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- Published on Amazon.com
Hall's novel tells the story of Cyril "Cy" Parks, a young man from the northern English resort town of Morecambe. Starting in the early twentieth century, the plot, such as it is, follows Cy's life from youth to old age. His early life is dominated by his mother, Reeda, punctuated by boyhood adventures that come to an abrupt end when he is apprenticed to Eliot Riley, the town's tattoo artist. After the passing of these two role models, Cy heads across the Atlantic to Coney Island, where he falls in love with Grace, a woman who asks him to tattoo eyes over her whole body. When things turn out tragically with Grace, Cy drifts around the world, eventually returning to Morecambe as an old man, taking on a young woman, Nina Shearer, as his own apprentice.
Throughout the book, Hall's words seem to be made of concrete. Decorative, poetic, but heavy and inert, the novel moves from the sheer force of her authorial determination rather than any sense of inner momentum. Hall's story is monotone in its heavy-handed attempt to generate meaning. Her metaphors are clumsy and unsophisticated, including the death of Cy's father on the same day as the protagonist's birth, the experimental sinking of Cy in quicksand, and disparate natures of the Siamese twins who run the Varga, Cy's favorite bar in Coney Island. Hall seems desperate to saturate everything in her novel with meaning, but ends up instead with a cacophony of confused, forced metaphors.
Even more questionable is Hall's decision to engage with history in her novel. The vague references to the Renaissance, especially to Michelangelo, are so shallow as to be laughable. Hall also imposes her own contemporary views back onto the early twentieth-century world that Cy inhabits in a way that provides a very one-sided perspective on how culture has changed during this time. His mother Reeda, for instance, is a feminist before her time, an advocate for women's rights who performs secret abortions in her hostel, and is far too saintly to be believable. Despite the historical realities of the world in which he lives, therefore, Cy lives in an unrealistic bubble that is unconvincingly welcoming and tolerant toward women and minorities. Hall is so insistent on preaching to the reader that, toward the end of the novel, Cy even delivers a diatribe to his young apprentice on the importance of young people voting.
The problem with The Electric Michelangelo, in the end, is the ubiquity of Hall's fingerprints over every last inch of her creation. The novel suffers, not because "nothing happens," but because Hall is unable or unwilling to open up her story to the contingencies of the artistic process, and by trying to control too much she fails to allow her ideas and prejudices to stand on their own merits.