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Here in Avalon
by tara isabella burton
simon & schuster, 320 pages, $28.99

Tara Isabella Burton’s latest novel, Here in Avalon, starts like a fairy tale: “Once there were two sisters.” Cecilia is a fantasist, beautiful with searching eyes, always starting but never finishing, a musician who dropped out of Julliard to chase her ever-elusive grail. Cecilia wears heels but cannot walk in them, so the sound of her clacking shoes announces her arrival. “Cecilia always sounded,” her sister thinks, “like a revolution.” 

This being a fairy tale, the reader can fill in the character of the younger sister, Rose. She’s all Cecilia is not: Determined, goal-setting and goal-attaining, reliable, healthy, organized, practical, and, above all, serious—a girl, she was once told, who “reacted to spreadsheets the way ordinary girls reacted to sex.” Rose’s life is regimented, and, as a computer programmer, she’s made it her mission to help everyone else achieve a similar degree of digital regimentation. She takes her first job with OptiMyze, which helps users “make better life choices by encouraging them to input their chosen values into an app and then producing gamified road maps for how to live them out.” Even her spiritual life is machine-gurued by, a compilation of audio meditations. She lives with Caleb, founder of OptiMyze and a tech true believer. No grails, fantasies, or fairies for Rose.

Here in Avalon is a New York novel, and even before the fairies come on the scene, the City is magical. Neglected by their eccentric grifter mother, with no knowledge of their father (or fathers), the sisters are raised by the city. On Rose’s sixteenth birthday, Cecilia gives their Metropolitan Opera tickets to a man who strikes her as “receptive to the transcendent power of music.” When Rose objects, Cecilia declares, “We’ll have an even more enchanted night tonight because of our sacrifice. The city . . . will provide.” And it does, again and again.

Cecilia appeals to the same sacrificial logic when fairies appear. Back in New York after a brief marriage to Paul Byrd, a literature teacher, Cecilia encounters a stunning woman at a bar who is dressed in a long red dress and diamonds. She gives Cecilia a card inscribed with “Another life is possible” and “The Avalon Cabaret.” Cecilia begins to disappear overnight, returning in the early hours dreamy and covered with glitter. Then she goes missing entirely. Rose is convinced she’s been kidnapped or brainwashed into a cult, and even wonders if Cecilia has discovered real fairies. Paul shows up in New York to win back the wife to whom, he insists, he’s still married. With Paul’s help, Rose sets out to find the Avalon Cabaret and track down her sister.

We get our first glimpse of the fairies through Rose’s eyes. Standing on the designated pier to meet The Avalon, Rose first hears unearthly music, a voice singing “The wind blows over the lonely of heart / And the lonely of heart is withered away.” A red barge emerges from the mist, covered with flowers, with four pillars of fire hovering above. The crew is dancing gracefully or reclining on divans—a man in top hat and tails, a girl in an orange dress, a boy dressed like a harlequin, and, presiding at the center, a stately older woman, introduced as Morgan. It’s the “carnival of lost souls,” the “ship of fools,” a “priory of drifters,” whose mission is to locate and gather the lost souls of New York into a life of magic, beauty, dance—a life that’s not regimented by work schedules and apps, a life in the land of Fairie. Avalon’s creed is “Beauty should be protected from pain.”

The magical atmosphere of the novel is enhanced by subtle and not-so-subtle mythic references. Cecilia’s life is a grail quest and she’s spent her adult life puttering around with writing an opera about the Round Table. “Avalon” is the enchanted island where Excalibur was forged and where Arthur recovered from battle wounds. The “Morgan” who presides over the Avalon Cabaret is reminiscent of Morgan Le Fay. To find the next docking location of the Avalon, invitees follow a series of clues, many drawn from T. S. Eliot, an Arthurian enthusiast. When Cecilia first encounters the barge, she’s reminded of the “burnished throne” at the beginning of the “Game of Chess” section of The Waste Land, which resonates with Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra’s barge in Antony and Cleopatra. Cecilia echoes with Caelia, ruler of the House of Holiness in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, but more directly evokes St. Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose martyr crown was made of roses and lilies. 

For Burton, Fairie stands for the moments of lucidity, freedom, and beauty we all experience from time to time, or the “realm of eternal childhood” that beckons as an alternative to Rose-like seriousness. Yet the players of the Avalon Cabaret aren’t in fact fairies or angels, but ordinary human beings who have sacrificed ordinary lives on the promise that “another life is possible.” Rose is shocked on her first day at the Avalon villa when one of the members of the troupe goes out on a grocery run, and later she helps another member put a fresh coat of paint on the barge. What looks like magic during the cabaret—levitation and fire—is the illusion of special effects that might be found in any Broadway play. Enchantment is on the surface, and the closer Rose penetrates, the more quotidian it becomes. Fairie is, as Burton writes, a “liminal space,” more beautiful than life yet less lively. 

Worse, the “priory of drifters” isn’t innocent. Members of the group regularly fan out to visit New York dives, hunting for lonely people to invite to witness the magic. It feels predatory, and the Avalon does actual harm. Until Rose and Paul intervene, the Avalon community is poised to bring on a teenage girl without informing her parents, much less seeking their consent. The Cabaret is dogged by the unsolved death of one of their catches. “It was an accident,” they all say, but when Rose learns the truth, it turns out to be less accident than negligence.

Though not ontologically fairies, the members of the troupe occupy the moral space of fairyland, outside normal polarities of good and evil. As Burton has observed elsewhere, fairies don’t steal humans to eat them or entice them to damnation but “because they genuinely believe that life dancing under the stars or in the woods is better.” Like the lovers of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the protagonists of Burton’s fairy tale return to their Athens; they are refreshed by airy nothings, but incapable of living fully human lives in the enchanted wood. Enticing as it is, Fairie’s amoral realm beyond good and evil doesn’t afford the chance of being good.

Yet the Way of Avalon and the Way of the App are more similar than they appear. OptiMyze works only after you’ve decided on your “meta-goal.” Though Cecilia and Rose are powerfully drawn to Avalon, they decide whether to make it permanent and they’re free to leave whenever they like. When Morgan explains Avalon to Rose, she abandons Arthurian pretense and falls into the trendy verbiage of “intentional family,” “like-minded individuals,” “chosen to dedicate our lives.” Both Ways are overshadowed by the liberal presumption that human beings are autonomous moral choosers. 

The two Ways diverge in terms of enchantment, with Avalon at the opposite pole from disenchanted Weberian modernity. But Avalon can’t keep its promise; groceries need to be fetched and the barge needs repair. Morgan and her crew play at being fairies by night, but in the morning dawn, life is just life. Avalon promises “another life” but delivers much less: nothing more than this life, spiced up with an occasional innocent bacchanal. Burton’s novel hints at a more radical option, a genuine grail: life guided by unchosen and given quests, lived out in a world teeming with real angels and mysterious human souls, a world that surpasses both the selfish “My” of “” and the sporadic cosplaying of Avalon to reach for an all-enveloping myth and Eliot’s “condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything).” That possibility would truly be another life.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by Edward Burne-Jones via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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