In My Wife the Metaphysician, or Lady Murasaki's Revenge, Michael Shapiro devises a storied diary that views the world through the eyes of an inimitable woman whose being and essence are determined by her superlative and penetrating intellect. Inspired by the great Japanese literature by upper-class women writers of the mid-Heian period, eighty-four masterfully woven sections alternate prose, poetry, social commentary and haiku-like vignettes to tell a fascinating tale of betrayal, revenge and undying love. Cruelly and unjustly exiled, Lady Murasaki, accompanied by her consort, Prince Towa no Ai, is the virtuoso author of learned discourses on the Western literary heritage, especially the Divine Comedy and Provençal poetry. The narrator's skein moves the characters along a topography that has them migrating asynchronously between contemporary California and interwar Tokyo, Budapest and Moscow, ancient Israel and the medieval Romance world, Freiburg and New York, rural Alabama and Vermont. Characters and chronologies are scrambled and reconstituted, real and imaginary events and places commingled, as Lady Murasaki brings her vast knowledge of art and literature to bear on explorations of medieval and Renaissance literature and the labyrinthine fictions of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and Nabokov. Her dialogues engage interlocutors that run the gamut from Satan and Pontius Pilate to Dante himself, as well as a giant humanoid cat. Through it all and to the end, including her final attainment of retributive justice, Lady Murasaki is wedded to Prince Towa no Ai, and it is their real-life love story that animates everything.
When academics or intellectuals turn their hand to fiction or even narrative forms such as memoirs or histories, all too often character, scene, and drama are sacrificed to abstract ideas and theoretical positions long defended in some disciplinary context. Characters tend to be thin illustrations (often utterly eviscerated examples) of preconceived theories, scenes artificially staged confrontations in which human drama is more or less absent. Michael Shapiro has, in marked contrast to this, proven himself to have a storyteller's ear and a novelist's eye for the seemingly insignificant, yet ultimately fateful detail. One has the sense, when confronted with his portrayal of persons, of being in the presence of singular, complex, and indeed palpable beings whose lives are dramatically intertwined. For this imaginative and erudite scholar and theorist to be as well such a keen observer of character and adept narrator of events seems hardly fair. Should one person possess, at this level of mastery, such diverse and demanding talents?
Liberal Arts Research Professor
Department of Philosophy
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA
[Comment left on June 24, 2009 at 7:44 pm in the Guest Book at Shapiro's website.]
In addition, the novel contains a character "Charley Peirce," which I take as an additional excuse to post about the novel at the Peirce Blog.