I held off on reading Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente for a few weeks after it arrived because I knew once I started reading it, I’d want to do nothing else. When you look at the novella, this doesn’t seem like such a big problem. The advanced reader’s copy is a slim volume, thinner than my pinky finger (the signed limited-edition volumes for sale at Subterranean Press might be bigger; they are hardcovers, bound in cloth). But take a peek into the first page of Valente’s novella, and you get a sense of the denseness and beauty of her language:
"There’s this ragamuffin city out east, you follow? Sitting pretty with a river on each arm, lit up in her gladdest rags since 1624. She’ll tell you she’s seen it all, boy howdy, the deep down and the high up, champagne and syphilis, pearls and puke. Oh, she’s a cynical doll, nothing new to her.As it was, it took only three nights of pre-bedtime reading to finish Speak Easy, and each night I went to bed with Valente’s gorgeous lines echoing in my brain.
Don’t you believe it."
Speak Easy is ostensibly a re-telling of the fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Valente sets hers in the Artemisia hotel, a Jazz Age palace of illegal drinks and scandalous dances. Zelda Fair is the Artemisia’s most alluring resident. Just when she’s growing impatient the ease and indulgence of her life, a small door appears at the back of her closet. When it finally unlocks itself, she makes her way down winding stairs to the basement of the Artemisia. The decadence of the upper levels of the Artemisia can’t compete with what’s in the basement. The party there rivals Jareth the Goblin King’s ball for intoxicating strangeness. The basement, and its residents, are controlled by by Al, a tiny, immortal ganglord who is also possibly a fairy lord (and not the good kind — wait, there’s no good kind). He is a terrifying figure who captures what I look for in a fairy story: the idea that Faerie is not a happy, sparkly, rainbow-hued place, but a place more akin to Lovecraft than to a Disney film: utterly alien, dangerous, and seductive.
The one-to-one references to the original fairy tale are complicated in Speak Easy by a few of Valente’s own inventions. Zelda has a constant companion in a large pelican that follows her around like a puppy. I’m not sure if this references something in the original tale; perhaps the pelican is meant to symbolize the loyalty and silence of the soldier who breaks the spell on the twelve sisters? Or perhaps he’s what lures the sisters to the fairy dance in the first place? Either way, he’s an evocative figure in Valente’s book, perhaps the only friend Zelda really has.
Even more interesting is who Zelda herself represents in the novella: that other famous flapper, Zelda Fitzgerald. Her suitor, Frankie the bellhop, is none other than F. Scott himself. As such, their story has a much more ominous ending than that of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (depending, that is, on how you feel about kings giving their daughters away as reward).
Reading Speak Easy inspired me to read up on Zelda Fitgerald’s life, which did not have a happy ending itself. In real life, Zelda accused F. Scott Fitzgerald of stealing her words and experiences for his novels, building his own literary success while pilfering her creativity and autonomy. She struggled with alcoholism, thwarted talent, and mental health problems, and ended up dying in a mental hospital during a fire. These tragic themes make their way into Valente’s ending, but even the earlier scenes of madcap revelry are suffused with darkness. Given their history, I feel bad comparing an F. Scott novel to a book about Zelda, but Valente has captured the sense of existential crisis and impending doom that haunts The Great Gatsby.
Despite the tragedy, I will be returning to Speak Easy soon, and many times. It is a masterful fairy tale retelling with a side of literary history, and Valente’s language spins a spell that is hard to escape.
This review originally appeared on FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the novella 5 stars.