Not the Sum of Its Parts: A Review of The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson
Words By Ally Geist
Published January 21, 2020 by Coach House Books
I love the publisher Coach House Books. Their quirky tomes fill my shelves and always make me think about things in a different way. So when I noticed The Baudelaire Fractal was publishing, I knew I had to read it. (I may have actually waited for the ARC on the porch a couple of times…) The Baudelaire Fractal is acclaimed poet Lisa Robertson’s much-anticipated debut novel, published on January 21st, 2020.
As expected, I’m not quite sure what to think. I’ve been trying to come up with cohesive thoughts for this review, yet I sort of think that the point of this book is its uncertainty. It can mean something a little bit different for everyone, as I think all great poetry does.
Poet Hazel Brown wakes up one day in a strange hotel room and realizes that she has written the complete works of Baudelaire. The character isn’t sure why or how, but she knows it like she knows the back of her hand—she has authored these words.
True to Coach House style, this book introduces readers to a new kind of literary depth and challenge. A fractal is “any of various extremely irregular curves or shapes for which any suitably chosen part is similar in shape to a given larger or smaller part when magnified or reduced to the same size” (Merriam-Webster). In other words, a fractal is a small piece of something that effectively represents a larger whole. So, it’s aptly named: written in fractal-like poetic prose, the form of the book itself mimics Baudelaire’s works. Even the cover is disorienting, confusing, and beautiful. Robertson’s form meets its function flawlessly; this book looks exactly like it feels.
So, when a work is confusing, how are readers guided through it? Robertson’s book does a beautiful job of using imagery to help a reader situate themselves in a specific time period and place. This was very helpful since, when I started reading, I had expected a more clear-cut narrative. Clothing imagery in particular was plentiful throughout the book; the protagonist consistently references fashion as a way to span various time periods, which really helped me place myself in the story. In true Baudelairean style, however, the book is ethereal, written in a slightly disorienting way. Just when I thought I could place myself in a specific time period, or a specific location, what I thought I knew slipped through my fingers.
Part memoir, part literary fiction, and part magical realism, this book feels like a genre in and of itself. Its content and form both transcend time. Whether the narrative focuses around Baudelaire, around Hazel, or around the works they both explore, the same themes emerge again and again; I wasn’t left with a feeling of closure or understanding. Though this would ordinarily frustrate me, this book can’t end with a feeling of closure. Paradoxically, that would go against the very nature of the fractal itself—if there was one, overarching sense of finality, the individual pieces of the story, or fractals, would not be able to stand on their own and represent the themes of the whole.
Fans of historical fiction, poetic prose, and literary fiction will enjoy this thought-provoking novel, but if you are looking for a simple beach read, maybe leave this book on the shelf. Robertson’s style is beautiful and disorienting, often (intentionally) unclear. If you are looking for a challenge, and some captivating imagery, I would definitely recommend it.