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The Limits of Language in “Siege of Comedians”

The Limits of Language in “Siege of Comedians”

If you can learn how to run a chicken-and-waffle restaurant by reading Mildred Pierce (as the crime novelist Laura Lippmann claims), then surely you can learn to reconstruct human faces from skeletal remains by reading Susan Daitch’s Siege of Comedians.

Maybe bones aren’t your thing, in which case you can still enjoy learning how to resurrect a decades-old film reel, or how to pinpoint someone’s city of origin by analyzing their speech patterns, or how to entertain a 17th-century sultan with shadow puppet theater. It’s a particular joy to find oneself immersed in the minutiae of complicated, highly specialized work, and Daitch excels at zooming in and making us feel like experts.

But for Siege of Comedians, the devil is not so much in the details as in the bigger picture. Pitched as a “novel in triptych,” the narrative jumps across continents and centuries. Even the characters lucky enough to survive whatever dire situations they’re thrown into are soon cast aside for new potential victims.

Such abrupt shifts are familiar territory for Daitch, whose previous novel The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir offers varied and conflicting accounts of a search for Persia’s version of Atlantis, and constantly jumps back and forth among them. Siege of Comedians is less disorienting, with three novellas, each of which could easily stand on its own, appearing in sequence. But where Suolucidir can be read as a meditation on the nature of storytelling, Siege of Comedians drills down one level further, to the building blocks of communication itself.

“Clay Heads Talking,” the novel’s opening salvo, focuses on Iridia, a woman working as a forensic sculptor, building faces out of clay working from the bones recovered from scenes of tragic disasters. The terrain is similar to that of Daitch’s White Lead, a 2016 “novel of suspense” featuring an art conservationist caught up in an audacious heist and murder scheme. “There is something in the business of making things known as inherent vice,” Iridia tells us, “which means the seeds of deterioration lay in the unstable chemistry of some materials used.”

The inherent vice in old paintings is crucial to the plot of White Lead, but in Siege of Comedians, the concept gets expanded. Are meaning and identity made of stronger stuff than the ballpoint pen, whose chemical composition isn’t designed to last, or are they subject to the very same inherent vice? Siege of Comedians seems to argue strongly for the latter.

“There are no zoos or nature preserves for languages threatened with extinction,” says a masked villain wielding a piano wire and sporting an arm-length tattoo of 88 keys as he coerces Iridia into destroying her reconstructed faces. “How does a language, a set of codes is all, plummet down to bupkis? One century it’s the omnipresent language of diplomacy, the market, the bedroom, the military, the next minute it’s squashed like a bug.”

Having established the idea that even an intangible like language can disintegrate of its own accord, the novel offers up other possibilities for how humans might speak to one another across time and space.

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The middle section of the triptych, “The Propaganda Artist,” tells the story of Martin Shusterman, a Brooklyn-born dilettante who finds himself living in Buenos Aires, where he falls in love with a woman named Abril. Much to his surprise, she agrees to move in with him. Martin’s life then takes a dark turn (one of many in this novel), when Abril is disappeared by the Argentinian military junta. Barely escaping himself, Martin returns to the States where he falls into a career as a forensic speech analyst, capable of unpacking a person’s entire history through their pauses, plosives, and altered syllables. His talents lead him to get hired by actors looking to hone their craft. By helping others with their artifice, Martin earns enough to investigate the propaganda filmmakers he suspects are connected to Abril’s disappearance.

In the final novella, “Levitating Cities,” Daitch abandons all pretense of grounding the reader and sends us to 17th century Vienna, where the city is bracing itself against a siege from the Ottoman army. We first hear tell of the tents and camels surrounding the city, along with the thousands of professional entertainers brought along to occupy the soldiers, from the proprietor of a Vienna brothel. The narrative then shifts to the stories of three of the brothel’s employees.

Words may lose their meaning over time, but more elemental modes of discourse can last for ages. The long-buried remains of a palace. The image of a Nazi clinging to a piece of celluloid. The pronouncing of “world” as “woild.” With the right expertise, these artifacts can be understood across centuries, less vulnerable to decay than even language itself.Some readers will surely find Siege of Comedians a bit dizzying. Indeed, it can be a challenge to keep track of the many names, places, timelines, and histories without feeling under siege yourself. But the experience of thinking about Siege of Comedians in the days and weeks after consuming it is your reward for the effort that a close reading of this novel requires. If you’re lucky, it will even persist in your memory, immune to the degradation that menaces so many other aspects of our lives.

Siege of Comedians
By Susan Daitch
Dzanc Books
Published October 12, 2021

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