Speak Easy is a postmodern, magical realist novella with absurdist elements by Catherynne Valente written in 2015. It’s about a hotel during the Prohibition Era and the zany aspiring artists who live there as they sacrifice their fragile identities to make it. True to mythpunk fashion, Valente based the story on the Brothers Grimm fairytale, Twelve Dancing Princesses. Spoilers ahead.
The first half is chaotic as we tour each hotel room and meet the residents, but afterwards, the magical realist elements manifest when a door suddenly appears to a netherworld full of pleasure in the basement, similar to her portal fantasy, Palimpsest. The door is described as a dog that had gotten loose of its leash, which I interpret as the unregulated Id. It’s guarded by a pelican, a historical symbol of travel between worlds. This is the story of one woman’s travel down that rabbit-hole.
Most of the hotel patrons are trying to be famous writers or actors. The story fixates on a socialite named Zelda Fair who speaks in various manipulative voices but is trying to find her own voice, without giving up her heart in the process. Zelda must navigate the social complexities of the art world while eventually facing up to the mob boss running everything behind the scenes, Al. Al describes himself as follows,
I came when the liquor dried up – I’m at my best in a wasteland, you know. It’s a law, a law of the universe…
Take one thing away and another shows up to replace it. Drink is a mighty huge thing to run off with.
I’m a mighty huge thing to run to.
Themes - Escapism, Violence, and Art
Escaping the world through pleasure is one of Valente’s recurring themes in this novel. Parties end at “truth o’clock.” The hotel provides every pleasure possible, but the rewards are random. When one guy, Frankie, plays a good hand of cards, he can get what he wants, but how’s his future look? His wife will be placed into an asylum and he’ll die poor, but he’ll have that author career he always wanted with all those fancy nights in Paris, though his books will go out of print when he dies and he’ll leave no imprint on society.
When Zelda Fair visits this realm, she bets her heart in a card match, but reality has no underpinning in a world of just pleasure seeking. A bottle of rum, a matchstick, death by fire, a heart, it’s all malleable. Valente writes with constant metaphor, which contributes to this flexibility, with some of the more postmodern lines reading as follows,
There is no space between wanting and having, between thinking and making real. That’s the best any place can offer… It’s not a flask, it’s a life in Paris. And these ain’t cigarettes, they’re a sanatorium upstate.
The end of the world already happened. It’s happening all the time. It’s gonna happen again. And again after that.
The second theme is the connection between art and violence, begging the title, which refers to the need to gently communicate. These would-be artists fill their lives with recklessness, hedonism, and violence lurking on the fringes in hopes they’ll become inspired and famous.
A tommy gun likes to play with others. She pulls the trigger… Pages burst out of the gun, page after page after page…
Zelda is shooting a tommy gun at the sky and stories are falling back down into her hair. She’s catching them in a cut-glass pitcher, laughing…and sometimes she grabs their crystal words, too…
All she wants to do is shoot up another chapter.
Every time he touches her breasts…typewritten columns spiral out…
The dice explode against the wall into pages, pages and pages, landing on the snow like ash, covered in type, covered in good paragraphs, cutting, incisive…
The writing quality is exceptional with a real punk tone to it and a Beatnik rhythm, but the random elements and lack of direction for the first half will jar many readers. Too many characters are introduced for 144 pages, most of who are shallow and have no relevance to the plot and are only there to create atmosphere, though they do so well. Those new to postmodern literature will want everything explained and for it all to line up at the end, but that’s not the way the genre works. Even masterpieces like Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore make little sense from a realist perspective. Those who are open-minded and just allow themselves to experience the zaniness of this weird hotel will find themselves well entertained with this fast-moving book.