Venera Dreams and the Art of the Mosaic Novel

Vermilion is an intense red pigment made from powdered cinnabar. It’s also extremely toxic—cinnabar is mercury sulfide—which is why vermilion has largely been replaced by cadmium-based pigments. But in Claude Lalumière’s new book, Venera Dreams (Guernica Editions, August 2017), vermilion is a hallucinogenic, mystical spice that is only found on the mysterious, hedonistic island-state of Venera, which few outsiders are permitted to visit.

Venera Dreams is a mosaic novel. I’m fond of mosaic novels, and last month at Can-Con I was, fortuitously and somewhat awkwardly in the context of writing this review, on a panel with Claude Lalumière discussing the mosaic novel form. Along with Jerome Stueart and Liz Westbrook-Trenholm we had a fascinating conversation, almost none of which I remember a month later. (This is a normal problem: I never remember what was said on panels I participate on, even what I said. I hope you were all taking notes.) Which is to say that Claude had an interesting and strictly limited definition of what constituted a mosaic novel that I had absolutely no argument with, and for the life of me I cannot recall what it was.

So let’s reverse-engineer it. Let’s start with the definition proffered by Angela Slatter in a Tor.com post last year:

According to author Joe McDermott, the creation of a mosaic novel is based on a technique of fracturing one or more story elements: plot, theme, characters, and/or setting. One of these elements, however, should be kept intact to bind the various story threads together and keep the reader anchored in the tale as a whole. Each mosaic text tends to fracture differently, depending on the author’s preferences and the needs of the story. In a true mosaic the plot is always going to be fractured, with no central plotline and each story-tile following its own narrative thread that doesn’t lead to an ending that feeds in to a larger overarching story question. The links between the stories are found in recurring characters and settings, repeated story talismans, themes and motifs, and acts the consequences of which echo through subsequent tales in the mosaic.

Two of the examples Slatter gives of mosaic novels are Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang and Charlie Stross’s Accelerando, but I don’t think either of those books qualifies as a mosaic. They’re closer to fixups: books comprised of shorter pieces that collectively present a novel-length narrative. They’re too linear and straightforward. My favourite example of a mosaic novel shares some similarities with Venera Dreams: it’s The Islanders by Christopher Priest (reviewed here), which is ostensibly a series of short travel articles about the various islands in the Dream Archipelago. It’s when you’re halfway through the book, and you realize that the timeline doesn’t add up, and the narrative isn’t trustworthy, and that this is On Purpose and Priest is Up to Something.

For me, a mosaic novel is all about subtext—the theme that emerges when each story is considered as part of a greater whole. Each story in a mosaic novel can stand on its own terms (in many cases they were first published as short stories), but what makes a book a mosaic novel comes from the interstices between the stories, and the synergies that appear in the mind of the reader. Consuming a mosaic novel is not a passive act: the reader must work a good deal harder.

But let’s get back to Venera Dreams.

As I said, I’m fond of mosaic novels, and this is one, so I expected to enjoy it. And I did. The stories are great fun, full of joy and mischief, and can be read on that level. The interludes—“Vermilion Dreams: The Complete Works of Bram Jameson” and “The Phantasmagorical Odysseys of Scheherazade”—are the kinds of fiction-in-the-form-of-nonfiction that I dearly adore. But Claude takes these stories in a more rugose direction: one that reminds me a bit of Priest in his Dream Archipelago abstruseness, but also of Valente’s sensualism (in Palimpsest, itself a mosaic novel) and Wolfe’s dissembling mischief.

This book explodes with an intensity of eroticism that is fortunately not sustained for the length of the book. It’s only one of several preoccupations Claude weaves throughout Venera Dreams’s multifaceted narrative: detective and superhero stories, pulp adventure, artistic and literary scandal, all mixed with the erotic into a sensual, visceral secret history of a secret and secretive place. There is no single protagonist; recurring characters pop in and out of the narrative (the writer Bram Jameson is a transparent homage to J. G. Ballard), but the connections between each of the 15 stories are not immediately clear. In a certain sense, the frivolities—the adventure stories, the sensualism—are Venera’s defences against the greater world. Pierce the shell, descend into the depths of the island, and look for the subtext. What emerges is the story of an ancient place that has managed to variously stand athwart, bend with, and endure the passage of history: a deep narrative where resides the mosaic novel’s darker subtext.

Which is to say that the form of the novel is part of the novel: the structure is by no means an accident.

Venera Dreams is, in the end, a masterful and subtle little book. I’ve read Claude’s work before, namely, Objects of Worship (Chizine, 2009) and The Door to Lost Pages (ChiZine, 2011); this is a marked leap forward.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley. I’m also on friendly terms with the author, and have been to his (rather amazing) home.

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