Bookforum | Oct/Nov 2005

The Electric Michelangelo tells one man's brimming life story, beginning in childhood and ending in old age, which gives the book an eighteenth-century feel on a par with Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy. But this second novel (the first to be published in America) by the young English writer Sarah Hall is fueled by a sharply contemporary voice, one that manages to combine the plummy sensuality of Marguerite Duras with the silken abstractions of Michael Ondaatje. Hall's intelligence and ambition are thrilling to behold—the tale spans two continents and most of a century. It swarms with ideas about culture and history and above all the body—its humdrum and grotesque physicality and its capacity to transcend these limitations into symbolism. Hall serves up her witchy brew of lyricism and analysis in slathering portions that are genuinely exciting but can also tire the reader and crowd out her story.

Hall's protagonist is one Cy Parks, born in 1907 in Morecambe, a seaside town in the north of England whose "soft" air makes it a popular destination among factory workers and coal miners with afflicted lungs. Cy's father, a fisherman, was killed in a storm days before the boy's birth; his mother runs a hotel popular among consumptives and moonlights as an abortionist. As a teenager, Cy apprentices himself to Eliot Riley, a brilliant tattoo artist and member of Morecambe's demimonde; for the rest of the book he remains under Riley's ruthless, charismatic, selfish, and alcoholic spell.

Hall's rendering of Morecambe and of Cy's youthful adventures is nothing short of sublime: "Cy's first memories were of laughter and crowds, the wind blowing through the fabric of the place so that everything moveable flapped, or rippled, or sashayed." She takes special relish in describing bodily extremes—the phlegmy suffering of Cy's mother's consumptive guests, or, as here, what happens when a child falls into the quicksand of Morecambe Bay: "They would struggle because it is human nature to fight for life when it
is being taken . . . Only the cold, disdainful Irish Sea would hear the calls and come up to investigate, that fickle arm of the Atlantic Ocean which had in part set up the trap. In it would rush and smooth over the strange, lumpy, depressed portion of beach with the wet scuffled tracks and the trenched handprints. Smoothing it over like glass, as if complicit in the murder . . . And the child would join the company of a few others inside the tightest, sludgiest, densest of bellies."

Cy's mother dies of breast cancer when he is fifteen. He moves in with Riley, whose blustering tutelage Cy absorbs for years, until Riley's horrific suicide (by drinking bleach), at which point Cy, now a fine tattoo artist in his own right, strikes out for America. Hall's lush, insistent prose is perfect for capturing the loudmouthed self-absorption of Riley and the colorful personalities of the other refugees Cy meets in the New World (including Grace, a woman of mysterious provenance whom he falls in love with). But Hall's passive and mild-mannered protagonist is often eclipsed by the author's narrative voice—it's as if in his creator Cy has found yet another domineering companion who won't let him get a word in edgewise. Hall's account of ten-year-old Cy's response to seeing the aurora borealis—"He would have taken death right then, under Aurora's beauty, and gone happily, knowing he had seen the last and brightest of all miracles"—aren't the thoughts of a child that age, so they do little to reveal Cy to the reader. When his mother dies, Hall dismisses Cy's grief with a gruffness we might expect from Riley: "He was destroyed only in so far as all young men who lose their mothers are but will recover."

The result is that Cy remains a blank, a foil for the big personalities around him. And after Riley dies, when Cy alone must bear the weight of this story, he seems at first to buckle under it. During his sea passage to America, Cy has a revelation about what tattooing really is, and why he loves it (a question that has been unanswered to this point): "He saw past the red ink going into the skin. He saw through to the core of what he was doing, how he bestowed uncompromising communication upon the world, how he brought forth self." But because Cy has never been revealed to the reader as a man prone to such grand abstractions, and because Hall is clearly a writer who adores them, the revelation comes off as authorial telegraphing. When Cy sets up shop in Coney Island, he adopts a huckster's patter with his clients that is utterly disorienting, as if he'd become a ventriloquist's dummy. Even in conversation with the woman he loves, his voice is vague and awkward: "I don't really know much about you," he remarks at one point. "You're . . . no cakewalk. What's your story, Grace?"

During Cy's first months in New York, the story bogs down. Hall's rendering of '30s Coney Island as an epicenter of prurient voyeurism sounded familiar to this American ear, and, at times, her overreaching prose twists into strained exaggeration: "What was one more tattoo artist in the parks that were already filled with electric masters? What was one more harlequin soul in such a vast double-diamond-edged circus? What was one more crucified saint or criminal on an already stained and overcrowded Calvary?"

Things do pick up after Cy gets involved with Grace—a strong and well-rendered personality into whose shadow he can comfortably fade. A refugee who keeps her suffering to herself and often boards a horse in her apartment (she walks it through the lobby at night with potato sacks tied over its hooves), Grace has singled out Cy for the undertaking of his career: to tattoo the entirety of her body. The catastrophic events that result from this masterwork are powerful in ways that enliven and dignify Cy through sheer proximity, and his eventual return to Morecambe feels just right. Hall is in possession of a big, hungry, somewhat ungoverned talent. If she modulates her voice, if she can stand back and let her characters and story move on their own, she may produce a novel in which the emotional power matches her ambition's dazzling reach.

Jennifer Egan is the author, most recently, of Look at Me (Nan A. Talese, 2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her novel The Keep will be published next summer by Knopf.