The Big Book I Was Waiting For: Alexander Chee’s ‘Queen of the Night’

February 3, 2016 | 4 books mentioned 9 min read

Of the many high-drama events that occur throughout Alexander Chee’s second novel Queen of the Night, my favorites are identity theft via cancan shoes, murder by fire-breathing, a hot-air balloon escape, and a scandalous curtsy. Queen is a Big Book in every way: within its 550 pages, a lot happens, and it’s “about” a lot of things. Big Books are back, it seems, though I confess I’ve started and chosen not to finish several over the past few years. On the other hand, once I started reading Queen, I could not put it down.

Paris, 1882. A decade into the Third Republic. Our heroine, the celebrated “Falcon” soprano Lilliet Berne — née a Minnesota farm girl whose real name we never learn — makes her entrance at a ball in Luxembourg Palace. Lilliet is also our narrator, and within the first pages she tells us she has had a “premonition” about this return to Paris after an extensive European tour: “I would be here for a meeting with my destiny.” Enter the writer Frédéric Simonet, who corners Lilliet and conveys a proposition: he has written a novel, the novel will be staged as an opera, and she must play the starring role. Unbeknownst to Simonet, the story he describes — of a circus performer, later a courtesan, who sings for the Emperor and so moves him that he bestows upon her a ruby brooch — is Lilliet’s own. She is duly spooked: how does this man know these details of her secret past? Who has prompted him to approach her with the role? What sort of trap is this?

“In an opera this moment would the signal the story had begun, that the heroine’s past had come for her, intent on a review of her sins decreed by the gods.”

And so launches our heroine’s recounting — infused with this decidedly operatic sense of fateful retribution — of her farm girl-to-diva tale. Interspersed with a flashback narrative, which takes place between 1867 and 1872 and features the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 as its central historical crisis, are present-time (a decade later) scenes in which Lilliet confronts characters from that past; for if someone is in cahoots with Simonet, perhaps with malicious intent, she must find out who, and why.

Writers and readers alike will recognize this narrative structure as both familiar and sound: the past and the present move forward simultaneously, criss-crossing at strategic moments, generating suspense upon suspense. Lilliet herself literally, anxiously, turns the pages of Simonet’s novel as she investigates its ulterior intentions, while the reader becomes absorbed in Lilliet’s tale — her unlikely and at times outlandish journey from orphan to opera star, which she recounts in a voice somehow both taut and melodramatic at once:

“I slunk from the bed and stood again in the cold. As I dressed myself in that dim kitchen light, I felt the opposite of ruined. I felt strong again, ready to cross the ocean again.

“I was sore, that was all. And so this felt like a triumph over death, as if I had been dealt a murderous blow and lived.”

The “murderous blow” — her first sexual experience — occurs shortly after her entire family dies from fever. She is alone and hungry; she takes up with a widower who shelters her. The transaction of sex becomes then inevitable, as does the pattern of Lilliet’s life henceforth — bargaining for survival, over and again. Herein perhaps is a key to Chee’s success in crafting a captivating protagonist: our heroine is a celebrity in the Paris opera world, yes, but she never forgets her hardscrabble Methodist roots. Her love of opera — its outsized gestures, symbols, and emotions — is real, while at the same time she has no delusions about life’s essential requirements. When later in the novel, during the Siege of Paris, Lilliet must survive weeks of hunger, we have no trouble believing that she could in fact do so — no matter what gowns and jewels she now dons.

And we love this sort of protagonist, don’t we? In Lilliet, Chee has done that thing that all historical novelists must do well: draw the modern reader into a past world via the glamor of that past (we enjoy detours into evenings at the opera and Rules of the Game type gatherings, as well as cameos from Ivan Turgenev, George Sand, Cora Pearl, Giuseppe Verdi, and others) but also with contemporary ideas and conflicts. Her twisty-turny journey takes Lilliet from farm girl to orphan to circus performer to courtesan, back to orphan, then to servant, again to courtesan, finally to opera singer (there’s more, but no spoilers here); and as she drifts from the street to the conservatory to the ballroom and back again, we are aware that our heroine has a complicated and heterogeneous identity, with all the attending, familiar dilemmas. Lilliet is ultimately a distinctly modern American heroine: the child of parents who “came to settle America for God,” Lilliet must, and can, continually reinvent herself.

In this vein, the episode with the widower sets another pattern: it is from a dead child’s gravestone near the widower’s farm that our heroine takes her name, Lilliet Berne. In a later scene where Lilliet steals yet another identity — from a girl with whom she shares a jail cell and who dies in her sleep — we see Lilliet switching clothing (parting with the aforementioned cancan shoes) and calculating her opportunity: “[S]he couldn’t use her future, and I could.” At this point one can’t help but think of another historically-conceived protagonist of recent years who hit a contemporary nerve: Don Draper. Like Don, Lilliet is a consummate opportunist and chameleon; unlike Don, of course, she is female in a world where what she desires most — independence, love on her own terms — is impossible.

There is a curious way in which Queen of the Night wears its feminism — by which I mean portrays and expresses the timeless female struggle to be free — so heavily that it ultimately wears it lightly. The book does not read so much as an “argument” for female power or independence, nor as an activist cry in the face of female oppression; rather, Chee expresses himself authorially in such a way that you are just enough aware of him — an enlightened, empathic, culturally heterogeneous male in the 21st century crafting this tale — to simply take for granted, even enjoy, the dramatic ways in which this female protagonist’s struggle for self-determination plays out.

Voice is an obvious central trope here: Lilliet is deemed a “Falcon” because her voice is as fragile as it is strong (the soprano Cornélie Falcon lost her voice at age 23); thus, the female voice as both power and liability. As she navigates her successive identities, Lilliet learns that feigning muteness is a useful disguise. In this way Lilliet, and Chee, reclaim traditional female voicelessness in service of self-preservation.

coverJewels and dresses figure prominently throughout the plot: jewelry is gifted and worn in acts of love, dominance, charity, regret, rebellion, and terror, and a woman’s choice of gown has the power to determine not only individual but national fates. None of this strikes the reader as particularly farfetched: While Chee may have been having fun with the characters of Louis-Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie, it seems perfectly plausible, and pleasingly so, that it was indeed a rivalry between Eugénie and Louis-Napoléon’s mistress the Comtesse to Castiglione (which involved both jewels and dresses) that catalyzed the Franco-Prussian War. This is just one example among many where Chee fulfills with gusto yet another crucial, if hackneyed, obligation of the historical novelist — to make history “come alive” through human personality. In this sense Queen joins ranks with the best historical novels and made me think, not infrequently as I read, of one of my all-time favorites — E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Lilliet’s dividedness when it comes to romantic prospects is perhaps the most explicitly feminista thread of her story, the one that seems to want to “say” something to our current culture. One man seeks to possess Lilliet, another she falls for “at first sight” — at first listen, actually, as he is a pianist who plays a mesmerizing Frédéric Chopin. While the choice between them seems conventionally obvious throughout most of the story, there is an unsettling moment when she considers romantic love and abusive obsession not so far apart: perhaps the man who essentially imprisoned and raped her, and the man who manipulated her to manage his own fears, are not so different in the end. In trying to more fully inhabit her role as Carmen, Lilliet concludes:

She loves neither the toreador nor the killer,it came to me as I went on the stage. More than these men, she loves her freedom.”

In other words: Up with single women; down, once and for all, with the derisive notion of a spinster.

For the most part, though, the strain of feminist messaging does not bog the novel down. This is a particularly subjective assessment, I recognize: it did matter to me as I read that the author is male. This character did not seem like someone Chee had to force into a psychology of freedom-seeking: she is a woman the author seems to know better than any, and one the reader thus recognizes instantly. Her desires, conundrums, strategies, and strength are all, at this moment in time — the reader’s historical moment — wonderfully and completely familiar, and written into this story as The New Normal. It’s exhilarating to follow Lilliet, over the course of 550 high-drama pages, as she simply does what needs to be done — as any woman with talent and intelligence would.

coverSpeaking of subjective, this wouldn’t be a piece written by me if I didn’t acknowledge my initial interest in Queen of the Night based on its long-blooming history. Chee’s first novel, the award-winning Edinburgh, was published nearly 15 years ago, in 2001. By lit-world norms, and for someone as visible and active in the literary community as Chee — he teaches, has written for The Rumpus and The Morning News among other publications, won a Whiting Award and an NEA grant, was named one of Out’s 100 Most Influential People, hüber-active on social media, and is an editor of LitHub — 15 years is quite a long time. There was also a first novel preceding Edinburgh — a “Great American Novel” type as he puts it — that he was unable to publish.

Queen of the Night is itself the protagonist of a twisty-turny narrative — much of which Chee describes in his recent interview with our own Claire Cameron. The novel began with inspiration from a real historical figure, Jenny Lind, aka the Swedish Nightingale, and a fruitfully mistaken notion on Chee’s part that she had sung with a circus. When I asked Chee if the novel had always been conceived in the first person, and/or if he had hesitated to take on a female voice, he wrote:

There were seasons of hesitation and apprehension. I put the novel down for three years before I finally sold it because I was both drawn to and afraid of the idea, sure that I knew that woman on the train very well and then later sure that the vision had tricked me into making a terrible mistake that I just couldn’t see.

When he did sell the novel, it was sold based on 115 early pages and a synopsis, with a manuscript due date of 2006. In 2008, the novel still very much in progress, Chee’s editor at Houghton Mifflin was laid off; thus began Queen’s fittingly itinerant quest, including a total of four different editors to date.

Cameron’s interview focuses on Chee’s coping with the low points and dismay of Queen’s odyssey. As a fellow novelist who struggled mightily with novel #2, I felt the following like a punch in the gut:

The longer the novel wasn’t published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life — my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years.

But Chee endured; and so, I believe, will the critical acclaim that has and will be showered on Queen of the Night. The novel thus has a personal resonance for me as a testament to persistence, and to the pursuit of a driving, ambitious artistic vision that just won’t cooperate with conventions of time and career progress.

A Big Book asks a lot of the reader, who is also a busy person eager to get on to other books and her own projects. When a Big Book doesn’t satisfy, the reader feels especially betrayed: in the contract between reader and writer, the stakes are higher. Some might feel that the bigger the book, the more forgiving we are as readers: surely among so many pages, there will be bagginess and flaws and plot points that ring false.

The truth is I did put Queen down — for a couple of days at the point where the past and present-time threads converged. This occurs approximately three-fourths of the way through and felt like the moment to take a breath. Lilliet readies herself for the dramatic finale, and so do we. When I picked it back up, I found that the final 130 pages read differently: with so many plot points finding their resolutions, mysteries solved and threads reaching back toward details that both Lilliet and the reader brushed over, I became confused and frequently flipped back and forth to earlier scenes.

I also found myself less engaged by extended descriptions of operatic plots. Faust, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lamermoor, La Sonnambula, Carmen, Orphée aux enfers, The Magic Flute, among others, all figure significantly into Lilliet’s story. The novel is true to Lilliet’s initial premonition, that her life is an opera and vice versa, so the material is utterly relevant. Still, if you are like me — a listener and a fan, but not a buff — those sections may feel more opaque than others. Chee is at his best, I think, when he is doing opera, via Lilliet’s life, as opposed to describing it.

I am not one to be more forgiving of a Big Book when it comes to the interruption of John Gardner’s notorious vivid continuous dream; but what is notable about these so-called “flaws” is that they are also part and parcel of what makes Queen worth reading. It’s a challenging novel in addition to a page-turning one. You feel, as you read, that you are being swept away by this delicious plot and voice, and that the novel wants to be read slowly — is actually smarter and deeper and more intricately constructed than can be appreciated at its decidedly propulsive pace. Great books satisfy in that particular way, leaving you sated and spent, but at the same time craving to do it all over again. Queen is a book that I look forward to rereading, savoring, studying for my own novelistic purposes. And when I do, it would not surprise me if those flaws were revealed as my own.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.

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