Thursday, March 27, 2014

VENICE UNDER GLASS: Teddy Bear Noir for iPad

Literary Critique by Neville Addison-Graves III
Author: Stephan J Harper
Publication Date: March 16, 2014
Genre: MultiTouch Fiction: Contemporary Fantasy
Format: MultiTouch for the iPad
Enhanced: Illustrations, Interactive Galleries, 3D Animations, Music
Design: Created with Apple’s iBooks Author
Page count: 168 double-pages; landscape orientation
Word count: 58,816
Download size: 136MB
Audience: All Ages
Price: $0.99 on the iBooks Store in 51 countries
Other: Preview/Sample download, first 6 of 24 chapters

Note: This literary critique contains no spoilers.


Living in stylish retirement in Venice, Italy is apparently not without its problems. Private sleuth Basil Baker has been called to Venice by his Uncle Clive to discover who's been stealing priceless antique Venetian glass from palazzi and museo throughout the City. The local police are baffled: there are no clues or suspects. The local press has declared the crime spree Il Maladora di Venezia. Uncle Clive is convinced his nephew will bring fresh eyes to Venice and all will turn out well. However, it is far from certain that Capo Inspectore Loredan Marcello of Polizia Venezia will be willing to accept the assistance from an outsider; and it isn’t encouraging for our hero to arrive at the high point of Carnevale di Venezia when everyone is wearing a disguise of one kind or another. Basil befriends Cordelia Pembridge-Howl, an Art Historian turned tour-guide and Fabrizio, a gondolier and local legend so skilled he once rowed blindfolded the entire length of the Grand Canal - backwards! Cordelia and Fabrizio lend vital assistance to our sleuth and together....oh, wait, did I forget to mention all these characters are teddy bears?

VENICE UNDER GLASS is one of those must-read books that comes along every now and then that defies convention and resists easy categorization. For example, the format is entirely new and VENICE UNDER GLASS isapparently, the first title in the emergent genre of Literature known as MultiTouch Fiction made possible with Apple's iBooks Author software program. iBooks Author was created so that authors could take books and ebooks beyond words and static illustrations by creating new titles - multimedia book 'apps' - specifically for the iPad. iBooks Author is a revolutionary product transforming genres one by one. Textbooks and Non-Fiction were the first to be re-imagined and re-invented, both to critical acclaim and widespread consumer appeal. iBooks Author has now given the concept of enhanced interactive fiction "the definition and scope it so badly needed, establishing the legitimacy of the new genre once and for all. We call this new genre MultiTouch Fiction," says Harper over at, where he writes commentary. But don't expect to learn about his books if you visit. "There is not now, or ever will be, a single reference to the MultiTouch Fiction work of the creator of this site," states Harper on the site's Mission Statement."It’s all straight commentary: no ads, no selling, no BS." You'll have to visit iTunes or the iBookstore where the author provides generous Sample/Previews you can download to your iPad, iPhone or iMac.  

Stated simply, MultiTouch Fiction integrates multimedia content within the storyline and structure of a novel, novella or short story for the purpose of giving the reader a more expansive experience of the fictional world the author has imagined. One popular, long-standing genre of storytelling that requires the integration of different media types serves as example. A children's picture book combines short-form text and illustrations to create a synergy in which each element contributes its own 'language' and each element supports the other in the storytelling. In an ideal picture book, the sum is literally great than the parts. In MultiTouch Fiction, deep synergy is created by integrating into the text various multimedia elements including, illustrations, interactive galleries, animations, live-action video, audio and music and customized 'mini apps' called Widgets. The elements of MultiTouch Fiction are innovations in storytelling, providing a palette of new tools that allow the author to express a story in entirely new ways.

VENICE UNDER GLASS is decidedly a post-modern detective story that's part crime drama and police procedural as well as historical travelogue, romance, comedic tour de force and, for one bear at least, a tragedy. The story is character, rather than plot, driven, allowing Harper to build and sustain suspense even if the astute reader may have put certain clues together. For the resolution, revealed in the climactic twenty-third chapter, while thoroughly satisfying is, nonetheless, rather complex: who's behind the robberies and who is actually committing them are not one and the same; and when Polizia Venezia does make their arrest (in rather dramatic fashion, I might add) the motivation revealed becomes a shocking commentary on human teddy bear nature. Chapter twenty-four, the last, is all about Basil Baker's understanding of the events that unfolded during his week in Venice; his reflections on what it all means have profoundly affected his understanding of the world and he is a changed character because of it.

But it's the hundred or more delightful illustrations, many expanding full-screen; the numerous 
3D animations of the characters, canal waters and architecture of Venice filling iPad's Retina display; and the cleverly-curated interactive galleries exhibiting the Venice-inspired paintings of Monet, Renoir, Moran, Turner and Singer-Sargent that turn the whole affair into a unique reading experience. Exquisite mis-en-scène opens the novel: 3D animation with the Church of San Geremia against a pastel-blue and cirrus-streaked sky, three bears conversing on the balcony of Palazzo Grande, all of it reflected in the strikingly realistic motion of the Grand Canal. The scene is scored with a selection from Vivaldi's Four Seasons and we're off!

From the outset, it is clear Harper is in love with the sounds of words and there is lyricism throughout that would please Fitzgerald and Keats (in a press release dated 4/9/2014, the author cites Fitzgerald, Orwell and the modern English novelist David Mitchell as his literary influences). I offer several extended excerpts below to support my literary critique of VENICE UNDER GLASS. I have tried to be as thorough as possible in my attempt to shine a light on the novel's art, significance and place in the literary firmament. Notice, though, in each excerpt how the clarity of the language and the evocation of a particular emotion create the flow that takes the reader beyond the words and into the deep familiar — the source of our aesthetic response to all Art. I am reminded of a well-known maxim from one of the world's great writers, an artist who influenced both Fitzgerald and Orwell:

My task is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.  —Joseph Conrad

After Basil arrives in Paris on an overnight flight from San Francisco, we get the following in first-person narration:

Landed in Paris at 7:45am local time, unrested and a little bleary-eyed. I taxied over to Le Gare de l'Est and boarded the train for Venice. Within ten minutes, my tickets had been punched, my bags stowed and yours truly, safely and snugly installed in my private compartment (the French are very efficient in these matters). I thought I might try to stay awake for the first part of the trip, so I rang the cabin steward for his strongest coffee and settled back with a copy of The Times. Half an hour outside Paris, we were in the country and heading towards the Swiss Alps. My eyes fell lazily from the paper and out the window, where the lush green zipped by in a Degas abstraction streaked with intermittent patches of snow. The soft, steady clik-klp-klop, clik-klp-klop from the tracks lulled me into a daze. I leaned my face against the glass and it was sun-warmed and felt good on my fur. I realized then that jet-lag was catching up with me and by 10am, I was soundly napping.

In another scene, Basil enters Cordelia’s apartment to find it full of roses:

...what struck me immediately upon entering was perfume. It wasn't Cordelia—rather roses. The scent was unmistakable. There were dozens and dozens of flowers in vases of all descriptions filling the living room. Roses grew from metal floor stands and stood in cut-crystal on side-tables and window-ledges and overflowed into the dining room, stopping only when the bouquets had covered her kitchen counters, scenting the air throughout like crazy. Some bear had sent her  bright yellow and orange dozens, poised next to red, white and pink dozens. In the center of the living room, two dozen anxious roses blushed lavender by the vacant love-seat.
Basil, thinking about Cordelia and their evening out together, initially errs but immediately recovers to comment on the extravagance of the scene. Note in the fifth sentence how six verbs carry the roses throughout Cordelia's apartment. Translated to their present-participles these are: growing, standing, overflowing, stopping, covering, scenting; it is this variety of active verbs that provides immediacy, character and depth to the description of Cordelia's rooms come alive with flowers. Harper uses the same technique Fitzgerald instructed his daughter to use in a letter describing how Keat's use of active verbs brings a scene to life:

All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats' "Eve of St. Agnes." A line like "The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass" [first stanza, line 3] is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement - the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes.

Note how the author's use of first-person narration allows "anxious roses" + "blushed lavender" + "vacant love-seat" (clear projections of Basil's state of mind) to create tension while anticipating romance between the two characters.

Basil is confronted by a Carnevale reveler from the Commedia ‘dell Arte:

Then there was Il Dottore, a know-it-all windbag drunk of a doctor. He said he knew everything; but when I played along and asked him to prescribe relief for my sore feet, he started to give me legal advice—advice that made no sense at all—and offered to represent me in court. The pompous fraud soon tired of me, though, and stumbled off to find a new fool who would better appreciate his antics.
Read that again; out-loud this time. Here the author takes a classic character from Commedia ‘dell Arte, one that any Venetian would immediately recognize, and breathes originality into the scene. Here's how he does it: in the first sentence, the clear language of a simple, opening declarative creates the space for the complex dependent clause to deliver its maximal alliterative impact. The rest flows through six distinct interactions between the two characters in language so smooth it appears to be reading itself - this illusion, of course, is the necessary prerequisite to enchantment. The lesson here? Effortlessness is engineered, what is meant by craft. Art has never been about the What but the How.

Basil pursues a thief through the midnight streets of Venice:

Out of nowhere, a pack of hounds joined the chase. They were led by a fearsome trio of beautiful Doberman Pinschers: their big, generous smiles exposed glistening incisors and three pairs of wide-set eyes brightened in single-minded ferocity. The sleek beasts synchronized their snarls and growls in a harrowing chorus. 
Here the extended alliteration/consonance on a single letter (s) unifies the passage, hastening the pursuit.

But once the author establishes the action in the first sentence, notice how he maintains the tone—the delicate balance of comedy and terror—required for his teddybear-noir. The fearsome pack of beautiful hounds is characterized by generous smiles vs. glistening incisors; brightened eyes vs. ferocious single-mindedness; and in the last sentence, the fully-realized beasts: sleek + synchronized + chorus vs. harrowing + snarls + growls.

Are you running from them or with them?

Harper’s description of the characters required unique handling. A teddybear on the train knocks on Basil’s cabin door well past midnight:

...a large burgundy head stuck itself into the room and demanded I point the way to "Herbert Richard Glass, Esquire" adding "please" after a pause and a loud burp. When I opened the door the bear backed a few steps into the companionway. He swayed a little left and right and back and forth, jolly as could be, not in the least fatigued by his late night revelry. The burgundy bear (the same shade of mohair covered the rest of his body) held his spot, looking at me expectantly from two brilliantly-clear but vacant quartz eyes. I told him the number and pointed in the general direction. "Straight back," I said. He nodded his thanks, burped again and bounced down the companionway toward the next car.
...brilliantly-clear but vacant quartz eyes. Can you see him?

When Basil first meets Capo Inspectore Loredan Marcello:

"May I help you?" came a deep voice from a nearby alcove. A huge bear in a trench coat, golden fleece for fur overflowing his collar and cuffs, emerged into the light. His great, fluffy ears were on alert, fine-tuning for the right frequency. 
"Inspector Marcello?" His ears stopped dead in my direction.
Extended alliteration/consonance on a single letter (f) is used here to highlight both the 'soft' and 'hard' in Loredan Marcello's nature, foreshadowing the complex relationship with the main character as Basil Baker tries to win il Capo Inspectore's acceptance and approval.

Basil interviews one of the victims of the Venetian crime spree:

She was an elderly bear, regally attired even at this early hour. She wore a green silk suit in a delicate, iridescent jacquard which she had complimented with a multi-faceted emerald necklace. Brilliant earrings in the same design twinkled by the fireside while a pavé diamond lizard with emerald eyes crawled up her lapel. Signora's ginger fur showed signs of gray here and there, as well as a little wear. She was well-maintained, however, and it appeared she had some recent work done: there was new stitching around her neck and arm sockets as well as new paw patches in a light auburn suede. She was sprightly with imperious eyes that were trained intently on me. They were eyes that wouldn't miss much. Two youthful lady bears-in-waiting accompanied her and when Signora Morosini finally sat, they perched together on a chaise longue opposite her by the fireplace. 
Iridescent jacquard, the crawling diamond lizard and "new stitching" all lend vitality to the elderly bear. Note how 'ginger fur' + 'sprightly' demeanor + intent "imperious eyes" fully prepare the reader for "They were eyes that wouldn't miss much" while the action of the two lady-bears-in-waiting further define Contessa Morosini's character and position.

Basil describes a somewhat shady character he meets in a jazz club:

Caravello was a heavy-set, stitched-nosed bear with thick, dark blue fur. His eyes were also dark blue and seemed to fade into his face whenever he blinked. But where his left eye should have been, a blue patch was velcroed in place, giving the cordial bear something of a menacing look. The constant wandering of his one good eye in Cordelia's direction added to the impression.
This is not description but action and, as Fitzgerald noted, "ACTION IS CHARACTER."

A Spanish beauty at a Carnevale ball comes 'dressed' as Lady Godiva:

In the bright palazzo lights Reina was even more spectacular than I remembered. She was flawless: not a blemish on her anywhere—and there was a lot of ‘anywhere’ showing. Coco Grande’s bears were scrutinizing her intently; but there were no chinks in her regal bearing. Reina’s expression was open and generous—unspoiled by any hint of haughtiness. One feature fascinated above all: Reina’s eyes had an irresistible translucence. Two wide-set luminous pearls captured the world’s reflection and its wonder then invited all to gaze within. Reina was sublime—radiant and beautiful in exquisite measure; elegant and graceful as she moved with Paco! from one group to the next; animated with an angelic temperament that enchanted every bear at the Ball. Our Lady Godiva won even the jaded hearts—hearts that had everything yet still beat unfulfilled. But only one superlative was needed for the essential truth: Reina was astonishing to look atand I couldn't take my eyes off her.
Reina, introduced earlier in the novel, is both real and ideal beauty: beauty within and without. Note how the author achieves this complex characterization: first through a heightening of the impression Reina's beauty has on others, then taking her physical 'attributes' beyond into the realm of the divine:  eyes (those windows into the soul) now offer up the luminous wonder of the world;  the "angelic temperament"  now with the power of enchantment; and, finally, at the key moment: winning the unfulfilled, "jaded hearts" giving the angelic temperament ultimate agency. This characterization is reinforced on the subconscious level:  the author has reserved the word "astonishing" for this one character, in this one instance: the word and its root appear nowhere else in the novel.

 And for fun: note the triple meaning on "bearing."

Describing another costumed-celebrant:

Mystico Rafael, the famous Venetian artist (costume by Titian), accompanied his lovely daughter Gazelle. She had the name and a shape the world’s modeling agencies had pursued forever. But other than a complete devotion to her father, Gazelle was focused on pursuits of a higher calling; pursuits untypical in the worlds of fame and fashion. She was disenchanted at an early age by the media obsession with her famous father. In a recent interview, Mystico revealed that Gazelle was in her last year studying International Law at Université de Genève. She had already interned with the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It was no secret she wanted a position with the International Court of Justice. Gazelle was plotting a course into the most learned, most consequential circles and the idea that what dress she wore mattered was beyond her interest.
Illustrating again Fitzgerald's "Action is Character"Gazelle Rafael's feelings about her place in the world are fully established in one paragraph.

Descriptions of Carnevale characters sparkle. Here are two:

A crowd had gathered on the San Marco side where a Carnevale reveler, costumed as an infamous Senator of the Old Republic, was entertaining the crowd with his 'drunken' antics and crude bloviations. He carried an empty wine bottle as a prop, pausing often to ‘drink’ and belch again. He wore the mask of privilege and superiority, alternating these expressions with the stupefied looks of a drunken letch. This pantomime he complemented with exaggerated staggering. A mock-exercise routine included chasing several ladybears who screamed in delight. The Senator owned an oversized purse, open and overflowing with bribes ("campaign contributions") from his constituency. He engaged the crowd in a game of pretend solicitation and the historical figure—drunken, dishonorable and corrupt—was thus given life.

But the mummeries had just begun. Harley Kino, newly arrived on the scene and witnessing the crowd's enthusiastic reception of his predecessor, was determined to earn his share of attention. As the Senator crossed the bridge, Harley tagged behind, miming the politician, gesture for gesture. When the Senator stopped and pretended to drink again, someone tossed Harley a bottle of Pinot Grigio (it was, after all, Carnevale). Not missing the cue, Harley pulled the cork, toasted the crowd and poured the shimmering liquid past his lips until the bottle was empty. With that gesture, Harley's imitation was complete. But the applause brought an end to Act One of his performance. Harley hurled himself into an impromptu series of cartwheels over the bridge and back again, waving to the Senator on each pass. Encore! Encore! screamed the crowd. Harley's sense of the theatrical had been emboldened by his eager ingestion of wine: what came next was memorable. 
Harley Kino commandeered a pair of pantalooned walking stilts from two young performers on break from the bright afternoon. He quickly mounted the stilts; but once aloft, he began swaying inexpertly, taking wide, uneven strides like some berserk cast-off from the Cirque du Soleil. Screams of encouragement were heard from both sides of the water as Harley teetered above us. Wobbling violently at the apex of the bridge, Harley Kino concluded his act by diving head-first into the Grand Canal. An eerie, surreal moment of quiet followed. All eyes were on the performer's hat floating precisely where Harley had entered the water. Fifteen seconds went by. Twenty seconds. Thirty! The suspense was finally broken when Harley bobbed to the surface, waving madly—and wearing his hat! The crowd roared once again. It was inspired improvisation that would be immortalized on YouTube for all the world to see.

Dinner scenes put you at the table when Uncle Clive hosts a formal supper:

Uncle Clive laid out an impressive feast. For antipasti there were prosciutto and melon, sardines in garlic and white wine, sautéed prawns, fried calamari and crab puffs. There was also, of course, pickled eel, which several guests eyed hungrily. Cordelia reached in her purse and took a pill from a small oval box which she set in front of her plate. I noticed on the top there was a little scene painted: a fox, having eluded his chasers, sat smiling comfortably in a tree while the party below looked about in confusion. It was very pretty and I took the box for the real thing and not the imitation of the moment, Limooge. 

"Heartburn," she explained. "This looks too good to pass up."


For the second course, Uncle Clive served a triumvirate of pasta dishes. The linguine alla seppie in squid ink was especially tasty. Bright-green pesto gnocchi, garnished liberally with pinenuts and thickly-grated Parmesan cheese, were al dente perfect. The risotto del mare would have pleased Poseidon himself; after a few more bites, I decided to probe the current topic of interest.

And again at an exotic restaurant owned by a principal character:

Cordelia and I joined the group and sank into our own collection of pillows. They were stuffed large: pillows of satin pink and blue silk and shades of pastel description would only abuse, all very soft and smooth to the touch—others were swollen in such delicate damask that I feared disturbing them. I sat on a cushion that floated off the floor; Cordelia said something and I noticed she was floating along with me.

Platters of bite-sized delights were placed at the table’s center which cleverly rotated to each guest in turn. There was Yaprak Dolma, wonderfully aromatic and a vegetarian favorite: grape leaves stuffed with rice, onion, dill and pinenuts and sweetened with black raisins and mint. They were sautéed to perfection, just browned on the edges of the leaves. On another platter was Kalamar Tava, lagoon-fresh calamari battered and fried golden and perfumed with rare spices the Far East was, no doubt, last to give up. A plate piled high with Imam Bayildi was the table’s favorite. Tiny baby eggplants, stuffed with a succulent mélange of seasoned tomatoes and onions, had been lightly browned in olive oil, then sprinkled with toasted pinenuts. I was lost in a new world of tastes and aromas.

Uncle Clive hosts a High Tea on his birthday; two rare vintages of French wine are served. First, a red 1961 Bordeaux a guest brings as a present:

Evers opened and decanted the wine, then poured the aged Latour into six Venetian glass goblets crafted three centuries before the wine was pressed. The majestic wine swirled in rivulets of purple and deep lavender, saturating the inside of the glass as they flowed leisurely into the dark liquid ruby below. The nose was immense—an intense bouquet of season-ripe Cabernet fruit laced with sweet cherries. The full-bodied claret took over the palate with black currants and jammy plums. Hints of truffles and licorice teased the spicy, cassis-filled finish that lasted almost forever.

For dessert, a 1937 Château d'Yquem from Uncle Clive's cantina di vino:

The spicy aromatics exploded and then resolved into dreamy sensations—silky, velvet layers of orange, coated with cocoa and vanilla and caramel; rich crème brûlée laced with a soft parfum des fleurs; lush, candied aspects of honey-drenched fruits tropicaux; sweet, ripe apricots en fines marmelade de pêches—with a viscous opulence that ended in a long, rather decadent finish. The Sauterne was truly luxurious.  
"Caress the detail, the divine detail." Nabokov—indeed!


An environmental theme is woven into this intricately-patterned novel:

Of course, I knew of the project dubbed MOSE—a clear biblical reference for a city that knew it needed to be saved. Venice was built on millions of wooden piles driven deep into the marshy islands of the lagoon and has been sinking since the first days of the Republic. While Venetians learned to cope with the annual aqua alta, or high waters, the floods of November 1966 (see Piazza San Marco above) were much deeper than usual and caused great damage throughout the City. Aqua alta flooding only worsened over subsequent years. Further exacerbating the problem, climate change has induced a rise in sea levels. La Serenissima, threatened by the very waters upon which she was built, prayed that MOSE would lead to a future that, otherwise, looked promising.  

Contentious political and environmental debates caused delay after delay. Once the environmentalists were satisfied there was still the matter of funding. €4.6 billion in new taxes was a frightening prospect for any politician; and politicians were known to fear the wind blowing in the wrong direction. 


“Well someone has to save Venezia from the sea,” he said with emphasis and a proprietary air. “You do believe in global warming don’t you, my friend?” I knew, of course, the science on climate change was fairly conclusive; although some were still debating the actual time frame. 

“If nothing is done, Basil, Venice will be under water. All her history just a memory; all her art washed into the Adriatic.” 

That much was probably true. Gorgeous murals and frescoes by Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Giotti and Titian were painted on a hundred church ceilings throughout Venice. These delicate works of art wouldn’t stand an assault from the sea. Many, in fact, were already experiencing environmental damage. Even [his] beloved sculptures throughout the City were being slowly consumed by the elements. 


But what had [he] actually done, besides being gracious and friendly—and giving? [The bear] was a multi-billionaire—a very generous multi-billionaire. He had donated billions for the flood gates to protect Venice from an angry Mother Nature who found herself pregnant with a polluted atmosphere she was forced to carry until every coastal city on Earth was flooded.
The vividness of this "angry Mother Nature" metaphor lies precisely in its originality. The fact that it is also deadly accurate in regard to what our planet is facing with climate change only makes the imagery that much more immediate and forceful.


Politics gets a skewering throughout the book, as in this example:

[W]ord quickly spread that Mayor Vincenzo Gritti and his entire City Council were at Piazza San Marco speaking on the last day—and high point—of Carnevale di Venezia. By 9am, the protest marchers, over a thousand strong, had converged on their target. The great ‘drawing room of Europe’ overflowed with civic-minded bears whose outrage would now be properly focused on the politicians who had promised them so much and delivered nothing. An impressive ceremonial stage stood at the Campanile and faced into the great square. With the Basilica as a backdrop, the Mayor and his City Council were enjoying a prestige of office beyond current merit. It was a ludicrous pretense. The protesters, who had made their way to the front of thousands of Carnevale celebrants roaming the Piazza, interrupted and mocked the Mayor’s prepared remarks without mercy. Soon repeated demands from the crowd obliged the Mayor to address Il Maladora di Venezia and the latest outrage against the City. Vincenzo Gritti started to lose his composure by noon. Deep cracks were forming in his façade (a serious political liability) and now Gritti was forced to admit that his office and his government had failed to protect Venice. He was impotent in his sworn duties.
Wait 'til you find out what happens to the Mayor of Venice.

The novel's social commentary pulls no punches. Two examples follow:

The ristorante did not disappoint. As we entered, delicious aromas quickened our steps to the waiting Maitre D'.  

"Good evening, Signore Baker and Signorina Cordelia. We have been expecting you. My name is Salvatore." 

Salvatore’s gold pen made a note in an enormous reservation book. Our names were inscribed inside a genuine antique, leather-bound portfolio from the library of a monastic order made extinct by a modern world that wanted nothing more soothing than the balm of instant gratification. The ironic ‘manuscript’ inside (where Salvatore had written), now recorded the times and dates when the named devoted would indulge their appetites, untroubled by any price they would have to pay. On each page, ample room down the margins waited for the chef to illustrate his culinary inspirations. 

And again in this remarkable exchange between Prima Ballerina Natalia Navritolova and a character who's name I have abbreviated:

“I’m surprised the churches weren’t robbed to start with,” said B. “The Vatican has hoarded treasure for centuries. Everyone knows that.” 

“Is that justification to defile sacred ground?” asked Natalia. “The spectare Americanum is it?” She finished her wine. 

“Excuse me?” said B—. But Natalia wasn’t about to translate or excuse anyone. She was clearly upset. 

“Such an American view: money is all that matters,” she said.

“But isn’t it?” said B, unwisely, while holding his empty glass in the air until Evers came over and poured again. 

“It certainly is not!” Natalia’s fury was unleashed and B was the not-so-innocent bystander bearing the force of it. Natalia had only begun. 

“I have been around the world and seen just about everything there is to see. And the one thing that never fails to amaze me is this American preoccupation with money. There are poor bears all over the world; but only in America are the poor made to feel like failures. As if all a poor bear had to do was lift himself out of poverty by sheer will power alone. I am sorry, B—,  but your culture is cruel to those who are just trying to make it through each day. Poor bears do not want your charity; they want an opportunity to contribute. But the ladders have been pulled up for many and that is a tragedy. For you see, my dear, deluded, American friend, our dreams and our desires for meaning are also contributions to the world, just as valuable as money. We all have an intrinsic worth not measurable by the fluctuations of mere net worth.”

I'll just stop there and let that sink in.

VENICE UNDER GLASS is endlessly inventive with character arcs so vivid and compelling it makes you wonder Why teddybears? (I'll get to that in a moment). Sparkling descriptions, intelligent dialogue and a perceptive, action-oriented narrator who provides thoughtful reflections on his world place the book in the company of the finest contemporary literary fiction on the market today. And it's a ripping good yarn! The plot is air-tight: not a string (or participle) left dangling. 
The few flaws in the book are likely to be corrected in ver 1.1 thanks to the digital format (UPDATE: ver 1.1 was released on July 16, 2015). For example, there is a grammatical error (a instead of an) that occurs so late in the story the reader is likely to pass right over it. But these are at the margins of criticism (does it matter Fitzgerald made a mistake in THE GREAT GATSBY when, during the funeral near the end of the novel, James Gatz' father shows Nick Carraway the notes his son made in a copy of HOPALONG CASSIDY [pub. 1910] that were dated 1906? This anachronism is only mentioned in passing: a curious artifact of interest to scholars and biographers, like Matthew J. Bruccoli who pens the introduction and annotations in the latest Scribner Classic edition).

Mr. Harper also flubs a little Italian (e.g. una momento should be either un momento or uno momento); but when first reading "Il Maladora di Venezia" (what the local press has dubbed the Venetian crime spree), I thought he had erred here as well. However, later in the story, prima ballerina Natalia Navritolova translates this as "Venice's misfortune" and I realized the author's intent. Of course, "Sfortuna di Venezia" would be the correct Italian translation; but Harper is writing for an English-reading audience and chose Maladora (to indicate "Malady") taking liberty with the language: the closest Italian word would be Maleodore, meaning "foul-odor" which was clearly not the author's intent. In this context, then, the author took a bit of poetic license to make things clearer; and clarity of intent through language is always the high mark of literary art. But, again, any mistakes (including a few punctuation errors) will likely be corrected in ver 1.1 and are at the margins of criticism, detracting not a whit from the substance and impact of the story.

For most importantly, VENICE UNDER GLASS is a fantasy-dressed morality play whose finely-observed detail, social commentary and satire owe a debt to Dickens and Swift. Harper uses Teddybears (as one might, for example, use Lilliputians) as a literary device to reflect our own world.  With the introduction of moral ambiguity very early in the novel (page 12) the author signals his intention to say something serious about this Venice beyond any preconceived notions a ‘teddybear terrain’ might suggest.

Basil arrives in Venice after there have been seven thefts in as many days. However, not one of Venice’s 120+ churches has been violated. Why, then, is the first scene in Basil’s investigation set in a Church? Ostensibly it is to meet Capo Inspectore Loredan Marcello, a no-nonsense chief of police who has agreed to brief Basil as a courtesy to Basil's uncle, a respected ex-pat from England retired now to Venice these past fifteen years (and a victim of the crime spree himself). Basil narrates:

The Friars were concerned; although the thief had not struck any of the churches in Venice. Perhaps that was considered a sacrilege and his efforts were confined to robbing palazzi and museo instead. Or perhaps it was only a matter of time.

Friar Abbot, clearly worried, points to the altar and says to Basil:

Some of the oldest pieces are priceless—like our glass Chalice.

Basil continues the narration:

The Abbot was speaking of the Chalice of San Geremia, created in 1291 by Antonio Borovier. That year, the Abbot explained, the law required all the glassmakers in Venice to move to the island of Murano. The Chalice was the first object to emerge from the new fires and it was presented as a gift to the church. I asked if I might see it.

Here is Basil’s description of this fictitious, wholly-invented Chalice; pay close attention to the detail underlined:

Even in the dim light of the church I could see the Chalice of San Geremia was beautiful. The stem was made of impossible twists and turns of red and gold glass spiraling up from a ruby base that sparkled from the mass of gold dust suspended in the glass. Under the cup, the stem flowered out into twelve supporting branches, with gold leaves at the ends just touching the outer rim of the Chalice. As I looked from above, down into the cup and through the glass, an image formed of a bird with wings outstretched. When I moved my head slightly, its wings shimmered and appeared to move as if ready to take flight. It was an interesting effect, an eerie trick of the light that was a bit mysterious, suggesting something otherworldly.

Why is the first example of Venetian glass mentioned in the novel the Chalice of San Geremia? Consider the two sentences underlined. The lines work as realistic language in the secular world of Basil's investigation; yet they express a core theological teaching of the Catholic Church. In God’s triune nature is the Holy Spirit; a divine presence, this "Spirit of God" appears throughout the biblical narrative, from Noah to The Last Supper, and is depicted most often as a dove. Summoned by the humble man bear of faith who bows (moves) his head, the Holy Spirit is forever "ready to take flight” and act as a force of good in the world.

Why would the author introduce moral ambiguity if the novel was just about teddybears? The answer is, of course, that he wouldn’t. Moral ambiguity is introduced early to foreshadow the moral ambiguity that lies at the heart of the novel: with the antagonist, whose shocking motivation the reader discovers only at the novel’s denouement; and with the protagonist, Basil, who learns several profound lessons about the nature of the world, and is changed because of this knowledge.

So, “Why Teddybears?” You might just as well ask “Why Lilliputians?” The answer in both works of fiction is obvious: a writer can say things in entirely new ways to make clear once again certain of life’s eternal verities that have been deliberately obscured; while the satire delivers the only thing some people bears are properly deserving of: ridicule.

This might strike some as hyperbole, but I am convinced VENICE UNDER GLASS is a noteworthy literary achievement in contemporary fiction. Someone is going to have to give me good reasons to convince me why I’m wrong here and I invite others to critique on the merits. Most writers start with at least one advantage: living, breathing humans are innately relatable. If the writers are any good, they craft their stories so well you are enchanted into their worlds. However, to convince you that Venice is not only populated by teddybears but then wrap you up so thoroughly in their 'lives' is a hard trick to pull off. The author does it, though, while showing what a multimedia-publishing platform like the iPad can offer the reader (I suspect someone at Apple is looking at this title closely; it is the best example, so far, of what iBooks Author can do in the new category of MultiTouch Fiction). The MultiTouch enhancements the author employs are true innovations in storytelling - not merely 'bells and whistles'  - that work perfectly with the text and structure of the novel.

There is so much more that I could say about this innovative and entertaining book (in a 'send-up' of a certain musical genre, the author introduces a character in Chapter 15 whose name alone will have you in hysterics). After learning that there are, apparently, folks out there with no sense of humor whatsoever, one is seriously tempted into breaking the 'fourth wall'- did that just happen? Nevertheless, Harper has, in fact, created an intricately-patterned novel, layered with thematic threads running beginning to end on art, music, history, culture, politics and the environment, making VENICE UNDER GLASS a unique contribution to contemporary fantasy. So long as electrons can still be read, VENICE UNDER GLASS will rest easily alongside ALICE IN WONDERLAND and GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. As for relevancy, the author here presents us with a sharp, confident, modern-day narrator/hero and in the final pages of the novel we become, along with Basil, invigorated and renewed, anticipating the morrow — and that's a relevant message for any day. 

…and so, gentle Readers, I am obliged to nudge another brick and let the wall fall where it will. All because the humorless twits, the ones who insist that teddy bears really do write book reviews, insist I put my real name on display so the visitors to over the past seventeen years—the tens of thousands who already know my name; know that I not only wrote the book but every single word at—won’t be confused. Of course, you’re not confused. You’ve known all along that I’ve given your intelligence—and your aesthetic sensibilities—the due consideration and respect that keeps you coming back. And I do appreciate the "coming back” part, truly.

Like many authors, I am often asked questions about my work, where my ideas come from, my motivations—and, yes, whether my characters really do walk and talk in their sleep. The commentary above on my first novel, VENICE UNDER GLASS, shows some of the “behind the scenes” thinking of a writer engaged in his craft. I wanted to show and, more importantly, explain why there is a reason for each word, phrase and act that—if I worked really hard—stayed on the page, offered up, as it were, in anticipation of your response and, hopefully, your pleasure. Art, of course, is an individual expression. As an individual, I can claim no more than this: I am Stephan J Harper.

Thursday, March 20, 2014