By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
Richard Rayner, who began his writing life as a journalist at Time Out in London and still works as one on a freelance basis, has one of the odder literary careers going. Five books into it, it’s still difficult to tell exactly what kind of writer he is.
His first three books -- two autobiographical novels and a memoir -- all aroused a certain amount of controversy. His first novel, the hilarious Los Angeles Without a Map (1997), was dismissed as cliched in his adopted hometown, but reviews on the East Coast and in England were considerably warmer. His second novel, The Elephant, a fictional exploration of his relationship with his con-man father, was written with equal comic verve but suffered the unlikely fate of being criticized by the author‘s own mother on British television. Then came The Blue Suit, a terse, razor-sharp memoir in which Rayner revealed that, back when he was a philosophy student at Cambridge and, later, a journalist in London, he had also been a thief.
Arriving in the midst of the craze for sensationalist memoirs, The Blue Suit subtly upped the ante. This wasn’t just a book about neurosis. It was a book about actual crimes. Rayner forged checks, broke into houses and (most shameful, perhaps) lied to his friends. The fact that he specialized in the purloining of books added a louche literary touch. (What reviewer wouldn‘t be riveted by an account of walking out of a bookstore with a first edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop hidden inside one‘s coat?) Not surprisingly, the book led to much hand wringing in the British press about whether the memoir phenomenon had gone too far. Some called for Rayner to be retroactively prosecuted, while others accused him of making his memoir up. One skeptical reporter even examined old police records in order to demonstrate that Rayner hadn’t committed the crimes he wrote about, but failed to prove the case either way.
Since The Blue Suit, Rayner has dropped the autobiography and set about reinventing himself as a writer of straightforward fiction. First came Murder Book, a well-received detective novel set in L.A., and now The Cloud Sketcher, a romantic epic about a Finnish architect who, after fighting against the communists during Finland‘s civil war, goes to Manhattan in the 1920s intent on building the world’s most beautiful skyscraper, even if it requires murder and a gangster‘s money to do it. The novel was influenced by two of Rayner’s favorite books -- Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead and Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago -- and the oddness of that pairing can be detected in a narrative that combines the hectic flush of a mass-market historical romance with a celebration of the aesthetics of Modernist architecture.
I met Rayner recently at his home in Venice, where he lives with his Finnish wife, Paivi, and their two children. Wiry and tall, with a thatch of black hair and a neck long enough to make his head seem oddly dissociated from his body, he‘s an affable, good-looking man whose face is periodically consumed by an enormous Cheshire-cat grin. When he was growing up, Rayner told me, books were like “magical objects” to him, and his smile suggests the inner glee of a man who can’t quite believe his luck: The book thief is now a respected author.
“So how did The Cloud Sketcher start?” I asked after he‘d pulled up a couple of chairs for us. “What was the seed?”
“Finland, really,” he replied. “It was pointed out to me after I’d written half of it that it was about why I have Finland and America in my life. I was looking round for stories, and it‘s curious the stuff that sticks. There’s a great railway station in the center of Helsinki, which was designed by the leading Finnish architect of the turn of the century, Eliel Saarinen [father of Eero]. Then I discovered that there had been this great skyscraper competition which the Chicago Tribune held in 1922. He came in second, and his design was enormously influential. It was so acclaimed that he left Finland and came to live in America, where he never got to build a skyscraper! So I started fictionalizing around that.”
The Cloud Sketcher (the title is a translation of the Finnish term for “skyscraper”) straddles two places and eras -- Jazz Age New York and early-20th-century Finland. What‘s unusual about this combination is that the former has been written about to death while the latter has barely been touched on at all. As a student, Rayner was an avid reader of post-revolutionary Russian literature, but only after he traveled to Finland with his wife did he learn that the revolution in Russia had triggered a civil war in its neighbor. As soon as he did, he was eager to put his architect hero through it.
“I asked my father-in-law what he could tell me about the Finnish Civil War. And he said, ’There was no civil war in Finland.‘ I said, ’Well, what do you mean?‘ He said, ’There was no civil war in Finland.‘ And I said, ’Well, forgive me, but I understood that in 1918, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the Reds seized power in Finland and there was a war and Finns were killing Finns.‘ And he said, ’Ah! That was the War of Independence.‘ Then I understood that it’s still a very touchy subject, because -- the Spanish Civil War was like this -- more people were killed after the war than during it. When the Whites won, they essentially took out all the Reds and shot them. And not surprisingly, this was a rift in Finland for a very long time.