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One From the Heart

THE CLOUD SKETCHER A Novel By Richard Rayner; HarperCollins: 436 pp., $25

March 11, 2001|MEGHAN O'ROURKE | Meghan O'Rourke is an editor at The New Yorker

Architecture is the most social ofour arts: the intersection of personal aesthetic and public space. "Architecture or revolution," Le Corbusier wrote in "Towards an Architecture," and that rallying cry makes sense to us in a way that "novels or revolution" may not. And yet the burdens of the novelist aren't dissimilar to the burdens of the architect: Each wants to create a world that feels complete but suggests a universe beyond itself. And each contends with the manner in which surface--or style--can create interiority. We speak of "entering" novels as we enter buildings; if we can't enter a novel, we call it poorly drawn.

A man's passion for architecture is at the heart of Richard Rayner's new novel, "The Cloud Sketcher," a sprawling, action-packed epic set in the early 20th century, which ranges from civil war era Finland to Jazz Age New York. It's an engrossing book, full of elegant surfaces, and a significant departure from Rayner's fine memoir, "The Blue Suit," and his novels "Los Angeles Without a Map" and "The Murder Book."

Rayner's hero, Esko Vaananen, is a Finnish architect whose twin ambitions are to build a beautiful skyscraper and to win the love of Katerina Malysheva, a dynamic Russian aristocrat. Badly scarred in a fire set by his unhappy mother (who later commits suicide), Esko grows up a lonely dreamy child in a village divided by class strife. His coldly impersonal father, Timo, is a dedicated Bolshevik for whom the world is an inversion of William Carlos Williams' dictum "no ideas but in things"; when Esko shows his father a newspaper article about the invention of the elevator, Timo responds irritably, "It doesn't mean anything. Karl Marx means. Marcus Aurelius means. Objects don't mean . . . they merely are."

But the invention of the elevator does mean something to Esko: One night, as he skates along an icy lake, he has a vision of a skyscraper, "a building [that] could endlessly reproduce itself. Something impossible could really exist." Thus begins a lifelong obsession, an artistic desire awakened by a metaphor of social elevation. Esko is a believer in useful beauty, whereas his father has little use for beauty, and it's no surprise that when Finland boils over in civil war, we later find father and son on opposite sides--Timo for the Reds, Esko against. In truth, Esko's involvement in the fighting stems not so much from fervent politics as from his longing for the fiercely anti-socialist Katerina, whom he met, briefly but fatefully, in his village, when she nearly ran him over with an automobile. Katerina is everything Esko isn't--wealthy, vain and not entirely nice. And yet she is everything he wants.

When they finally meet again, in Helsinki, Katerina is engaged to Esko's best friend, Klaus. But the war changes all this: Klaus dies, Esko is gravely wounded and Katerina, who was raped by the Reds, disappears. Believing her to be dead, Esko succumbs to pragmatism: He marries a sensible woman and makes a name for himself designing churches, although he doesn't believe in God.

Of course, such compromises have no place in epic romance. One day Esko sees a series of architectural photographs taken by Katerina in Vanity Fair; he immediately abandons his wife and career and sails to America in pursuit of his destiny. He finds work as a riveter for the skyscrapers rising throughout the city, biding his time and hoping for an opportunity to design his own building (and impress the girl).

Rayner has a strong sense for the textures of time and place--the pale, melancholic light of the Finnish landscape and the heated, highly sexual energy of New York during the 1920s--and the novel's greatest strength is its intensely filmic descriptions of the rhythms of pounding steel girders together high in the sky or the pleasurable claustrophobia of a reckless, drunken night in a Harlem club.

One afternoon, during a thunderstorm, Esko saves the life of an irascible Italian steelworker named Paul Mantilini, and the two form an uneasy friendship that serves both men well as they move up the social ladder. Mantilini becomes a successful (if thuggish) bootlegger, and Esko designs stylish speakeasies for him. Esko also befriends a brilliant, disillusioned architect, W.P. Kirby, who encourages him to sharpen his artistic vision. In one scene he teaches Esko to design a space by starting with the objects in it--in this case, to make a penthouse apartment from a coffeepot.

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