A City in Turmoil, and a Social Order Overturned

THE CURATOR, by Owen King

The setting of Owen King’s new picturesque fantasy, “The Curator,” is an unnamed city in an unknown country, on an alternate version of Earth, during an unspecified century earlier than our own. A short revolution has overturned the social order. Most of the elites have absconded while the newly liberated working classes and their allies attempt to restore the rule of law.

The protagonist, a maid named Dora, is troubled by the circumstances of her brother’s death years before: He’d been secretly involved in experiments at the Society for Psykical Research and had dropped hints to her about the existence of other worlds. And so in a topsy-turvy post-revolutionary climate where, it seems, the only qualification required for a job is the expressed desire to do it, Dora becomes the curator of the city’s neglected National Museum of the Worker, which occupies a building adjacent to the Society. Rehabilitating the collection, an assortment of decayed waxwork displays of tinkers, surgeons and bricklayers, gives her an opportunity to solve the mystery.

This plot is the skeleton on which King hangs a compelling history of the city, flashing back to the revolution’s causes and detailing its aftermath. King neatly weaves together the lives of the city’s residents by tracing the paths of the artifacts passing between them: a propaganda pamphlet, a white scarf, an extracted tooth. Before the revolution, the privileged classes are shielded from comprehending the city’s severe income inequality; some of them sympathize with the impoverished, but their understanding is ultimately limited by their lifestyles, which let them observe or ignore poverty as they choose.

This disconnect causes some trouble within the provisional government after the old order collapses. On top of that, anarchic tendencies in the post-revolutionary society make it a breeding ground for corruption, self-interest and evil perpetrated for its own sake. Soon, the question becomes whether the revolutionaries can keep their tenuous hold on the city, despite friction within the movement and forces from without.

King’s style in this book regularly recalls those of the great cartographers of similar imaginary spaces, like Mervyn Peake and Gene Wolfe, though his aims are different. His prose is not as wonderfully ornate as theirs, but it has its own smooth lyricism and evocative imagery, helping the book’s pages turn quickly. King loves extravagant lists full of quirky details: of the city’s strange landmarks, of a room’s various odors, of the housekeeping habits of professors, of one character’s many seedy associates, of another’s erotic fantasies.

He also has a knack for colorful metaphors (an elderly general’s “stomach was a piano filled with wasps”) and thoughtfully considered perspective: When Dora as a young girl sees a carpet “thick enough to bury a marble in,” the viewpoint is from someone who lives low enough to the ground to be constantly observing it.

King’s publisher advertises “The Curator” as a “Dickensian fantasy,” and it has occasional touches of Dickens in its consideration of class and in some of the more broadly drawn characters. But its dominant mode is fantasy dosed with horror, especially in its weird, hectic second half. As Dora gets closer to understanding her brother’s death, the narrative incorporates occultism, Lynchian dream logic, an implied critique of the myth of meritocracy, and supernatural goings-on I won’t spoil.

This novel is richly imagined, its surface pleasures deliberately subverted by the bleak suggestion at its core: that a successful organized attempt to reduce inequity will have to overcome not just the inertia of a nation’s politics, but human nature.

Dexter Palmer is the author of three novels, most recently “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen.”

THE CURATOR | By Owen King | 468 pp. | Scribner | $28.99

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