"The streets met at odd angles, and urine reeked in the alleys. No one living in here could forget his basic humanity." (When in Florence, p. 32.)
This not a new book; it was published in 1986, but I only recently stumbled across it.
And newness isn't everything. In fact, sometimes it's best to let things mature for a while before you make up your mind about them. What seems exciting today might be trite six months from now; what seems perplexing now might be illuminating in five years. As Hunter S. Thompson put it, "Yesterday's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why."
This is especially true of the novel, the least timely of all our popular art forms. A book takes longer to create than a movie (or at least it should) and takes longer to consume, but stands a better chance at timelessness.
Though written and set in the 1980s, When in Florence makes no mention of leg warmers, Ronald Reagan or A Flock of Seagulls. Instead it is redolent of a much older world, one where churches house the desiccated bodies of saints and pigeons forage for crumbs in the piazza. Of course, from this vantage, even 1986 seems like a long time ago — a time before mobile phones and email, when people still wrote letters to each other, if you can believe that.
When in Florence is structured as a series of interlinked stories in which a minor character from one story will be the protagonist of another, and the same events are often revisited from a different point of view. It is not unlike what David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks) does, though Day is not as flashy as Mitchell. He's more of a miniaturist; this book is like a painstakingly assembled model that is constantly being rotated and photographed from different angles.
But of course it is a populated model, and this is where Day's gift lies: in creating deftly rendered characters that feel like living, breathing people. We meet an unhinged veteran who mistakes a tourist for Hermann Goering; a recently deceased man who discovers that the afterlife is not what he thought it would be; an American tourist who walks away from her tour into a stranger's van, for reasons she herself cannot explain; and many more. There is even a professor on sabbatical from a university in Arcata — perhaps a stand-in for Day himself, who was teaching at Humboldt State University when this book was written.
The result is a portrait — or at least a cross-section — of the human species in all its glorious disarray: loving and lusting, hating and hurting, working and playing, moving closer together and farther apart, doing the things that people do. This is why 30 years haven't made When in Florence any less of a pleasure to read, and I doubt the next 30 or 50 or 100 years will make any difference either. Times change, but people don't, not really.
The used copy of this book I read was inscribed, "Written by a man whose humanity is consistently visible." And there's no higher compliment for a writer that I can think of.