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  • Title: The Baudelaire Fractal
  • Author: Lisa Robertson
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Coach House Books
  • Pages: 160

I’ll begin by admitting that after nearly two readings of Lisa Robertson’s cerebral, intellectually raucous new novel, there are still some sentences beyond me, which I mean in a good way. It starts with how this book shifts under my fingers as I try to describe it. After first read, I thought, this is more a work of philosophy than a novel. Then, reviewing all the passages I flagged as important – basically everything – I found I was wrong. This is definitely a novel, but one that breaks the conventions of how a story works, and I like it all the more for that.

The Baudelaire Fractal is the kind of novel that late in the game talks about an essay by the French structural linguist Émile Benveniste, titled The Notion of Rhythm in its Linguistic Expression. I won’t say what the novel’s narrator, the poet Hazel Brown – maybe a stand-in for the author, the poet Lisa Robertson – gets from this essay, but there are three things this reference tells you about the book.

One, there’s some linguistic theory that underpins what you’re going to read here.

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Two, you’re not going to learn what that is until near the end. I think this is on purpose, that you’re supposed to read through your confusion, which mirrors the narrator’s own fumbled reading toward becoming a poet. This is a novel that makes a virtue of you not getting it the first time. Only reaching the end makes sense of what you read before.

Three, our narrator says of this essay, “Each time I attempt to summarize this essay it reconfigures itself sinuously just beyond my comprehension,” and, if this isn’t clear already, I feel the same about The Baudelaire Fractal. I’m attempting to describe this novel’s nebulous substance before getting to its premise because doing otherwise would give the wrong impression.

The magic-realist premise is this: The poet Hazel Brown wakes up one morning in a Vancouver hotel room to discover she is the author of the complete works of French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). Hazel has not become Baudelaire, the works do not suddenly bear her name, but “The poems were my poems. The words as I read them were words I knew deeply because they were my own, the way my skin was physiologically my own.”

The story of how Hazel comes to inherit the Baudelaire authorship is not what is conventionally referred to as plot. The story is at its root about how Hazel becomes a poet when the history of Western art scorns girls, treated as mere objects of beauty. It’s comparable to another poet’s novel, Eileen Myles’s Inferno, but The Baudelaire Fractal goes about its work in a different way. There’s a tangent about fashion, then some historical art criticism, now she’s analyzing a period stain as a symbol of freedom and obscenity. What does this have to do with the premise? Exactly.

Those familiar with Lisa Robertson’s previous work, such as her poetry in Magenta Soul Whip or non-fiction Nilling and Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture will likely have heard echoes here. For all the ways I’ve described The Baudelaire Fractal as confounding, it is also an exhilarating opening up of Robertson’s previous themes, which makes me think of this novel as also being intellectual memoirs. “The Office for Soft Architecture came into being as I watched the city of Vancouver dissolve in the fluid called money,” she writes in the introduction to Soft Architecture. The Baudelaire Fractal likewise examines the violence of capital, here on 19th-century Paris, expressed in the twin autocracies of Haussmann’s city plan and state censorship laws.

Where Nilling contains some of the most detailed descriptions I’ve read of what it feels like to read, Baudelaire is about the development of a reader, acknowledging bewilderment as not a failure, but a necessary step toward understanding. No one tells you that after you learn to sound out the words, you have to learn to read all over again, and then a third and a fourth time. “As I read I seemed to float above the difficult and clever pages, in a haze of worshipful incomprehension,” Hazel says. “I imagined that simple persistence would slowly transform this vagueness to the hoped-for intelligent acuity, and in a way I was not wrong.”

The Baudelaire Fractal returns the reader to this experience of perplexity because it doesn’t feed us information in a straight line. Instead, it works like a fractal, each chapter reiterating on the ideas in the one before. In my layperson’s understanding of the term, a fractal is a complex geometric pattern created by repeating a process to infinite. As a still image, the pattern might not be readily apparent, but zoom in long enough and you will find its constituent parts are similar to the whole. Robertson puts it this way: “Repetition exceeds its appearance.” Without giving too much away, this notion of reiteration is important to both the novel’s premise, and how my perception of the book changed on the second read. I hadn’t seen the book’s pattern in full until I read it all the way through.

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I’m a sucker for this kind of puzzle, a story that teaches me how to read all over again. Often reading a novel, even a good novel, feels like falling into a well-worn groove. There can be comfort in that. This is a different thing entirely. Ironic for a book that works by repetition: The Baudelaire Fractal is a novel you haven’t read before.

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