Reading Like A Writer: The Queen of The Night and a Magical Object
Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night is about an opera singer named Lilliet and her past as an orphan, a circus performer, and a sex worker. It's also about fate and the struggle to escape it.
The novel opens at a ball, where Lilliet meets Simonet, a man who describes a new opera that is—apparently unbeknownst to him—the story of Lilliet's life. He's also found something that she lost years before.
The brooch was an imperial trifle, a tiny thing to an emperor, I think, but for me at the time, so much more. Made of rubies, several to each petal, set in either platinum or white gold—I had it before I knew the difference—the stem inlaid with jade. There was even a thorn. At his mention of it, the flower had glowed in the air between us, a tiny phantom, and then was gone.
That tiny phantom, a flower glowing in the air—isn't it lovely? It does so much.
First, it's important to note that the brooch is not literally in the air or glowing. The previous pages have established that we are in a realistic world, not one with phantoms or apparitions. So Lilliet is imagining the glowing brooch.
Yet Chee doesn't use the words "I imagined" or "I fancied" or "I hallucinated." That's brave, and in another story, I might object. It's possible for him to omit that filtering because we've already been placed quite firmly both in a realistic world and in Lilliet's perspective. If she describes it, she must see it, but if we're in this realistic world, the vision must be in her mind's eye. Leaving the filtering off, then, is wise because it makes the glow real to us, as it must be for Lilliet.
More interesting, she doesn't just imagine the brooch, she imagines it into Simonet's consciousness. The words "between us" are essential. Lilliet is claiming that both of the characters see the tiny phantom.
Even if Simonet doesn't really see what she sees, it creates a moment when we feel that both characters are picturing the same thing in their minds. And that connects the two characters. It creates a space between them—the space held by the glowing brooch—and lets the reader exist in that space, experience that connection.
This can happen when two characters look at the same object. We feel their gaze on it, and so we feel something parallel happening in them, a particular intimacy. The intimacy is even more powerful when the object is not real but imagined because it brings us all the way inside the mind of each character. And we're in both minds at the same time.
The intimacy is also profound, and perhaps more powerfully felt, because it's forced. Lilliet has not invited this man to share her secret, yet he does. When she strikes back by entering his imagination, saying "I know you see this too," we trust she's right that he sees it. And we feel the justice in her intrusion.
There's another thing that intrigues me about the image. It's small, but smart. The flower is described before it's made to glow. Technically the logic is off—she doesn't think about the flower before Simonet mentions it, and as soon as he mentions it, it glows. In a strictly chronological telling of her memory, we'd expect to see it glow before she remembers its every detail. Yet for the image to be vibrant, we must know what this thing looks like.
The physical description is not the only way a non-chronological sequence enhances the experience of the brooch. We know very little of Lilliet when she first goes to the ball, just that she's an opera singer. Then we hear, with her, about the new opera. Remarkably, it's only after we learn the story, that we discover it is hers. Why doesn't Lilliet recognize her story right away? It's not logical, but it makes the the moment of revelation—that it's her story—more powerful.
The brooch also appears in that story of the new opera, but it's not yet recognized. It's important that we don't see the glow until we know the whole story and can appreciate all that the brooch represents to Lilliet.
The story of the brooch and the strange manner in which it is related imbue the brooch with a special magic. It becomes an embodiment of Lilliet's betrayal. The novel will go forward as Lilliet attempts to uncover who has told her secret and backward as the details of the secret are revealed. It's a compelling structure, but it becomes complicated as the many different facets and characters of her life are introduced. The symbolic object helps us to hold the narrative in mind as a single object. If we get confused, we trace the story back to that glowing phantom of a brooch.
And one more thing about the tiny phantom! The imaginary's introduction as a real object tweaks the world of the story in a subtle yet important way. This isn't a fantastical world or a world of magical realism. It's realistic, but that imaginary phantom kicks it up slightly. It's stylized, on a plane that is parallel to ours but just a bit enchanted. There won't be fairies, but there may be fate. There won't be spells, but there may be curses. It's a world that is not real or fantastical, but slightly more than real. It's tingling.
That glowing brooch—in the imagination of the narrator, in the imagination of the stranger who knows her secret, and also in the imagination of the reader—signals all of this. We know a secret. And aren't secrets magical? Suddenly we're trapped by the same fate that has ensnared Lilliet. The enforced intimacy of the secret has caught the reader, too.
Allison Wyss is teaching the following classes at the Loft this winter: Awkward Is My Superpower: Writing Sex; How'd They Do That: A Craft-Based Book Club for Writers; and Watching the Clock: The Art of Time in Fiction. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.