The Jade Cabinet

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE JADE CABINET is the last in a tetralogy of novels based on the four elements: earth, fire, water, and now air. But THE JADE CABINET is also what its title suggests, a highly crafted showcase for its author’s narrative artistry. Put simply (and therefore misleading), THE JADE CABINET is the story of Etheria as told by her younger sister Memory. As beautiful as she is brilliant, the childlike Etheria is also mute, the result of her father Angus Sphery’s obsession with primal language, itself but one manifestation of his “insatiable desire for knowledge both worldly and divine.” A version of Sleeping Beauty and of Lewis Carroll’s Alice (Dodgson being a family friend, the Liddells neighbors), Etheria is kept in a state of innocence if not quite ignorance until the arrival of the wonderfully Dickensian Radulph Tubbs, caricature of virility and embodiment of the Industrial Age. Married to Tubbs, who buys off the bride’s father with some jade, Etheria turns to magic first for relief then for escape, preferring “vanishment” to Tubbs’ ravishment. Spurned and vengeful, Tubbs steals away the elder Sphery’s latest exhibit and Etheria-substitute, the Hungerkuntsler of Prague. He then goes to Egypt to supervise the processing of Ibis mummies into soup and, failing in that, fertilizer. But Tubbs never gets over his loss, a failure which infuriates the now enormous former Hungerkuntsler and leads to the novel’s surprising climax, about which the less said here the better.

This, however, is only half the story of THE JADE CABINET, the other being the tale of its telling, the unreliability of Memory (the faculty as well as the character). As she tries to explain, “Let’s suppose memory is like a jade cabinet, but a cabinet belonging to an infinitely irresolute collector. Each time we look inside, the jade appears to be the same, yet the mind is forever replacing one chimera for another that resembles it. Let’s suppose the memory is a cabinet of chameleons and the mind as unstable as the moon.” That instability, that transformational quality, is an essential part of a work that sides neither with the prelapsarian perfection that Angus Sphery desires nor the practicality that Tubbs demands. It sides instead with the protean, which is to say with the art of conjuring, an art that includes both Etheria’s tricks and Memory’s tropes.