Electric Michaelangelo Paperback – Apr 27 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Hall's mellifluous coming-of-age story about an apprentice tattoo artist from the north coast of England who reinvents himself in Coney Island, N.Y., is picaresque in its sweep and lovely in its lush description. This 2004 Booker Prize finalist, Hall's second novel (after Haweswater) but first U.S. release, follows Cyril Parks from his youth in the 1910s, as he grows up the only son of the widowed proprietor of the Bayview Hotel in Morecambe, through his hard-won apprenticeship to the seedy rogue Eliot Riley, under whose exacting tutelage he becomes a skilled tattoo artist. From his benevolent mother, Reeda Parks, who puts up consumptives at her hotel, he learns not to be disgusted by the spectacle of human misery. (Reeda also performs secret abortions and campaigns for women's suffrage.) Upon Reeda and Riley's deaths, Cy takes off for America and plies his trade among the vibrant array of freak shows at Coney Island. By 1940, he meets a local Russian chess champion, Grace, and during the course of their love affair he inscribes 109 eye tattoos all over her body. Hall's writing is pure joy, especially when describing the childhood seaside shenanigans of Cy and his boy pals.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Tracing the arc of Cyril Parks' life from a young boy growing up in a ramshackle hotel for consumptives run by his widowed mother in the English seaside town of Morecambe through his emigration to America and back again, Hall paints a lush and sumptuous portrait of a sensitive, solitary man who ekes out an unlikely living as a tattoo artist. As a teenager, Parks learned his trade from Eliot Riley, an abusive loner who virtually kidnapped Parks to be his apprentice. After the deaths of both his mother and Riley, Parks escapes England and the approaching World War, sailing to America where he establishes himself in the bacchanalian world of Coney Island's boardwalk as "The Electric Michelangelo." When an enigmatic young woman hires him for a most bizarre commission, Parks finds himself caught within a maelstrom of emotions and desires unlike any he has ever known. A Man Booker finalist, Hall's sweeping novel explores timeless themes of loss and redemption with an ageless wisdom and grace. Carol Haggas
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
He eventually meets a woman named Grace, who is a circus performer and also becomes a client of Cyril's. While growing up in England, Cy was primarily influenced by his independent mother, Reeda, as well as his violently disturbed tattooing instructor, Eliot Riley. In the character of Grace, Cyril discovers qualities of both his mother and of Riley. This is a very powerful point of the novel.
Sarah Hall writes some amazing prose, and she infuses humor throughout the story. At times philosophical and symbolic, The Electric Michelangelo has strong, very human characters, and it gives insight into the lives of its inhabitants through the unigue profession of tattooing. The book can be compared to some of the works by John Irving, where we find strong female characters, various points of irony, and offbeat humor surfacing along the way.
This is one of the most original novels I have read this year. Although it is largely narrative, I found myself drawn into the book more and more as the story developed. There was a quiet, unassuming way in which the themes and messages of the book were conveyed. Through Cyril's tattoo artistry, we are shown a unique way of thinking, living, and dealing with the world, based on his art and profession. There is no fluff here. This is a meaty perspective on the human condition using subject matter that I have encountered in no other work. Given the chance, The Electric Michelangelo will lead the reader on a magical, rewarding journey.
First, in some ways one of the strenghts to this novel is minimal number of characters, minimal number of cities, and minimal number of intereactions. There are four main characters; Cy, this mother Reeda, his mentor Eliot Riley, and the woman he falls in love with, Grace. The action takes place in two cities; Morecambe England and Coney Island, NYC. Significant dialogue happens in two taverns; the Dog and Pheasant in Morecambe and the Varga on Coney Island. Cyril Parks is loved and protected by a wise mother, Reeda, who runs a boarding house by the sea for TB patients and performs abortions late at night for local girls in trouble. Her emotional stability gives Cy a bedrock of natural compassion and internal resources. She dies of breast cancer and Cy decides to become apprentice to the alcholic Eliot Riley, an angry bitter drunkard who introduces Cy to the profession of tatoo artist. After the death of Eliot, Cy migrates to Coney Island and makes a living on the boardwalk and socializing at the Varga, the local diner for circus and carnival folks. He meets a young angry intelligent beautiful Russian Jewish bareback rider and her horse, Maximus. She is agnostic, skeptical, and obviously has seen much pain and disappointment in her life, which she keeps to herself. Cy loves Grace but her personality is so much stronger than his, that his courtship must be carefully plotted. I will not say more about the straight forward story line since I don't want to ruin the reading experience of others, but the point here is that Hall uses a very minimal approach so as to better explore the few characters and situations she introduces.
Second, Hall engages in skillful social commentary through the interactions of her characters, reminding me of the masterful job that VIctor Hugo does in Les Miserables. Social class and mileau commentary is best revealed by the manner in which the characters navigate to survive. Social commentary has more power through empathy than via lectures. This is true of Les Miserables as well as The Electric Michelangelo.
Third, Hall engages in insightful analysis of the art of the tatoo and the impulses that drive human beings to mark their bodies. Some people mark their bodies to show experiences they have survived, such as military service or service in a particular part of the world. Others, mark their body to show committment. Others mark their bodies to signify loss. Some seek a tatoo so that the painful experience acts as an initiation rite, taking them apart and building them again with a symbol to show they have been rebuilt. Some men select terrible images to attempt to warn other men to stay away from them, that they are dangerous. Her commentary on the purposes of tatoo are skillfully interwoven throughout the work.
Fourth, but you may ask "what is this book really about?" I would say that the overwhelming theme is recovery from loss, the resources we have to overcome loss, the lessons we learn from overcoming loss, and the baggage we carry into our next significant relationships and situations from our previous loss.
The language is poetic and vibrant, the characterization exact and empathetic, the flow of events was strategic, and in the end Hall has produced an incredible book. She wrote this book when she was 30 years old. She has certainly learned a lifetime of lessons in her short life and she reveals these lessons like a master.
Yes the novel can be heavy going at times but the beauty of her story and her talent as a writer just kept me wanting more and I earmarked so many passages because they were the finest, among the best poetry that I have ever read, her imagination and facility with language is stunning, not to mention the level of research that she did.
A wonderful and rare performance--Bravo!
The book definitely has many strong points. Hall has a gift for describing the more disgusting parts of human nature, so while not easy to read, everything in this story rings sadly true to our minds. The world of Coney Island with its bars, carnivals, and freak shows is brought to life.
However, the story itself does not leave one feeling satisfied. None of the characters are easily likeable, not even Cy. He has moments of revelation about himself that Hall manages to write without seeming preachy, but most of the time he is getting drunk and being unable to rid himself of Riley's ghost in his mnd. Hall also tends to digress about minor character at lengths that are not really necessary.
But despite these flaws, The Electric Michelangelo deserves its Booker Prize shortlist, and in my opinion is a better book than the winner. I would recommend this book as a thought-provoking read.
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.