it wash over you; it hits on all sixes.

—Sharon Browning

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