The San Veneficio Canon

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The San Veneficio Canon by Michael Cisco.

Michael Cisco The San Veneficio Canon

The San Veneficio Canon joins under one cover two short novels by Michael Cisco: his lauded 1999 debut The Divinity Student and its 2004 sequel The Golem. These are splendid deployments of the “new weird,” most comparable in my reading history to Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy. San Veneficio is the imaginary city where most of the story here transpires.

The book never clarifies its over-arching title, which allows the word “Canon” to be read either as an approved collection of scripture (the Holy Book which is the chief magical tool of the nameless Divinity Student and/or Cisco’s book bearing the title) or as a minor clergyman (the Divinity Student himself). In his dream-like setting, Cisco has put into the foreground religious signifiers for places and persons: Seminary, Cathedral, Divinity Student, High Priest, etc. But the religion in question, while having some passing features and jargon of Christianity, is never specified in terms of creed or theology.

Although the book fairly thoroughly maintains a third-person omniscient narrator, there are two tiny uses of the grammatical first person in The Golem: “From horizon to horizon the only light comes from San Veneficio. I feel that spiced breath from mummified lungs once more” (130), and later—more tellingly—”her pointed* lips and nails are scarlet as the red of my binding” (182). The second of these suggests that the speaker is in fact a book; the Holy Book?
* Sic. This “pointed” would make more sense as “painted,” and I suspect a typo.

The imagery of this text is kaleidoscopic. In fact, Cisco twice uses “kaleid” as a verb indicating the revolving transformation of light and vision. The Divinity Student who is—on some level, at least—the protagonist of both novels is occasionally horrifying, and becomes more than a little bit of a necromancer. The closing of The Golem embraces a type of metafiction that I identify with The Neverending Story, though certainly not in the juvenile register used by Ende! Despite that gesture at a summation, nearly any chapter of The San Veneficio Canon could stand alone as an enigmatic short story—no more enigmatic than the composite whole, really. [via]