I first learned about the Voynich Manuscript in the spring of 2014. I was listening to a podcast, while nursing my youngest child. That time of life feels like a vivid dream in so many ways; absorbing the mysterious, almost alien, story about the Voynich Manuscript while my baby absorbed my milk now seems symmetrically surreal.
The segment was short but intriguing, detailing the limited facts about a mysterious document that no one had been able to understand despite centuries of study. The Voynich Manuscript is a centuries-old, illuminated, 240-page book featuring illustrations of plants that don’t exist on earth. There are some wild celestial drawings in there, as well as depictions of possibly pregnant women conducting strange rituals in pools of green liquid. There’s even a recipe section. Most mysterious of all, however, is the language in which the book was written. No one can agree whether it is some kind of encrypted work, an elaborate prank, a vanished language, or something more.
What happens when we try to walk at night through museums we can no longer visit? A range of online virtual tours provides the possibility, but apart from physical problems of reproduction—the pixel resolution is inadequate, the movement glitchy and twitchy—the real difference is the loss of tactile and optical tension, the missing dialogue of aching feet and happy eyes. Online, we float, ghostlike, down corridors, making giddy hundred-and-eighty-degree spins, with no querulous photographer from Toledo with a selfie stick to bump into. Sit and know you’re sitting is the meditation master’s insistence, and Walk and look while knowing you’re walking and looking is the more complicated Zen of the museum experience: the physical and the painterly, the squinting to see and the moments of transporting vision, have to go in tandem. The work is there, actually there as a physical fact, which you could touch, if you were allowed to. A book may be an object, but the Kindle edition of “Hamlet” is as much Hamlet as the (no longer extant) manuscript. Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione exists at one specific point on the planet, and nowhere else, having begun in one nameable place and followed a track through time, owner by owner and wall to wall. Reproductions reproduce, and they often do it well, but they can’t reproduce the sex appeal of museumgoing, the carnal intersection of one physical object with another, you and it. It’s a thing, there; you, a thing, here.
There is a perfectly well-constructed plot here, but it almost feels beneath a book of this charm, energy, and syncopation to dwell too ploddingly on it. For all its brilliant set pieces and neat engineering, it is the means rather than the source of the joy to be found. One comes to Williams for sentences that ricochet and dazzle: “A bookish bullring with the acoustics of a basilica.” The novel could be twice as long again, operating as it does as an exercise in voice; it isn’t damning, I hope, nor faint praise to say this is a book that is more or less all aside, and all the better for it.
Piranesi is a work of intellectual intensity wrapped in a mystery plot, culminating with a cinematic denouement that includes — as it must — a loaded gun. Like a kaleidoscope, Piranesi rewards the reader when turned over in the mind, but also rewards the reader who simply wants to know who Piranesi is, where he came from, and how he came to be a prisoner in that magnificent labyrinth, populated with mythic statues, periodically flooded with tides from nowhere.
Kazim Ali's latest book of poems is born out of our collective existential crisis. How do we continue to survive "in a world governed by storm and noise"? Creating an ingenious form on the page, Ali uses sound to give us a sort of research project that grapples with this crisis of survival over time. But the project's beauty manifests from the impossibility of its findings. After all, how is one supposed to answer the colossal question of existence?
It was as if
and each rung,
real to itself,