"The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque" by Jeffrey Ford

An artist in turn-of-the-century New York is commissioned to paint the portrait of a mysterious woman whom no one has ever seen.

Published June 20, 2002 10:07PM (EDT)

Mrs. Charbuque sits behind a screen at all times. No one has ever seen her. Occasionally, she reveals a hairy, monkey-like forearm, her thick black fingers adjusting the placement of her shield from the world. Yet she's rumored to be very beautiful, or so men dream.

Mrs. Charbuque also claims to be the daughter of a renowned crystalogogist, a man who studied snowflakes for wealthy businessmen in order to predict the future. Now she lives in luxury in turn-of-the-century New York, having made millions traveling around the world, posing as a Sybil and telling desperate souls their trumped-up fortunes.

Prophesying with snowflakes? A stunning she-ape? Jeffrey Ford's eccentrically satisfying "The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque" is the story of Piambo, a middle-aged painter commissioned to paint Mrs. Charbuque's portrait based only on her ridiculous stories and random clues. Piambo can ask questions about her as long as it's not about Mrs. Charbuque's physical characteristics. Samantha, Piambo's girlfriend, suggests: "Ask her about these four things: her lovers, her greatest fear, her greatest desire, and the worst day of her life."

Although the task seems impossible, it represents for Piambo the chance to make enough money to abandon a life of soulless, upper-class portraiture and return to true art. (He only gets paid, however, if he succeeds.) The motives of Mrs. Charbuque are as much a mystery as her appearance.

Ford's curious union of fantasy, science, mysticism and art is set in a Victorian Gotham that recalls an Edith Wharton novel, only with furtive, menacing shadows lurking behind the hansom cabs. High-society magnates entertain bohemian artists who, after getting amply drunk, return to cavernous studios in a decaying Hell's Kitchen. Around the city, women are found crying blood -- hemorrhaging from their eyeballs -- presumably suffering from a mysterious foreign parasite. Sometimes the police cover up their gruesome deaths, acting on the mayor's orders to ward off the press. Other times the women's bodies are left lying in alleyways to be consumed by rats.

The mystery of the plague-stricken victims and its connection to Mrs. Charbuque unfolds with suspense (not surprisingly, there's a rather angry Mr. Charbuque on the loose), but it's Ford's quirky characters, rather than the twists and turns of plot, that are the book's treasures. At one point, Piambo and his equally world-weary artist friend Shenz visit a mental institution to interrogate a patient who knew Mrs. Charbuque's father. The patient, named Borne, is also a prognosticator, a "turdologist." When Borne acknowledges that he predicted Piambo's visit, he explains how: "two days ago, in the results of Monday's lamb stew ... I can't imagine a more prophetic product."

Many of Ford's scenes, especially those depicting Mrs. Charbuque's outlandish fables, are like surreptitious visits to a circus freak show, and Ford carefully uses Piambo's sense of wonder and humor to shift from the fantastical to the real. Sometimes Piambo is our genius-hero, amassing evidence in his pursuit of the perfect painting. Often he's a fool, stumbling around drunk, panting after his elusive muse.

Naturally, Piambo is both horrified and aroused by Mrs. Charbuque, and Ford delights in the tantalizing idea of an all-knowing but untouchable woman. "That is when I realized that my own sexual desire, my own ridiculous male expectation of the female, would never allow Mrs. Charbuque to be herself," Piambo thinks. "I was doomed to end up painting the portrait of some idealized dream woman, more me than her."

Mrs. Charbuque, all too aware of her power, seduces Piambo in a wonderful episode where she, the quintessentially repressed woman, climaxes while recounting a story. "The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque" is filled with such moments; you get the feeling that Ford is marveling, maybe giggling, at what's happening too, and just as entranced to not want it to end.

Our next pick: A seemingly cheesy murder mystery set in ancient Greece turns into an ingenious literary puzzle about philosophical truth.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

MORE FROM Suzy Hansen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------