OCTOBER 6, 2013
MANY A WRITER has set fantastical elements amidst the backdrop of a recognizable city. It isn’t hard to see why: the juxtaposition of the unreal with the quotidian or the gritty is the sort of thing from which a strange and beguiling chaos can emerge, a funhouse mirror held up to the known world, altering it in ways minute or seismic. Throwing an urban fantasy together with a period piece, however, as Toby Barlow has done in Babayaga, yields an even stranger experience, and sometimes a richer one.
Several recent novels could serve as the syllabus for a master class in this approach. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane amasses much of its power from its narrator’s strained, possibly unreliable memories of his surreal childhood. Victor LaValle’s novella Lucretia and the Croons blends the nightmarish side of late-1980s New York with a fantastical take on Flushing Meadows. And Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless finds abundant power in paralleling the cyclical nature of myths with Russia’s seemingly endless cycle of authoritarian governments. This bleak and occasionally thrilling comparison, evoking questions of power and endurance, shows how the real and the unreal — in this case, creatures of myth now dedicated to Bolshevik doctrine — can be combined in narratively compelling ways.
Barlow’s novel falls into this category: set in 1959, it features a number of plots, some fantastical and some mundane, that play out over the course of just a few days in Paris. There are centuries-old Russian witches, dodgy CIA agents, an extended hat-tip to the foundation of The Paris Review, and a policeman who finds his body transformed into that of an insect. Things move at a brisk pace here — at its best, Barlow’s novel reads like a blend of the sensibilities of George Simenon in noir mode and Billy Wilder’s cynical farce in One, Two, Three.
As such a description might suggest, Babayaga’s plot relies rather heavily on genre conventions. At its broadest, it’s about a femme fatale on the run, and the relatively upright gentleman in whose arms she might find unexpected love — the stuff from which archetypal noir is made. In this case, the femme fatale is Zoya, a centuries-old witch (or lowercase–b babayaga) who has settled in Paris, long after leaving her Russian home. Shortly after the novel begins, Zoya kills a paramour when, for the first time in a 15-year-long affair, he notices that she hasn’t aged. The examination of the crime scene introduces Detective Charles Vidot, a man in a seemingly happy marriage with a fondness for classic mysteries — he ponders “the great mystery stories featuring Dupin, Holmes, and Lecoq” that initiated his interest in police work. Vidot’s investigation leads him to Elga, Zoya’s fellow babayaga, whom, upon being interrogated, transforms him and a fellow officer into fleas. Though Barlow makes good use of these archetypes, some of the novel’s high points come when supernatural elements shift the tropes askew: Vidot’s by-the-book investigation, for instance, which is occasionally interrupted by his new body’s cravings for blood.
But it’s the novel’s supporting characters who truly shine: Oliver Pierce Ames, a hard-living American expatriate with his cavalier, devil-may-care worldview, who is launching a literary journal, and Andrei, a priest with a decades-long connection to Elga and Zoya, who evokes a deeper sort of moral complexity. After Andrei recalls his first meeting with the witches — which led to an unpleasant fate for his morally bankrupt brother — “he felt alternately angry and agnostic toward God, suspicious of any theology that could not explain what he had seen with his own two eyes.”
Barlow’s descriptions of Paris hearken back to the concept of the mythic city: the urban center as the space that acts as a catalyst for its citizens’ creativity and politics. In Babayaga, that archetype is taken through several permutations. Paris is, at the most basic level, the setting of the novel. And yet Barlow is also after the greater mythology of Paris: the vivid descriptions of the city after the Second World War tap into the same nostalgia that, a decade ago, gave us the “Jazz in Paris” series of reissued albums: attractive, well-dressed people discussing great literature with snazzy tunes playing in the background. Pulling off a novel set in an archetypal version of a city that’s also a meditation on that same archetype is a nearly impossible task for any writer, and the gulf between the Paris of history, the Paris that appears in this novel, and the concept of Paris itself can occasionally be jarring.
When Barlow focuses in on a particular space within the city, he’s often able to create a sharply defined sense of place and explain how that place became almost mythical in certain intellectual and historical circles. But for all the scenes set in a lovingly rendered Paris, from Oliver’s fondness for browsing the shelves at Shakespeare and Company to an action set piece set in the Bois de Boulogne, it’s another city that looms almost as large: Detroit. Barlow has emerged as an advocate for this city in recent years, and Will’s mostly nostalgic recollections of his hometown are intended as echoes of other characters’ wistful takes on Paris. At one point, Barlow makes this explicit, as Will’s memories of Detroit and Vidot’s memories of Paris end up merging the two into one strange, overlapping city. Barlow reminds us in an afterword that Detroit was once known as “the Paris of the Midwest.”
Throughout the book, explicit nods are made to contemporaneous historical events. Vidot and Oliver both, in their own ways, wrestle with the aftermath of the Vichy government and the French Resistance. Characters periodically cite the revolution in Algeria, and various CIA-affiliated persons allude to the United States’ increased interest in Vietnam. Each section is prefaced by an epigraph from The Paris Review — specifically, writers discussing that magazine’s early days. Barlow’s choice of 1959 as the year resonates beyond certain trends in style, music, and literature. It’s also, by this novel’s reckoning, a time in which Europe ceased to be the battleground of great powers.
The archetypal, beloved Paris of that epoch is seen, then, as something to cherish, even as it slips away. Late in the novel, Oliver tells Will that one of their antagonists was motivated by something similar to their own hopes and desires: “We all simply wanted to stay in Paris.” Later in that same conversation, he outlines the melancholic underbelly of this generally breezy novel:
As funny as it seems, this was the last battle for Paris, the final act, and now, mark my word, this city will be abandoned, not by people but by history. The local intellectuals will go on with their philosophies, and de Gaulle will wrestle with his little Algerian conundrum, but the idea of France as the beating, vibrant heart of the world is over.
That sense of decline is inherent to the approach Barlow takes with his juxtaposition of the real and magic realism. Set something featuring witches or mystical creatures in the modern world, and you imply that magic sits just below the surface of our own reality. Place those characters in a world already vanished, and you imply something else: that magic was in the world once, but may now be lost. It’s a maneuver that bridges history with the fantastic; connect the two, and a mood of wistful regret emerges. Consider the ways in which the magical-realist elements in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude give way to bleaker images of addiction and failure; or how, in Deathless, the mythic splendor dissipates, leaving its characters to contend with the more brutal aspects of daily life in the time of Stalin.
Ending this brisk, charming novel with the anticipation of a cultural decline is a bittersweet choice, but it fits. Happy endings are uncommon, and star-crossed lovers rarely settle down. While not as beatifically subversive as his werewolf novel-in-blank-verse, Sharp Teeth, which critiqued notions of masculinity and self-help culture, Babayaga’s blend of history, romance, and the weird has compelling charms of its own. By its end, a cloud of loss hangs over all that came before: a mournful glance at a bygone era where cultural potential stood tall and the faintest hint of magic was in the air.