Eugene K. Garber, The House of Nordquist, Transformations Press, 2018. This book is available at
In the late 1850s Richard Wagner wrote to his adored Mathilde Wesendonck that he was afraid Tristan (of which he was then composing the final act) would be banned by the civil authorities. Only mediocre performances could save it: a perfect one would drive the audience mad. Gene Garber's new novel moves around a similar conceit: a symphony that would "change the world." True, anything, even something as tenuous as the flutter of a hummingbird, changes the world, but this piece of music is aimed to change the world utterly, Big Time. Which is likely to mean, from our viewpoint in this staid world, that its audience would be driven mad.
There is another parallel between Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk and Garber's: both have roots in Schopenhauer's interpretation of Kant's scandalous "thing in itself" as the will, das Wille, that which is the inside, the unspeakable essence of a thing, and only music is able to reach all the way down into the will and express it. Such is Schopenhauer's doctrine of the will, and his advice is to drop it: if you want to avoid endless and meaningless suffering, hush the will to individuality and self-affirmation, and keep to self-denial, askesis, and intellectual contemplation. The notion that only music can express essences gives a foundation to Garber's central idea of a mysterious character, Eric Nordquist, a red-haired young man who is composing the symphony that will change the world. His method of composition is to attach sensors or electrodes (as in an EKG) to a naked body lying on a stone slab, and by means of a synthesizer or something of the sort transform the "sounds of the body" into sounds audible to all. The nature of the resulting music will depend on the body. But if it is going to be music such as to change the world, the body on the slab better be one that has suffered much, as much as a world redeemer ought to have suffered—and what better choice than a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor? Her name is Helene.
Eric the musician has a problem which may be characterized as an allergy to words: in which he is totally different from Wagner; but it's OK, he's composing a symphony, not a drama. That, however, presents a technical difficulty for Garber, since the novel consists entirely of dialogues or letters, so Eric is never heard. As a consequence, he is the character least vivid to the reader, followed by Helene, who is emaciated and half-dead. Actually, there is only one word Eric will pronounce: "raven." We are told that it is only a sound, having nothing to do with the bird.
It may be so, but it should have a lot to do with Edgar Allan Poe. It is difficult to miss the reference in Garber's title, The House of Nordquist, to Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. Plus, you may remember, Roderick Usher is a musician too, he plays the guitar. And Madeline, the name of Roderick's twin sister, appears in Garber's novel as the name of a very minor character who pops up only once, a postal employee. Most importantly, the genre of both tales is the gothic. We hasten to add that the genre of Garber's novel is mixed: it is gothic cum crime fiction, the latter having started, as is well known, by another Poe story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Which brings us to the crime in Garber's novel.
The House of Nordquist was brought down by fire. Some of the characters burned to death—three, maybe four, or even five—and some may have escaped, and are being sought. Was Eric dead? Or was he safe, having finished and rescued the symphony that was to change the world? One of the main characters, Paul Albright, is looking for Eric, and has been for twenty years. There are government agencies looking for Paul, its agents intent on the hopeless task of separating facts from their interpretation and dreams from their images. There is Alice a.k.a. Alicia, Paul's wife, who is looking for her sons, the younger one having perhaps been killed in the blaze—except that it is all in her head. There is Thomas Meachem, an old college buddy of Paul at the Justin and James College for Men, a clever guy who mentions Schopenhauer and has a superb intuition for spatial structures. There is the inseparable pair of professors at said College, Professor John and Professor Aptheker, the former a rhetorician and the latter a theologian. There is, finally, Eric's mother, Deirdre. All those major characters are, after a while, easily recognizable, even though their entries are never announced, for each has certain themes, or turns of phrase, or tones of voice, that function as leitmotifs. But the crime? Or rather, the suspected crime: was it arson, the fire that twenty years ago devoured the House of Nordquist? And if so, who was the arsonist?
Those are the recurrent questions. It is an axiom that all crime fiction, whether gothic or not, must at the end reveal the solution of the crime and the answers to the recurrent questions. Here, though, the intricacies are so many—and so fascinating—that such resolution becomes extremely problematic. Yet Garber finds a brilliant way out of the impasse, consisting in calling on the gothic to help with the resolution of the crime. Don't worry: I won't spoil it for you. Let me just say that the gothic in this case is the genuine stuff, much more so than in Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. It really goes back to the thirteenth or fourteenth century.
The House of Nordquist is the third in Garber's Eroica trilogy. The first novel, Vienna 00, was reviewed in this journal in March 2006, Issue #26; the second, O Amazonas Escuro, was reviewed in December 2010, in Issue #44. In all three, music plays a big role.