|The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert
|Riverhead Books, 2014
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
A fair, done correctly, fills its visitors with wonder and amusement. A bizarre bazaar should make people’s eyes sparkle and satiate their sense of adventure from darling rides and attractions. The fair is the talk of the town during its stay, and memories of its heyday linger even during its decline. Timothy Schaffert tries to accomplish all this with his novel, The Swan Gondola, and almost succeeds. But the audience can sometimes see through the guise and notice where pieces are pasted together and lines are drawn to add effect. What’s left is a warped mirror reflection that hints at real characters underneath a fluffy presentation.
But then, this novel was never meant to be fluffy. It was meant to dazzle in the beginning before unveiling a stark truth: people are broken and misunderstood; they wear masks even in private. To illustrate, the book steps into wonder almost immediately. Darkness falls over a shaking house, inside of which sit two scared elderly sisters, Emmaline and Hester. When the commotion settles, they discover that a deflated hot air balloon had landed on their roof and brought with it Ferret Skerritt, a ventriloquist with a troubled past. The novel proceeds to bounce between that past, the present, and letters to a ghost as Ferret explains what brought him to the sisters’ run-down farm, and explores what resulted from his presence in their home. The key to all of it, met at the key-shaped 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, was Cecily. With biased hindsight, Ferrett describes their whirlwind romance, tragic separation, his desperation to get her back, and their sparse stolen moments.
In Cecily and her baby daughter, Doxie, Ferrett finds pieces of himself that he hadn’t realized were missing. He becomes consumed by Cecily’s presence, and lives completely for her. He comments:
Every time her name crosses my mind, I whisper it. I whisper her name. Like a chant, or a prayer. Cecily. I like hearing it, this name of silk and satin. I like feeling the teakettle hiss of it on my tongue. And like a chant, or a prayer, it soothes my soul.
This narration almost suggests obsession. Yet only when Cecily is gone does the narration introduce a skewed perception. Ferrett is surrounded by people—friends and enemies alike—who convey different events during his time with her. They don’t just include different perspectives, but new information—details that are both unbelievable and yet, somehow, true. Because the readers are so close to Ferret’s mind, which is helped by the first person perspective, they can’t trust what the other characters say. Yet, as the novel unfolds, that distrust slowly shifts toward Ferret. In the end, readers may suspect that he has an unhinged sense of reality. Did he register everything as it was, or did he only see things as he wanted them to be and rejected the rest? His final musings of events reveal a slight but wondrous insanity. He narrates:
On the farm, I came to believe in the logic of dreams. I believed in magic, perhaps even a heavenly order. I went up in the balloon so the balloon would come down, so Emmaline would dream, so the cathedral would rise, so Cecily would speak. Not only did I believe it, but it seemed insensible to believe anything else.
The logic of dreams and magic wouldn’t have been there, of course, without the romantic glitter the fair had settled over a dusty livelihood of peddling for laughs on dirty streets and in seasonal theaters. The fair itself warped reality before its gates opened. And because of the novel’s jumping linear timelines that converge into an ultimate outcome, readers will lose track of time and may believe that a few weeks is a few months. Ferrett, certainly, forgets time and lives wholly in the moment. Everything is drawn out to where even the act of smoking is a holy moment. Schaffert writes:
He took smoke in his lungs like it was a breath of bottled air, and it appeared as if he could feel the cigarette healing all the cracks of his bones, working down through him like a vapor.
Of course, the novel isn’t just about Ferrett and Cecily, or the sturdy old biddies Emmaline and Hester. In fact, the main characters are rather dull compared to their friends. All their intrigue is showcased in the beginning chapters as a hook. But the friends appear as spice to thrust the plot forward. August—a gay Native American who dresses in a drag of mismatched clothing and sells “tonics”—and Rosie—a Polish anarchist who sells tastefully artistic nudie pictures from under his coat—are the leading compatriots in Ferrett’s life. They are solid, reliable, scarily creative, and loyal. Even Mrs. Margaret, a crotchety one-eyed hag who hates Ferret immediately, provides intriguing conflict and believable barriers between Ferrett and Cecily. More believable, in fact, than the pitiable but diabolical antagonist, Billy Wakefield, the millionaire who owns most of the fair and schemes to steal Cecily. He doesn’t become a fully developed person until the end, when Ferrett finally sees weakness and learns his full story. Of course, he is technically a main character.
When everyone finds their places in the world, tension is finally and satisfactorily released. Readers will close the book and see through the bound papers to the shiny interior: wonder, romance, appeal, and an unexpected sparkling of the supernatural. They’ll want to look away from grimy details that eventually overtook the dream, and ignore the process of dismantling as characters returned to reality. They may want to resume the meandering tread through sugar-dusted flights of fancy, when everything was new and special, and damn the rest.