Leslie Epstein opens his panoramic new novel with a cast of thousands assembled to watch the conquered Ethiopians paraded through Rome. The procession of captured men and animals — elephants, lions, and camels — marches under the arch of Titus, which was built to commemorate the conquest of Jerusalem by the very Jews vanquished in that ancient war. The crowd is “singing and chanting and roaring.” On the dais sits Pope Pius, fingering the “tortured body” on the crucifix around his neck, watching nervously. And Mussolini in his familiar posture, strutting and puffing, stands above the crowd while women weep and offer themselves and their children up to him.
Epstein repeatedly summons a cinematic vision to produce the brand of spectacle that Fascism inspired. The result is a sweeping, operatic work, its many narratives linked by Hollywood-scale production numbers choreographed by his verbal pyrotechnics. But the formidable task of knotting together a work that, like Pound’s Cantos or Pynchon’s novels, encompasses just about everything is such that even a writer with Epstein’s control cannot keep his book from at times dissolving into a histrionic pageant.
The story centers on Amos Prince — Epstein’s conflation of Ezra Pound and Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s hero architect from The Fountainhead — and his assistant, Max Shabilian, a young Jewish architectural student who has traveled from America to serve his idol. Mussolini commissions Prince to construct a monument to the Italian victories over several small, poorly armed sovereign nations. Prince envisions a mile-high tower, La Vittoria, “a gigantic sundial, with the tower as the gnomon and all of Rome as the face. The shadow of the Duce’s memorial will move across his city for eternity, and all the other monuments will be nothing more than figures on the dial.”
Epstein makes comic opera out of the interactions between Mussolini and Prince — Mussolini’s booming oratorio and buffoonery countered by Prince’s own brand of monkey business, a compulsive punning, a burlesque built of words that announce the subtext of his speech. “Douche,” he addresses the dictator. “Mister-loony.”
As World War II encroaches, production on the tower halts. Prince, as ambitious for his tower as Hitler is for his Reich, is driven mad by his thwarted desire. In radio broadcasts he blames the Jews, “Frankie Finkelstein Roosenfelt,” and the “Jew-hated States.”
Max Shabilian conceives various plans to save both the tower and the Jews of Rome, but he fails. In the end he watches the loaded trains leave for Auschwitz, his own life reclaimed by Prince’s son.
The novel stretches from wartime to the future, when the aged, ill Shabilian returns to Rome to meet the new Duce, the bullet-headed Berlusconi. Interspersed are excerpts from Prince’s journal of circular thinking, the “Spiral Notebook,” which lifts its contents straight from Pound’s Pisan Cantos, Prince taking fevered comfort in what little of the natural world he can see from his wire cage: “the ant on the blade. . . . And the cricket singing taps. The white-chested martin.” Like Prince’s cantilevered buildings, which Max so admires, Epstein’s narrative seems poised to tip at any moment. His balancing act both exhilarates and unnerves.
The Eighth Wonder of the World | By Leslie Epstein | Handsel books/other press | 472 pages | $24.95
Leslie Epstein | Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St, Brookline | November 9 at 7 pm | 617.566.6660