July 07, 2020

Or What You Will

By Jo Walton
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Due to an unintended quirk of timing, I read Or What You Will immediately after Sofia Samatar’s magnificent, book-obsessed fantasy A Stranger in Olondria, so perhaps I was primed for a book about books. Or a fantasy novel about novelists forced to live in an all-too-flawed reality, or a meditation on mortality or a meta-literary escape to a near-mythical elsewhere. The fact that Jo Walton uses an reference to Samatar’s masterpiece as an emotional lever only heightens the connection between the two works. But this is not a review of Olondria. And although there is a concrete relationship between the two books, Walton’s story of an imaginary friend concerned for the incipient demise of his progenitor, bestselling author Sylvia Harrison (also referred to as the owner of his “bone cave,” in a somewhat distressing allusion to David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks), and seeking a route to mutual immortality deserves its own evaluation.

Or What You Will, like the cuisine at the Teatro del Sale in Firenze (Walton steadfastly refuses to call the city “Florence,” citing a preference for its Italian name), begs to be devoured slowly, in courses that may be individually savored and committed to memory. Walton’s prose is kin to chef Fabio Picchi’s carrots, or maybe the porcini mushroom soup: excellence wrought from the most prosaic of elements. It even includes something like Maria Cassi’s political comedy: There are anecdotes about the abstract nature of Victorian women’s legs, Canadian threats and biblical inerrancy. A rather lengthy paragraph on the Canadian emigration system is especially, ah . . . poignant. But for those (like me) who have only experienced Firenze in books, this is likely not the most effective route to explain this book. Let me try again.

Walton’s nameless, chameleonic, probably mostly imaginary narrator says he (and he is, by his own admission, an indisputably and irrevocably male aspect of fantasy novelist Sylvia’s mind) “will ask you to do nothing but read, and remember, and care.” He then spends the full length of Or What You Will weaving the brutal reality of Harrison’s long life with a melange of Renaissance apocrypha, Shakespearean comedy and Greek mythology. Throughout, he dodges between narrating the negotiations of the creative process, narrating the creation itself and playing his part in Sylvia’s latest book, all the while slowly unfolding his plot to save Sylvia’s life (and his own). Walton’s snark keeps any potential mawkishness at bay, and the result is a thoroughly memorable story about magic, meddling gods, learning to love properly and all the ways the worlds we create can save us in the ones we’re born into.

It’s a worthwhile reminder that creativity has value and that the proper standard of value is rarely monetary. Or What You Will is the literal manifestation of escapism, but it also may be among escapism’s most effective champions. Walton’s Firenze is an island of charming dysfunction in a world whose dysfunction more often frightens, and its fictional analogue, Thalia, is a theatrical idyll. Walton’s narrator is equal parts Melpomene and the archangel Michael, though he denies the latter. It is fantastical, but tangible all the same, less escapist than transporting, and suffused with joy and the tacit hope that maybe, just maybe, the salvation Sylvia finds in crafting her books might be attainable for the reader as well.

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