Operatic Tempo and Coincidence: Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night
“Victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat. Such is tragedy,” Liliet Berne asserts regarding the Verdi opera Il trovatore, and in doing so gives the reader a roadmap to her own narrative. This line appears about midway through the stunning new novel by Alexander Chee, and it’s one of the instances in which Chee illuminates both much of what came before and Liliet’s journey as a whole. Such is the nature of time in The Queen of the Night — constantly folding back on itself, the past leading to its own past, the present nowhere to be found until it emerges from the shadows like the surprise star performer and becomes the perspective we didn’t know existed, making the closing of the novel a constant, moving thing rather than a box shut tight over the narrative.
The Queen of the Night opens on 19th century Liliet Berne, famous and legendary, a rare type of soprano as well as a courtesan — a combination of roles that offers a woman like her, one without family or born-into social status, the power of a noblewoman. In her first scenes, we’re privy to her decadence: she throws diamonds in the trash, allows herself to go and get fitted for a new dress in the middle of a ball, and, since she needs to protect her oh-so-precious voice, needn’t speak to anyone if she doesn’t wish to, the last of which is a fortunate thing for a woman who enjoys celebrity but not always the social gatherings that go with it. There are reasons for her actions — jewels are frowned upon in post-Second Empire France, for example, and so throwing diamonds away is a kind of patriotic act — but only Liliet knows them. She is a secretive woman, but one whose secrets are laid bare before her during this first scene. Fitting indeed for this novel to raise its curtain on the opening night of what we find out is Liliet’s latest mysterious intrigue, the newest operatic drama she is living inside of rather than only performing on stage — tragedy or comedy, we don’t know yet, although she suspects the former.
Opening night is only a ruse, a prologue to the past rather than to the future. As in opera, where most information about the characters’ pasts is revealed through their songs, so too does Liliet go back and sing her narrative through the delicious voice that feels scrumptiously 19th century and historic without being awkwardly false, a Dickensian feint, or worse, an attempt at something anachronistic like Austen. Chee gives his Liliet a voice that is uniquely her own, and what’s more, as she is originally American, there is none of the sometimes annoying falseness that comes from novels with narrators who supposedly speak and think in French or Russian or Italian though narrating in English. Liliet loses her English somewhat during her years away from the US, but by the time she is narrating her story — and here again is Chee’s mastery over the way the moons wax and wane in the book — Liliet is bound to have remembered it in full.
The ruse of that first night at the ball, during which Liliet is faced with a novelist whose book seems to tailor far too closely to the events of her own life, is the setup for The Queen of the Night’s four different openings, each of which introduces us to a different part of her past. These parts include different disguises, different roles. From an American farm girl to a circus performer to a prostitute to a protégé-cum-prisoner to a true prisoner to a mute to a servant to a confidante and spy to a pawn to a singer-in-training to a siege-laid citizen in Paris to a woman in love to a heartbroken one to an air-balloon-wielding runaway to a protégé-cum-prisoner again to a singer making her debut to a famous and beloved star — these are all the roles that Liliet plays before she is introduced to us on the first page of the novel, and she gives hints to them all as she tells each of her stories. Stories which, added up, create the wholeness that is her chaotic life. She mentions the siege long before we’ve reached that part of her life; the ruby rose brooch that she receives from the Emperor of France long before we understand where it has disappeared to or why it terrifies her so that the novelist has found it. Liliet Berne’s biography opens up again and again, sometimes picking up where it left off before she returned to the timeline of the opening scene, sometimes introducing us to new scenery altogether.
What is most startling in Liliet is how convincing she is. When she describes the plot of the novel written about her, it is truly operatic in the sense that it includes much that is fantastical — an angel who becomes mortal and loses his memory, spells and enchantments, a voice that can awaken memory. Her own life, her real life, is just as magical, except that we see the inner workings of what appear to be Liliet’s magical transformations. Becoming a mute, for instance, involves the visceral, gruesome act of stripping a dead girl’s body of its clothes, dressing in them, and dressing the body back up with Liliet’s own clothes, all during the dark of night in prison. Some of the magic of Liliet’s life, however, is not explained, and it is here she becomes either an unreliable narrator, a woman who wants to be as legendary as one of her own poisonous patrons (the Comtesse, a real woman whose image graces the novel’s cover), or she becomes a true child of Fate, if Fate were a kind of god that were chasing her. Yet even at her most vulnerable moments as a narrator, when she casts doubt over the coincidences of her own life and wonders whether she is simply delusional, Liliet ends up concluding that she can’t be — and she then proves it by bringing forth another coincidence, and another… and another.
In a recent Q&A with Chee at Macaulay Honors College in New York City, he spoke of how coincidences are supposed to be avoided in fiction since they’re said to seem artificial. Yet none of Liliet’s feel that way, and it wasn’t until that Q&A, when Chee was posed the question about whether Liliet Berne is an entirely reliable narrator, that the idea that she wasn’t had even occurred to me. Yes, she skips over time and details, going in-depth during some scenes and skipping over days or months or years at a time in others. But she is so deft that she reminded me of the circus performer she was in her first reincarnation: sleight of hand and illusion are no strangers to her, and so a willing, pliant audience is putty in her hands. And so I believed Liliet every step of the way, as majestically far-fetched as she could be.
The urgency with which Chee has Liliet telling her tales, while continually creating a bait and switch narrative in which she yanks away knowledge at crucial moments only to come back to them later, keeps the reader off balance, racing through the pages without any possibility of stopping for fear of falling flat. It is that kind of novel, the kind one devours in a weekend or stays up too late reading. It’s the kind of novel one walks around reading, despite its size and heft (a fact I hope Chee, a confessed reader-walker himself, will appreciate). The Queen of the Night deserves the attention she is getting, and I plan on continuing to sing her praises.