The Orphan Palace smacks the reader in the face from the first page just to resolve any question about who’s in charge. Pulver’s approach here is to make the story not just something the main character experiences, but a series of thoughts and perceptions. It takes place “in here” rather than “out there.” The stream-of-consciousness style took me a while to settle into due to the hyper-saturated poetic style. This may be the most uncompromising narrative I’ve read in years, but it’s worth settling into the groove of this energetic and strongly poetic tale.
The story’s protagonist Cardigan is profoundly damaged, and burns and kills his way across the country in search of redemption or revenge for events long past. That the reader ends up identifying with and caring about such a reckless and even murderous character testifies to the way Pulver’s narrative technique takes the reader inside Cardigan’s head. The story’s events seem like something you’re living through, not simply reading. Like the most daring works of art, no summary can do justice to what’s happening here. The blurb on the back cover does almost nothing to convey what this book is like. The story is dreamlike, told in language ranging from vivid poetics to a hard-bitten shorthand to incantatory near-ravings. Frequent use of repetition gives a sense of the shattered reality Cardigan inhabits. The effect is cumulative, so that repeated elements and phrases take on a different meaning and carry more weight as the story advances.
An energetic mix of noir/crime and surrealistic dark fantasy verging on horror, The Orphan Palace feels more like “cinema of the mind” than narrative fiction, and it may be for that reason that I find myself thinking more about filmmakers when I try to find something to compare it to. Pulver’s surreal dreamscapes seem to have some precedence in David Lynch (especially Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire), Alejandro Jodorowky (El Topo and Holy Mountain) and Lars Von Trier (especially Antichrist). I was even reminded of Guillermo Del Toro in some of the novel’s more fantastic sections, especially the “night library” scene, which left me wanting more.
Any narrative so inwardly-directed and uncompromising is bound to leave the reader scratching their head in a few places, but that is more than compensated-for by the vivid effects which simply would not be possible with a more straightforward storytelling style. The Orphan Palace feels like being led by the hand (scratch that — led by the brain is more like it) through a dark and surreal nightmare, an experience both powerful and disturbing. I can’t wait to see what Pulver does next. Highly recommended, at least for readers open to a more experimental storytelling approach.