The characters in Cigarettes aren’t even going mad—a not-infrequent narrative terminus for Mathews’s manikins—save for the luckless, wonderful, hyperthyroidic Phoebe. And though there are enthusiasms in the book that verge upon the eccentric, these are pursued, so to speak, with sanity . . . Baron Charlus more than Casper Gutman (or Baron Charlus seeking an assignation with Casper Gutman). The characters of Cigarettes do not, by and large, allow whatever abstract systems they may have applied to their thoughts or habits or desires (a specialized vocabulary, a system of classification, installed out of a desire for order, or simply by whim) to impinge on their waking lives, crowding out the everyday situations that they had sought to improve. The opposite, in fact, obtains in Cigarettes. Idées fixes consume themselves here, leaving their survivors outside desire. In literary terms, by the end of the book, these personalities are no longer plotted. Though age and ill health and obsession take their toll on many, and our narrator must contend at last with a virtual army of what he calls the living dead—the shades with which our memories populate the world—the arc of the book is clear: It moves from moneyed decay—a “gabled house” looming over the reader-carrion “like a buzzard”—toward the astounding coda of “the immortal presence of that original and heroic actor who saw that the world had been given to him to play in without remorse or fear.”
more from Jeremy M. Davies at the Quarterly Conversation here.