Pocket Review: The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert

SunkenCathedral.coverimageThe Sunken Cathedral
Kate Walbert
Scribner, 2015

Here is an interesting, almost Oulipean, challenge: How does one write a modern, urban novel without referencing technology? Maybe modern is the wrong word, with its connotations of sleekness and smooth surfaces. How does one write a contemporary novel, then, set in—say—New York City, without mentioning cell phones, laptops, the Internet?

Kate Walbert has calibrated The Sunken Cathedral to the very real concerns of New Yorkers in the second decade of the 21st century without ever taking an easy step. Rather than Google and Amazon, her characters are thinking about real estate, progressive private schools, the lovely, ubiquitous High Line, and—perhaps most urgent, as it is firmly out of the control of even the most carefully insulated city dweller—the weather. For those of us who, in the past five years, have lived through Hurricane Sandy, Tropical Storm Irene, and even an earthquake—remember the earthquake?—not to mention reports from around the world of far more devastating events: tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes that level entire towns, Walbert’s book neatly calls up that sensation of previously solid ground shifting under our feet. As New Yorkers, we expect certain kind of chaos: crime, noise, social unrest. When the elements level our respective playing fields, on the other hand, we’re undone. This was not what we planned for. 9/11 made us jumpy, and as Walbert gently points out, we’re jumpy still.

Marie and Simone, the two elderly women around whom The Sunken Cathedral orbits, know a thing or two about how life spirals out of control. Both survived the occupation of France during World War II, and both have grown old in a city that has changed radically since they met as young mothers in a Brooklyn playground. Their children are grown and moved away, their loved husbands are dead.

So they do what old ladies at loose ends in the city have done for time immemorial: they take an art class. Taught by one Sid Morris—an aging beatnik in a shabby Chelsea studio with questionable credentials—The School of Inspired Arts welcomes a cast of players that, like true New Yorkers, cross paths both randomly and irrevocably, expand outward, and multiply. Thus, in and out of Sid’s studio, we also meet Elizabeth, who rents an apartment in Marie’s brownstone with her husband and teenage son; the movie star who lives in the building behind hers (and his cat, Roscoe, who has a name, whereas the movie star doesn’t); Dr. Constantine, the old-school feminist interim head of a lefty private school; Carlos, the mounted policeman, for a heartbreaking minute; and Helen, the painting class’s resident art historian in thick black plastic glasses, who

peered through the lenses as if trying to see in murky water, her eyes exaggerated and a little off, Simone thought—she’s been through something; and did Marie notice how certain times she went so close to her canvas it seemed she might be smelling it? And other times she squeezed her eyes shut like she was trying to paint in the dark.

There’s an appropriately underwater quality throughout The Sunken Cathedral, and Sid’s classroom discussions of impressionism add a layer of watery, wavery visuals that serve the interwoven plot lines well. New York may not be under water just yet, but the characters flow by each other, refracted and sometimes drifting; the mermaids and ghosts that put in token appearances are entirely at home. When Helen offers the class her vision for a painting inspired by Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral, she recalls visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum with her husband, where she got “the first inkling of a loosened world.”

Time is fluid here too, viewed through the wavy lens of memory. And while you might expect a certain imprecision from Marie and Simone, it turns out that everyone’s sense of personal history is subjective, and subject to change. It’s not just the elderly whose sense of time is mutable; everyone in Walbert’s book moves forward and backward through their reminiscences—in a way that’s sometimes confusing, but more often, if the reader is willing to flow with it, reveals a pleasing Pentimento effect.

This is not the easiest of reads. Walbert’s tenses can shift multiple times in a single sentence; her scaffolded viewpoints and voices require close reading. But the book moves with the condensed momentum of a short story, packing a rich sensory pastiche:

The powders were caked in tubes gone dry, or pressed into compacts from the fifties, their plastic clamshell lids and palm-size mirrors flecked with black. How many times had her mother seen her own face in these, and now Katherine looking back, a stouter version of her mother, more her father’s build, stocky, short-waisted, but in this mirror none of that, only her face, pretty like her mother’s though not as pretty, not nearly as pretty, she thinks, dumping the tubes and compacts, the dried-out mascaras and spent lipsticks, the beveled-glass bottles of perfume—some nearly empty, others almost full—and the one her father gave her mother every year for Christmas, her mother pretending she had no idea, squealing like a little girl—into a cardboard box she believed she would throw out but on which she later wrote with Sharpie, MOTHER.

Urban life, art, aging, and death are all considered; perhaps as they are, maybe only as we imagine them, but in the end the distinction is not so important. The Sunken Cathedral is as contemporary as can be, yet carries the timeless sense of the neighborhood back yards you can’t see from the street:

…behind, in the back, the small gardens of the Chelsea brownstones and tenements—some just dog runs, others planted, each a tiny terrarium of hope.

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