THOUGH EDWARD CAREY seems to intend his first novel, Observatory Mansions, to be an unsentimental, surrealist romance, it's really a paean to loneliness. For the book is never so interesting as when its characters are despairing and alone. All goes well then for the first hundred pages, where Carey lays out the solitude housed in Observatory Mansions, a graying apartment building where Francis Orme, the book's narrator, cultivates a secret life of stillness and theft.
Stunted by a friendless childhood, Francis, age 37, still lives with his parents and insists on hiding his hands beneath a pair of white gloves. His only passion: a covert museum of stolen objects, which are exhibited "solely for the reason that they are loved; that their former owner prized them above his or her other possessions." Francis's four neighbors--a former schoolteacher still sweating (literally) over a tragedy in his past, an embittered porter, a woman addicted to the "friendliness" pouring out of her TV, and another who thinks she's a dog--are all equally eccentric, and equally committed to maintaining the building's code of silence and solitude.
The engine that gets all these characters moving is, of course, the appearance of a mysterious woman, Anna Tap, though this time not of the heels-and-lipstick variety. (Carey's only concession to the noir convention is Anna Tap's chain-smoking; otherwise, she's all glasses, freckles, and woolen dress.) Anna's move to Observatory Mansions and her chatty ways threaten Francis with the specter he most fears: community. Suddenly, unbearably, all his neighbors are pried out of their silence and into Anna's coffee-klatch-cum-therapy group, where buried memories are brought to light and everyone traces the disappearance of his most valued possession (a passport photo, a dog collar, a ruler) to the machinations of Francis Orme.
Francis, predictably, hates Anna. But, as everyone knows, hate is just another word for love, and before another 50 pages are out, the romance has begun. In principle, there's nothing wrong with such a sentimental twist, but amorous writing is not Carey's strong point, and as soon as love enters the picture, the bottom falls out of his book. The scenes grow ever more improbable (a wax love token? an exploding building?), the dialog ever more CAPITALIZED, and the plot ever more hysterical. Even the writing, so taut and intense at the beginning, turns flaccid.
Here, for example, is Anna trying to argue Francis out of a withdrawn stupor: "I can't keep still anymore. Why should you? Get up! I want a cigarette. I want some noise, some noise and a cigarette. I can't stay here anymore. I won't be patient! Leave me alone! DON'T TOUCH ME! I'm alive! I don't want to be dead. Don't just sit there. Please, move. Show me you're human. Francis, move. Speak. ONE OF YOU! I can't do this alone. Why do you just sit there?...Will nobody help me? Nobody? Alice? Claire? Francis? Come on, Francis! Why are you so frightened?"
If forming a community entails such sloppy stuff as this, perhaps Carey should have left his characters alone.