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The Starless Sea

November 25, 2019

It’s pretty, but is it art? Erin Morgenstern’s new novel The Starless Sea is filled with precious descriptions of beautiful places that a person must risk all to view (hands and tongues are lost in the process) but in the end, like its sea made of honey, the sweetness turns cloying. This is not to say that I didn’t like it; I enjoyed swanning around this underground fairyland with characters whose adventures never occur far from a comfortable bedchamber with a well-stocked pantry and laundry service.

Dreamy, like her first novel The Night Circus, this one is built out of scraps of stories that overlap, combine, and reference each other. Early on, the main character, Zachary (almost always referred to by all three of his names: Zachary Ezra Rawlins) finds a book that has a story about him in it:
“He keeps wondering who wrote it. Who saw him in that alleyway with the door and why they wrote it down. The opening pages imply that the first stories are nested: the pirate telling the story about the acolyte, the acolyte seeing the story about the boy. Him.
But if he’s in a story within a story who is telling it? Someone must have typeset it and bound it in a book.
Someone somewhere knows this story.”
In fact, we all know this story. It has Narnia in it, and Brakebills. It has Shakespeare quotations and Arthurian legends, including a legendary king who will arise when the time is right. It has, no doubt, someone who tells it all to the bees. At one point
“Zachary waits for her to tell him that the Starless Sea is a bedtime story for children or that the Starless Sea is a state of mind or that there is no Starless Sea at all and there never was but she doesn’t.”

Zachary’s adventure begins in a promising way, with a trip to New York City to the Algonquin Hotel Annual Literary Masquerade, an event that seems so attractive I wonder why it doesn’t exist outside of this novel:
“there are scarlet letters and dictionary-page fairy wings and an Edgar Allan Poe with a fake raven on his shoulder. A picture-perfect Daisy Buchanan sips a martini at the bar. A woman in a little black dress has Emily Dickinson poems printed on her stockings. A man in a suit has a towel draped over his shoulder.”
The lovely details of the party are like the underground world Zachary is about to explore except that the party is more densely inhabited:
“He orders one of the literary cocktail creations at the bar, a Drowning Ophelia made with gin and lemon and fennel syrup, served with a spring [sic] of rosemary and a napkin with an appropriate Hamlet quote printed on it. Other guests sip Hemingway Daiquiris and Vespers garnished with complicated curls of lemon. Flutes of sparkling wine are served with ribbons that read “Drink Me” wrapped around their stems.
Bowls on tables are filled with escaped typewriter keys. Candles illuminate glass holders wrapped in book pages. One hallway is festooned with writing implements (fountain pens, pencils, quills) hanging from the ceiling at various heights.
A woman in a beaded gown and matching mask sits in a corner at a typewriter, tapping out tiny stories on scraps of paper and giving them to guests that pass by. The one she hands to Zachary reads like a long-form fortune cookie:
He wanders alone but safe in his loneliness.
Confused by comforted by his confusion.
A blanket of bewilderment to hide himself under.”
You can see why any reader will enjoy this world; she had me at the reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The main technique of the novel is immersion. If I were to come up for air, I might object to the liberation of those “escaped” typewriter keys and the ripping of pages from books to wrap the candle holders.

The underground world is a library, but with all the comforts of home. The training for the people who choose to work there ranges from unnecessarily harsh to nonsensical. The ones called “keepers” have to choose a story by someone else and
“study their story for a year. They must learn it by memory. By more than memory, they must learn it by heart. Not so that they can simply recite the words but so that they feel them, the shape of the story as it changes and lifts and falls and rushes or meanders toward its climax. So that they can recall and relate the story as intimately as if they have lived it themselves and as objectively as if they have played every role within.”
Sounds boring to me, to pore over the same story for a year. Why should it be necessary, unless one lives in a Fahrenheit 451 world where it’s essential for a person to “be” a book? But this is a magical world, and as one of the magical creatures in it says: “Do you want to know the secret to surviving once you’ve gone down the rabbit hole?…Be a rabbit.”

Occasionally I got irritated when one story was interrupted by another at a cliffhanger moment. And sometimes the preciousness was too much, especially when it concerned tearing the pages out of books: “She does this with books as well, removing the pages she does not care for and sending them off into the shadows where they belong.” I was also fairly impatient with the reverence towards fortunetelling, including an assertion about tarot cards: “they’re basically stories in pieces that can be rearranged.” After a while even the beautiful and whimsical details can start to seem like too much, maybe at the second party where “a man passes by with a tray full of small cakes, frosted with poems.” I have to agree with Zachary when he criticizes how another character, Mirabel, talks:
“Sorry it’s so poetry today.”
“So what?” Zachary asks, not certain he heard her correctly.
“Poetry.” Mirabel repeats. “The weather. It’s like a poem. Where each word is more than one thing at once and everything’s a metaphor. The meaning condensed into rhythm and sound and the spaces between sentences. It’s all intense and sharp, like the cold and the wind.”
“You could just say it’s cold out.”

It seems that when everything’s a metaphor, words fail. Still, it’s impossible not to love the descriptions of “books that felt truer than people.” It’s almost enough to get me past the preciousness of lines like “we are all stardust and stories” to find out what’s behind a few of the many doors in this novel. And to hear someone else voice my–perhaps every reader’s–deepest fear: “That none of it is important. That who he is, or who he thinks he is, is just a collection of references to other people’s art.”

Is this art or just entertainment? Should Zachary be “so focused on story and meaning and structure”? Is it important to sum up the effect of the way the stories in this novel come together and to catalog all the references to other stories, or is it enough to take delight in the details and forget most of them upon waking?

I dreamed last night that I was in a car with a magical being or as one—impossible to tell which–and Nathan Fillion was driving us and singing, and I woke up hearing the song. I woke up singing.


15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2019 4:45 am

    Precious and cloying is why I did not like The Night Circus, and most likely will not read this one. I love your line: “It seems that when everything’s a metaphor, words fail.” Exactly!

    But I don’t want to stomp on the precious dreams of those who love Erin Morgenstern, so I usually refrain from expressing my dislike. And I’m glad you found something to enjoy here anyway. Anything that ends up making you feel like singing can’t be all bad.

    • November 26, 2019 8:12 am

      I was thinking about saying that the novel is like a beautifully decorated cupcake with too much icing for some adult tastes, but that started me thinking about how you should never accept food when you’re in a magical place and then about what we eventually find out about that well-stocked pantry, and that’s the charm of this novel, for those who find it charming–that each story leads to another, and everything has more meaning in terms of something else.

  2. November 26, 2019 8:30 am

    I really want to read this book! I love The Night Circus and I’m glad to know this book is dreamy like her first one 😊

    • November 26, 2019 8:49 am

      Readers who loved the first one will probably enjoy this one, too.

  3. November 26, 2019 4:20 pm

    I want to hear more about this dream with Nathan Fillion in it 🙂

    • November 26, 2019 4:46 pm

      I wish I could remember more…and why Nathan, rather than Mal or Captain Hammer or Castle? I’m not known for remembering actor’s names, but for identifying them by characters they’ve played.

  4. November 27, 2019 9:55 am

    Wonderful review! I am one of the few people who hasn’t read The Night Circus. I’m not sure why, really. Sometimes really hyped books don’t attract me. But I am curious now about both of her novels. Also, a Nathan Fillion dream sounds fun!

    • November 27, 2019 10:04 am

      The Night Circus is better written (or just more tightly edited), but this one is definitely for people who read a lot. I’d still advise you to read The Night Circus first because it’s shorter.

  5. January 6, 2020 8:10 am

    “…when everything’s a metaphor, words fail.” I love that, as well as your clear summarization of many layered parts which all began to blur together. I loved The Starless Sea, and I didn’t. The imagination was almost miraculous, and atmosphere delectable. But near the end, if I read about one more door, I don’t know what I would have done. Thanks for your great review.

    • January 6, 2020 8:37 am

      I agree, one more door, one more literary party…it might be that because everything’s a fiction, our enthusiasm fails. We want to be doing this stuff ourselves, in real life!

  6. April 13, 2020 12:24 pm

    I remember seeing this review and avoiding it because I hadn’t read the book yet. You got annoyed with some of the “preciousness” of the book, while I drank it all up and loved every minute of it. I sometimes get annoyed by the same things you do, but not this time. Maybe it’s because of the larger situation right now or maybe I was just in the right frame of mind, but I needed something like The Starless Sea right now, and it delivered.

    • April 13, 2020 12:26 pm

      And also, I think I like The Starless Sea more than I like The Night Circus. I felt like The Starless Sea is a better story, or better written? I’m not sure, it’s just a feeling. (I just recently reread The Night Circus, so it’s pretty sharp in my mind.)

      • April 13, 2020 12:55 pm

        Interesting. I’ll have to reread The Night Circus and see what I think about which is better.
        I’m about to reread The Starless Sea because I’m leading a book group in discussing it, so I can see how the things that struck me as precious in the time Before strike me now.


  1. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. (Frankly, I’m not sure I entirely get it.) | Dolce Bellezza

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