Another Group: Joanna Smith Rakoff, A Fortunate Age

fortunate-age-2I was relieved to discover that nobody else in my book club liked A Fortunate Age either. For once, I feel reasonably confident saying it’s not me, it’s the book! I don’t think we’ve been so unanimous in our dislike of any our choices, in fact, since the disaster that was Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.

We ended up having a very lively discussion, however, as we tried to figure out where or how we thought the book went awry. The novel rewrites Mary McCarthy’s The Group , which we read back in March. I didn’t love The Group, but it was certainly interesting, edgy, and thought-provoking–and by and large none of us found Rakoff’s updated version any of those things. Was it because Rakoff followed McCarthy’s model too closely and thus had to wrestle her characters into plotlines that didn’t necessarily suit them, and that gave the novel a stale air in spite of all the “novelty” of its 90s setting? Was it that we were all too familiar with that setting to find it historically interesting the way we did McCarthy’s rendition of her period? Perhaps it was that Rakoff’s women seemed too much like McCarthy’s, as if nothing had really changed about their options and preoccupations despite the decades that had passed–they seemed so insular, so self-absorbed, so unengaged with the wider world, or with ideas or possibilities outside their incestuous little nest of relationships. But things have changed for women, though of course not enough and not necessarily in only positive ways: in Rakoff’s novel, however, it seems as if the narcissism of youth makes historical change illegible or irrelevant. We concluded that, more than offering an insightful account of life in the 90s, A Fortunate Age read like The Group in 90s sets and costumes. We all found it a slog.

fortunate-age-1I particularly puzzled over why I found its detailed exposition so tedious. I am on record as a fan of exposition! But by half way through A Fortunate Age I was impatiently skimming through its dense paragraphs of stuff that just didn’t seem worth taking more time over. Rakoff inadvertently furnished a clue with her epigraph, which is from Daniel Deronda. (Beware: If you’re going to invite a comparison to George Eliot, it may well work against you!) True, Gwendolen Harleth is every bit as self-absorbed and ignorant of the wider world as the characters in A Fortunate Age, but (and for me this is crucial) George Eliot is not: her account of Gwendolen’s youthful egotism and willfulness is suffused with wry compassion; the context for Gwendolen’s story is not just the relentless minutiae of her immediate experience but everything else the narrator knows and thinks about the world she lives in. Gwendolen’s limitations do not limit her novel–but Rakoff’s characters are all we get in A Fortunate Age, and they don’t repay our sustained attention. I’m not saying the novel needed exactly what Daniel Deronda has–an intrusive narrator, for instance, or profundity, both of which are risky ventures if you aren’t George eliot–but it needed a broader perspective somewhere, a sense of what kind of story it is ultimately telling about these people and this age, especially since the book aspires (as its title indicates) to be about an era, not just a few individuals.

Our collective impatience with A Fortunate Age led us to abandon our usual practice of following a thread from one book to the next–which is how we got from The Group to The Radiant Way to A Fortunate Age. Enough (for now) of scrutinizing women’s lives and relationships! We wanted something different–formally, intellectually, thematically–and so we settled on Lincoln in the Bardo, which seems about as unlike Rakoff’s novel as is possible. It’s also a book several of us have been interested in but wary about reading, so now we have a specific incentive to press on with it.

In Brief: Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me

Abbott-die-a-littleI didn’t think I had read any Megan Abbott before this year,  but when I was at the library picking up You Will Know Me I realized that I had signed out one or two of her noir novels at some point in the past–probably while shopping around for ideas for Mystery & Detective Fiction or Pulp Fiction. I hadn’t put the pieces together, mostly because those books are (fairly cleverly) decked out with vintage-style covers which quite simply don’t look as if they belong with Abbott’s contemporary thrillers. (Shallow of me, I know.) I expect it’s also because I didn’t actually read them, or at least not more than the first few pages. It wasn’t personal; it’s just that noir is not my favorite genre–in fact, to a degree that might surprise the students in Mystery & Detective Fiction, I’m not a voracious reader of crime fiction at all, in any flavor, or not any more. When I do read mysteries nowadays, it’s almost always because I want to keep up with old friends, though I do try new writers intermittently, especially if there’s buzz, and sometimes I do like them–Tana French comes particularly to mind. Apparently, on the basis of that admittedly skimpy sample, Abbott was not among them.

Abbott-you-will-know-meAnyway, lately I’ve been picking up enough buzz about Abbot (who has a new book out) that I thought I would give her what turned out to be another try. First I got hold of The End of Everything–but again I didn’t persist past the first chapter or so. It read like a YA novel, not just because it was centered on teenage girls but because it sounded as if it was written for them. Abbott seems like a self-conscious enough writer that I’m sure she was doing something on purpose with this style, and maybe she went on to do something twisty and surprising with it, but the scenario too seemed a bit pat and familiar and I wasn’t interested in reading on.

You Will Know Me was my next attempt to read one of her books, and it will almost certainly be my last. I did read this one to the end, and there are a lot of things about it that I thought were good or interesting, especially the gimlet-eyed look at competitive gymnastics, which has always equal parts inspired and repelled me. She certainly made it seem every bit as horrendous as I ever imagined! She also knows how to tell a gripping story and keep up the pace–but that’s not altogether a good thing, as I felt manipulated by her heavy-handed foreshadowing even as I started skimming here and there so I could press on more quickly to whatever revelations were to come. When I finished the book, I didn’t feel surprised or shocked, though, much less exhilarated by the experience. I felt tense and dissatisfied and a bit dirty, because so much of the suspense of the novel is really just, or also, or inextricable from, prurient curiosity.

fingersmithI’m not necessarily calling You Will Know Me a bad book. These are (or are they?) the feelings, the reactions, a thriller depends on and aspires to–which is why I don’t typically read them. There is definitely overlap between thrillers and crime fiction, but for me, the best crime fiction depends on our taking a genuine interest in the people and the outcome, caring about what happens both because it’s possible for us to empathize with at least some of them and because of what’s at stake–the immediate consequences for people’s lives and then beyond that, the possibility of justice, if not realized, than imagined. Other kinds of fiction can also be very suspenseful: Daphne du Maurier or Sarah Waters, for instance. But a novel like Fingersmith is engrossing only initially because it makes us voyeurs and lures us in: then it turns on us, exposes us, and makes us interrogate and repent of our self-absorption. It shows us the moral consequences–for us and for its subjects–of the kind of objectification that a thriller depends on. Fingersmith is also 100 times more subtle and ambitious than You Will Know Me, but that’s not really my point, which is just that I found Abbott’s particular brand of suspense a bit distasteful and ultimately unrewarding.

OUP-WHPerhaps tangential, perhaps not: A lot of people were pretty annoyed at the recent piece about Emily Brontë in the Guardian, and I agree it was a sloppy job, and unconvincing about its complaints. But Wuthering Heights is another novel I’ve never much liked, and it’s for some of the same reasons I didn’t like You Will Know Me, and also, I suppose, the reasons that I really didn’t like Eileen. It’s not that I think every novel must be “nice” or uplifting or offer a feel-good epiphany, but I’d like more of a pay-off–intellectually, or ethically, or aesthetically–for time spent in ugliness than these novels seem to me to offer. Wuthering Heights at least has the compensatory virtue of complex artistry. I didn’t discern anything in Eileen that made up for its unpleasantness–and as readers of this blog well know, I don’t share the trendy opinion that simply being expressively unpleasant is some kind of artistic triumph in itself. I’m very aware that this preference almost certainly says more about me as a reader than it does about these particular books–and to be clear, I think You Will Know Me is probably a pretty good book, of its kind. Maybe I underestimate it, and thus Abbott, but I disliked it too much to want to double-check.

“A Better Way of Travelling”: Sarah Moss, Names for the Sea

I recognise my own distrust of Icelandic tourism, of the collector’s desire to tick off geysers and volcanoes and midnight sun on some kind of Lonely Planet checklist, totting up experiences like any other commodity. There must be a better reason to travel, a better way of travelling, than the hoarding of sights your friends haven’t seen … I want to sense the long-dead outlaw’s dread of the dark, not to be told about it in an interpretation centre. I want, I suppose, an unmediated Iceland, even though I know there’s no such thing.

Sarah Moss writes wonderfully about her family’s stint in Reykjavik, the result of a longstanding fascination with “northerly islands” which, in combination with another longstanding desire, for her family to experience life “abroad,” led her to seize an opportunity to teach at Iceland’s National University.

Moss is wry and self-aware and sometimes funny about her difficulties adapting, both to Iceland’s culture and customs and to the more general condition of being an “outsider.” She frankly admits her own peevishness–with the food especially, but also with the traffic, the weather, the housing. Names for the Sea is not, this is to say, a romanticized travelogue or a promotional brochure, even tacitly. Indeed, far from making me dream of someday seeing Iceland for myself, Names for the Sea killed quite dead my faint previous interest in ever going there–even though as an ordinary tourist I could presumably avoid some of the particular challenges Moss and her family encounter with shopping, furnishing, driving, and just generally living.

had sometimes wondered about Iceland as a place to visit, mostly because I know a few people who are from there or have been there and have made it sound pretty cool, and also because Iceland has a reputation for bookishness (for instance, there’s its tradition of a “Christmas book flood” or Jolabokaflod–imagine having a whole word for that!). Unlike Moss, however, I am not instinctively drawn to northerly places. Halifax is quite far enough north for me! (And despite its climate Halifax is not even very far north — it is approximately as far south as Portland Oregon, which I actually find quite disorienting. That just goes to show you that where weather is concerned, latitude isn’t everything!) Moss does nothing to reassure me about how harsh and unforgiving Iceland’s climate is: how long, dark, and relentless its winter, and how fleeting its spring and summer. “By November,” she reports,

it’s been winter for a while. We recognise winter not just because the colours of land and sky and sea have changed, although the greens and blues have turned to shades of grey, but because there is less light, even in the middle of the day. The sun rises at a shallower angle every day, every day the zenith is a little lower, every day sunset is a little further south, as if the sun is running out of power. . . . There is snow, and then rain again, and then more snow. . . . I try to remember the midsummer light, and to know that as the days are shortening now they will lengthen after the solstice. Life will come as surely as death. It’s hard to believe, my Arctic theology.

Moss is also eloquent about the hazards of the road:

Icelandic driving is terrifying. Nobody indicates. Even bus drivers accelerate towards junctions and then jump on the brakes at the last minute, sending passengers and shopping crashing to the floor. People swerve across lanes to leave the freeway from the inside. Icelanders have one of the highest rates of mobile phone ownership and usage in the world, and they don’t stop when they’r driving. . . . In one month we have seen four major accidents, the kind that write off cars, trigger airbags and leave glass and blood, and in one case a baby’s car-seat, on the road.

Since driving is right up there with winter on my list of things I hate, and driving in winter is one of my biggest sources of anxiety here where most (!) people at least try to follow the rules of the road–well, let’s just say that wherever Reykjavik once was on my bucket list, it’s a lot further down now.

And yet. Though it sounds as if Iceland is not for me, Moss’s life in Iceland, while full of difficulties, is not, for her, altogether without its charms. She and her family are intrepid enough (or stubborn enough, or both) to explore the country’s alien landscape, including its active volcanoes–they are there during the disruptive eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. Moss herself is also determined to learn as much as she can about this strange place she has come to, so she goes out of her way to meet people with expertise in everything from Icelandic politics to local cuisine to elves–“I find the idea of talking to someone about elves embarrassing,” she admits, but nonetheless she braves the trip out of the city to do it, and the conversation is as odd and interesting and faintly disconcerting as you’d expect.

I particularly enjoyed her chapter on knitting, which apparently nearly everybody in Iceland does:

On buses, in restaurants, during meetings, in class. In the first week of term, several students came into the classroom, put down their cups of coffee, took off their coats, hats and scarves and pulled out laptops, power cables, poetry anthologies, knitting needles, and wool. I didn’t, I decided, mind. . . . I can crochet while watching a film. . . . Icelandic undergraduates, it turned out, can knit while drinking coffee, taking notes on their Apple Macs and making enlightening contributions to discussions of Lyrical Ballads. I watched the pieces grow from week to week, comforted, somehow, by the progress of socks and matinee jackets as we worked our way through from Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ towards The Prelude, as if the knitting were a manifestation of accumulating knowledge. Colleagues knit in meetings, which seems a far more constructive use of time than the doodles produced in the English equivalent. I wonder if anyone would say anything if I tried in committees at home, instead of drawing borders of trees and wonky geometrical patterns around the minutes.

(She should try it, if she hasn’t already! So far nobody has made any objection when I take my crochet out in our department meetings. My theory is that they realize it’s better for everyone there that I manage my stress.)

I also enjoyed her account of her attempts to improve her Icelandic by watching Icelandic films and reading Icelandic fiction, both of which turn out to be good lessons, for a literature teacher, about how much tacit knowledge it really takes–how much cultural capital and “insider” experience–to make sense of what you’re reading and seeing. “Rain drips from everyone’s hair,” she says of the movies, those set in the Middle Ages blurring into the documentaries of early 20th-century life;

Children run in and out of turf houses through low doorways, like rabbits emerging from and disappearing into burrows, and every so often one of the men says something apparently proverbial, like ‘the dark horse runs longest’ or ‘the fog hides many secrets’ and hits another man on the head with an axe … It’s like listening to a tale told by a drunk; I am fascinated, mostly by the landscape, but have no idea what the narrative logic might be. The subtitles are little help because there seems to be no relationship between what people say (not much, mostly about farming) and what they do (mostly farming but sometimes murder).

She does not fare much better with novels. Detective fiction, she observes, is “obviously written with translation in mind,” so it is full of explanations that make comprehension easier for her. Literary fiction, on the other hand, “cause[s] me the same puzzlement as the films”:

I simply don’t understand why the characters do what they do, can’t see the connection between speech and action. In apparently gentle novels of bourgeois life, characters rape and kill with no warning, no reflection and little reaction from anyone else. I find the violent episodes entirely unpredictable, never know at the beginning of a paragraph if the person coming through the door is bringing coffee or a crowbar to the person sitting at the table.

Iceland is “distinctive for its low crime rate,” so she wonders why its fiction and film feature so much “bloodletting”–“Are Icelanders simmering with rage under their jumpers?”

I admired Moss’s perseverance: there is something endearing, even, about her determination to understand, to make sense, not just of these opaque texts but of every aspect of Icelandic life. I’m not sure this is “a better way of travelling” (or of travel writing–the result was sometimes a bit more detail than I actually wanted about the country’s history, politics, or finances) but it is clearly her way: Moss is driven by intellect, or perhaps her need to ask and get answers about everything was a way of compensating for the difficulty she had simply being and feeling in a place where everything is so unfamiliar. I appreciated that she never glossed over those difficulties, and also that for all her inquisitive effort Iceland remained, in some ways, just out of reach for her: the book offers no magic moment of recognition, no epiphany.

Perhaps Iceland’s resistance to Moss’s quest for understanding explains why her fascination with the place endured in spite of everything, even bringing her family back to visit soon after they moved back to the UK, to move once more among “landscapes that simply don’t make sense, mountains that the mind can’t read.” The way Moss writes about that landscape is the only thing about Names from the Sea that nearly changes my mind about travelling to Iceland:

It’s like watching God in the act of creation, passing through fells of bare naked lava and rock, like seeing the world before it was finished. We’re on day four of Creation, moving back towards day three, a world made of sky, fire, earth and water with none of the complications that came later. The mountains are red, as if the cinders haven’t yet cooled, or the black of embers, carved by valleys where it seems that if you watched long enough, you’d see that the rock is still flowing. The elements are translated here: what is solid looks like liquid, rock like water, earth like fire.

I lack Moss’s hardiness and spirit of adventure, though, so what Names for the Sea ultimately convinced me to do was to order another of her novels. I have yet to read anything by her that I haven’t both enjoyed and admired.

Summer Fog

Deck-SkyHere in Halifax we have been socked in with fog and cloud a lot lately, and the last two days in particular have been relentlessly overcast and muggy. The humidity alone is demoralizing, and the absence of sunlight just compounds the gloom. Happily we’re supposed to see at least some sun later today–but most of the rest of the week is forecast to be pretty grey. This kind of disappointing weather is typical of May and June here, but by July we’re usually enjoying a bit more brightness! As our long-awaited and always too-brief summer slips away, it’s hard not to feel a bit depressed, especially as constant construction noise in our usually tranquil neighborhood has made even the few really nice sunny days harder to enjoy. I have hardly spent any time reading on the deck, which is the one summer activity I really look forward to!

twitterlogoMy mopey mood has not been helped by the constant barrage of bad news, or by the ceaseless cascade of angry responses to one thing after another on social media. My twitter feed yesterday was heavily dominated, for example, by people being angry about a terrible “take” on libraries and an ill-conceived hit job on Wuthering Heights. I didn’t disagree with (most of) the complaints: I love libraries as much as the next person in my feed, and though Wuthering Heights is hardly my favorite novel either, if for some reason I felt like making a big public statement about that, I would at least try to explain myself without insulting either the book or those who admire it–and I would certainly make a good faith effort to know the novel better and acknowledge its strengths as part of the project. But eventually I had to wonder who these declarations were really aimed at, since the pieces’ authors are almost certainly not going to see or be persuaded by them. I know it feels good to vent, and we all (myself certainly included!) use Twitter for this some of the time, but after a while the anger seems largely performative, and I’m increasingly inclined to see the compulsion to join the chorus of outrage as a problem in itself, not any kind of solution–though, having said that, I do realize that there can be both comfort and political value in asserting solidarity with other like-minded people. My least favorite genre of tweet is “you’re doing Twitter wrong,” so what I need to do is keep working on managing my own experience of Twitter–which I still find a vital lifeline to relationships and conversations and ideas I value–so that it is on balance more engaging than stressful.

moss-namesOn the bright side, I just finished reading a pretty good book, Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea, which I will write a bit more about here soon. I also really liked Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn, which I just finished writing up for Quill & Quire, and now I’m focusing on a short essay on Carol Shields’ Unless, a novel that has come to be one of my very favorites. I also feel good about my piece on “Reading Trollope in the Age of Trump,” which ran last week on the TLS Online–it was a treat to be writing about a Victorian novel again, and it was an interesting challenge to see if I could highlight its contemporary relevance while still mostly focusing on its particulars, keeping it “more Trollope than Trump,” as my editor and I agreed. It was also nice not to be behind their paywall for once!

I’m sure I will perk up soon. The sun is already trying to burn its way through today’s fog, and in the meantime I have plenty to do. Days–and moods–like this, though, which are pretty common for me in the summer, are why I don’t 100% look forward to this season, and why I kind of hate the well-intentioned “how’s your summer going?” questions from the few people I run into, most of whom really only want or expect me to say “fine.”

“An Artist”? Nell Painter, Old in Art School


An An Artist artist finds her identity in art, does nothing but make art, and does it all the time, making work of unimaginable creativity. An An Artist artist makes art 100 percent of the time. . . . All of me wanted to be An Artist–and yet at the same time to keep my past as a thinker and writer. But how could I be An Artist, when “academic” was so poisonous a concept in art and while I had always been academic?

I have never wanted to be “An Artist,” never dreamed of reinventing myself the way Nell Painter did herself when she retired from a distinguished career as a historian and enrolled in a BFA and then an MFA program. I was drawn to her memoir about this experience, though, partly because of my own recent (and ongoing) attempts to at least become more artistic and partly because in a different and more modest way I have reinvented myself over the past decade. It has been a more sputtering process for me, not begun with anything like the same decisiveness and clarity of purpose–but as eventually happens with Painter, the result has been work that could be described as “hybrid,” rooted in academic experience but expressing itself differently. One of the recurrent questions in Painter’s book is what exactly defines “An Artist”–or, when are you entitled to consider yourself one? In a similar way, I puzzle about what it means to call yourself “A Writer,” an identity that surely overlaps with being a professor but which is rarely claimed by or attributed to those whose writing is academic.

Nell Painter, “Self-Portrait 10”

Old in Art School is a fascinating read if you are interested in these kinds of questions, or in questions about what makes art “good” (and who decides) or how (or whether) art can be taught. Painter’s own journey follows her from enthusiasm to painful doubt about her own goals and talents: an alternative subtitle could be A Memoir of Imposter Syndrome, given how often she is driven to despair about whether she can or should sustain her ambition to be an artist (much less An Artist), or how to reconcile her own interests–in particular subjects as well as styles, and especially in incorporating historical and textual material into her work–with the advice she gets in the relentless “crits” that are a key part of the art school apparatus.

The early part of the memoir follows her struggle to see differently and to let go of her fixation on coherence. “False and foolish pride, mine,” she remarks tartly, “beguiled by my lying twentieth-century eyes”:

My lying twentieth-century eyes favored craft, clarity, skill, narrative, and meaning. My twenty-first-century classmates and teachers preferred everyday subject matter, the do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic, appropriation, and the visible marks of facture: drips, smudges, and what in the twentieth century would have been considered mistakes needing to be cleaned up. What I thought of as private intimacy is out in the open, as graphically as possible. Penises and vaginas are commonplace motifs, and nowadays even I contemplate making penis art. painter-audio

One way that, as a non-Artist, I understand this shift is away from art as pictures (whether more or less representative) and towards art as visual thinking–mimetic or figurative art is out, and highly conceptual art is in. (The more advanced Painter’s work gets, the more explanation it requires to know what she thinks it is doing, or is about.) This won’t surprise anyone who knows even a little bit about art history, of course, but Painter helped clarify for me why an artist, or at any rate an aspiring Artist (one who wants to be taken seriously in what she calls “the Art World”–Painter is irritatingly fond of capitalizing words to given them more, or more ironic, weight), would have to, and presumably want to, embrace the 21st-century modes she outlines. Other ways of seeing and painting would condemn you to being seen as derivative or commercial–heaven forbid! I think there is some tension between that compulsion towards the new and what an amateur like me might think of as authenticity. What if you love doing beautiful watercolors of recognizable landscapes? should you really have to abandon them for “penis art” to qualify as an artist? (Similarly, do you–should you–have to abandon plot and character to be taken seriously as a novelist? Some critics clearly think so.) But at least as Painter tells it, for her it was a genuine and ultimately satisfying–if often unhappy and difficult–process of transformation in her aesthetic vision.

Nell Painter, “Soul Bowling”

Old in Art School is also interesting about Painter’s feelings as she loses her hard-won authority as a historian and academic. Not only did she hold prestigious professorial appointments, including at Princeton, but she was the President of the Organization of American Historians and served on the boards of multiple other important professional organizations including the American Historical Society and the Association of Black Women Historians. None of this means anything to her art school “peers,” who see her only as an anomaly–as an “old” woman mysteriously landed among them (Painter is 64 when she begins her BFA at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts), and as a black woman in a conspicuously non-diverse context. Though she is occasionally and understandably bitter about the awkwardness and exclusion that results, she is also acidly funny about her undergraduate classmates:

Day after day after day I ate alone among undergraduates laughing uproariously and commiserating dramatically over what was Technicolor red-orange hilarious and what was acrylic cyan-green catastrophic. Everything new. Everything just born. Drama, always. Undergraduates’ lives were so vivid. . . . In their arty costumes and fabulous tattoos, they nuzzled one another, arms on shoulders, kisses on cheeks. They laughed some more. They chose their vegetarian meals together, paid up together, sat down together, fed off each other’s plats, and left together arm in arm. Everything mattered so deeply.

Her curmudgeonly perspective does not keep her from learning both alongside and from her youthful peers, who distress and annoy her sometimes with what she perceives as their lack of commitment, organization, and patient effort but also often surprise her with the results of their different habits and artistic instincts. Still, she attributes her own progress to “education and hard work”: this approach may be less glamorous than frantic all-nighters in the studio and run contrary to the popular assertion that an artist is born, not made, but in her case at least, it is the route to success.

new dogs symmetrical
Nell Painter, “New Dogs: Symmetrical”

What does success mean to her? Another interesting strand of Old in Art School is Painter’s attempt to answer this question, which is closely related to the question of why she attends art school at all. “You don’t need it,” one of her teachers tells her about her decision to go on to an MFA after finishing at Mason Gross. Painter resists that advice, partly because she rejects a narrative the sadly familiar subtext of which is “you can’t do it” or “you shouldn’t do it.” Her determination is also clearly related to her academic background, and the fixation it cultivates on credentials and validation. “I just assumed,” Painter says,

I could not be a serious artist without art graduate school, just as I had known I could not be a serious historian–a publishing historian, a scholarly historian–without history graduate school. For history graduate school, I went to Harvard. For art graduate school, I went to RISD.

She doesn’t spend much time interrogating these assumptions, though they are part and parcel of her ambition not just to paint better on her own terms but to become a recognized participant in the Art World. As she tells it, entrée into that world does depend on credentials and connections, but especially given how important she finds advice and critiques from people she knows outside of her degree programs, I wondered about how necessary such formal programs were to her or indeed are to art itself, or whether they have the same equivocal relationship to art that MFA programs do to writing. I don’t know the art world well enough to know if there is a faintly disparaging term equivalent to “MFA fiction,” or if there’s the same lingering sense that the degree is really essential only so that you can compete for jobs teaching in similar programs–not because a degree is either necessary or sufficient for you to write a great novel or brilliant poetry.

Nell Painter, “Plantains 3”

In any case, success for Painter ultimately means both completing her degrees and finding her way to art that encompasses her historical expertise and her love of text. “In my history books,” she concludes,

I have already had my say in clear language and discursive meaning about community. Now what history means to me in images is freedom from coherence, clarity, and collective representation. My images carry their visual meaning, which may or may not explicate history usefully or unequivocally.

Painter’s book did not entirely convince me about the rightness of this result: I don’t really grasp the value in abandoning coherence, for instance, and (relatedly) my own taste in visual art is pretty old-fashioned. By and large I prefer figurative art to abstract or expressionist art, and Painter’s more chaotic, collage-like works do not appeal to me aesthetically, though her comments about them and the conceptual projects they fulfill certainly interest me.

Old in Art School is not really that kind of a book, though: it is not a work of theory or art history, or an aesthetic treatise. It is, as its subtitle indicates, a personal memoir. A significant amount of the book is spent on Painter’s family, and on her feelings–which are not separate from her artistic development but entangled with it, as one of her main struggles is reconciling the pull of her personal life with the art school expectation that “an An Artist artist makes art 100 percent of the time.” In particular, Painter lives in New Jersey and her aging parents live in California. They demand and deserve her time and attention; her grief for the loss of her mother, the emotional vortex of her father’s depression and his eventual move east to be closer to her, his death–these are not things she can avoid or deny, though for a long time she feels intensely conflicted about how to cope with them and still pursue her artistic ambitions. The artistic ethos Painter finally embraces is one that does not insist on separating life from art, just as it also incorporates history and writing.

Nell Painter, “The America I Know – 4”

Old in Art School is sometimes awkward as it shifts among its many topics. Painter’s narrative jumps around in time in ways that did not always make sense to me, and her prose often seemed stilted. She is refreshingly frank, though, including about her own failures of empathy, patience, or insight, and she is consistently sharp and illuminating about being older, especially as a woman, among mostly young people, and about being a black academic and artist in worlds where to be either, never mind both, is still a rarity. Though her experiences in these respects are far from my own, I definitely recognized the plague of self-doubt and the frustrating truth that appeals to other people’s judgment can never really appease it. As for being “An Artist” or “A Writer,” Painter is happier having reconciled her academic and artistic selves. The key may be to stop fretting about identity in any such absolute way and just keep doing the work in front of you–while always also imagining how else, and what else, you might make with the time you have.

Summer Vacation!

IMG-7983I’m just back from a great week visiting family and friends in Vancouver. It was mostly family this time, as Maddie came with me. She had not been to Vancouver since she was 7 and has not had very many opportunities to spend time with my parents or my brother and sister and their families–it seemed important to make them a priority, and I’m glad we did. The highest cost of my professional life has been the distance it put between me (and thus my children) and them.

It was a real treat for me having Maddie along: I loved showing her around the city as well as seeing her get to know everyone better. We walked a lot, ate a lot, and talked a lot! I did a better job than usual keeping work-related things at bay, and because we were out and about so much, I also wasn’t online enough to feel oppressed by the unceasing stream of bad news and petty conflicts. It was lovely, and I am not altogether happy to be back. #sigh

PainterFor once I didn’t buy any books (Maddie and I frugally shared a suitcase, which meant there wasn’t room for much besides the essentials), but I did make off with two books from my mother’s collection: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone and Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet. I didn’t steal them! My mother is trying to clear some space on her shelves, so really I was helping. My airplane reading was Nell Painter’s awkward but engaging memoir Old in Art School, which I have now finished and will write more about here soon–once my jet lag subsides and I can concentrate properly. In the meantime, here are a couple of pictures from the trip. Vancouver is such a breathtakingly beautiful place! The last photo is of my parents’ garden, a verdant oasis that always reminds me of Marvell’s nice line about “a green thought in a green shade.”





“With Every Love, a Loss”: Sarah Moss, The Tidal Zone


You just discovered your children are mortal, how could you not want another baby, a back-up baby, an insurance against childlessness. You want a third chance, the magic occasion to get it all right. But you can’t get it right, darling. With every birth, a new death comes into being. With every love, a loss. There is no back up, no alternative, no chance to change whatever plot we are living.

My daughter Maddie was around 2 years old when we got a call from the daycare saying she’d broken out in hives after eating eggs for lunch. Before long we were at the allergist’s office holding her hands to keep her from scratching at the welts rising on her arms from the “prick tests” that revealed the bad news: not only is she highly allergic to eggs, but she is also very allergic to peanuts and most tree nuts. Other parents who have gone through this testing will understand how the world, and your parenting, changes afterwards: food–not just a necessity but also the center of so much of our family and social lives–becomes something difficult; shopping and outings and birthday parties and travel are all fraught. The consequences of one unsafe morsel could be unbearable–or not, as the one sure thing about allergies, you soon discover, is that they are unpredictable and not well understood. You know your child has to live in a world that is not risk-free; you know you all have to figure out how she can move safely through it without worrying too much, or asking too much of others. But how much is too much? When it’s your child, it can be awfully hard to settle that question, but you have to, and so you rebuild using new rules–always read labels; never assume; no epi-pen, no food.

Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone tells the story of a family whose experience is a limiting case for this kind of stress. One day, without warning (or maybe not), 16-year-old Miriam collapses and nearly dies, for no apparent reason. After a couple of weeks in the hospital, and many tests, the doctors conclude that it was probably (though not certainly) exercise-induced anaphylaxis–rare, inexplicable, and likely to reoccur, though how likely, or how soon, or with what severity, they really can’t say. “You do understand,” the doctor says to Miriam when she’s being discharged, “that because we don’t know what caused your anaphylaxis, we don’t know how you can avoid it.” bodies

The novel is narrated by Miriam’s father Adam, a stay-at-home dad and part-time academic. He is wry, sarcastic, irritable, self-aware, loving, and desperately trying to navigate the newly uncertain terrain of his life, especially his relationship with his daughter, with at least a little grace. His interior monologues brilliantly capture his struggle to keep his overwhelming fear for Miriam’s safety from becoming debilitating for either of them. “I don’t want the new normal,” he thinks when they first bring Miriam home and his wife Emma, herself a doctor, urges him to relax:

I want the old one back, or if I can’t have that I want Mim on the monitors for the rest of her life or at least the rest of mine and she is not going away in three years she can live here with us where I can listen to her breathing and she can attend one of the five excellent universities within an hour’s journey, to which I will happily drive her, outside whose lecture theatres I will happily wait.

“You need to practice letting go,” Adam’s father tells him; “this is understandable but it won’t help either of you in the long run.” Adam knows this perfectly well, but it’s one thing to know something and another thing to feel its truth and act on it; the novel is about Adam’s learning to let go, not of his fear for Miriam, but in spite of it.

Adam tries to help himself (unforgivably, he sometimes thinks) by focusing on those whose traumas dwarf theirs: other families in the ward whose children will not come home again no matter how careful their parents promise to be; families destroyed in Auschwitz or in Yugoslavia; children bullied to death or drowned or without Miriam’s access to life-saving treatments. A historian by training, he works on putting things in perspective. “This would have been normal,” he remarks to Emma; “Everyone would have been used to it. You know. Adverse outcomes in pædiatric medicine.” The euphemism does not do its job: “It means dead people,” Miriam (wonderfully smart, combative, and brave) ruthlessly explains to her little sister Rose. “All I mean,” Adam persists,

is that the way things are for us now is the normal one, globally and historically. It’s everyone else who’s anomalous. Everyone who doesn’t think it could happen to them.

Emma cannot understand why this comforts him at all, but it does, “a little.” Miriam’s near-death experience initially made him feel disconnected from everyone around him, because their surface normalcy seemed unable to accommodate the drastic collapse of his family’s normal life. The comforting realization, for him, is how shallow that surface layer is for everyone–that they all have in common the enormous, unbearable fragility of everything they take for granted, just as he took for granted that his daughters’ bodies worked, and would keep working, ceaselessly to keep them alive.


What helps Adam most, though, is his work on a book about the restoration of Coventry Cathedral. The implicit parallels between its destruction and rebuilding and the destruction and reconstruction of Adam’s family are beautifully handled: the connections are never made explicit, never become heavy-handed, but simply grow in resonance as Moss interleaves Adam’s account of the work on the cathedral with his family story. By the end of The Tidal Zone I longed to see what Sir Basil Spence had built, encompassing both ruin and resurrection; the great tapestry designed by Graham Sutherland; and especially the windows of angels — “Leaping, leaning, jumping. Rising, writhing.” The new cathedral, Adam reflects, does not gloss over loss or pain, but that does not impede its message of hope:

It is not all right.

It is not all right, but there is beauty. We have ways of saying that it is not all right, that there is death and suffering and evil, and they are the same ways we have had for hundreds of years. Buildings. Glass. Weaving.


new-coventry-cathedralAgainst these rare soaring moments, and in contrast also to the tension and pathos of Adam’s anxiety for Miriam, Moss sets Adam’s wry commentary on being a stay-at-home dad and some terrific low-key satire of academic life. “Like all universities,” he says about the one where he teaches, “it is always building,” paving over the green spaces for car parks then digging up the car parks for new buildings so that “a swarm of angry drivers is permanently circling campus.” “I imagine there is some market research,” he goes on,

behind universities’ manifest view that what every bright eighteen-year-old craves is more overpriced coffee brought to them as they sit on more red leather sofas under more sepia images of Paris and New York. . . . You’d think that what The Youth of Today wants most of all is to recline in a soft red place and suck on the breasts of franchised multinational corporations, but only until you met the students. It is plain that the high-ups do not meet the students.

Add “posh places to use top-of-the-line exercise machines” to the list of what the “high-ups” assume The Youth of Today want and I think most North American academics would nod even more vigorously in rueful agreement. And we can all sympathize with Adam’s disappointment that the meeting for which he drags himself to campus does not, after all, serve coffee and biscuits. (Only meetings involving the “high-ups” get those, in my experience.)

ghost-wallI found The Tidal Zone gripping, moving, funny, and smart. It is written in a higher emotional register and with a faster pace than Moss’s Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, which I reviewed for Numero Cinq; these historical novels are also very smart but were almost too refined and cerebral for my taste. I’ve kept thinking about them since I wrote that review, though, which doesn’t always happen with books I review, and The Tidal Zone confirms Moss’s place on my list of writers whose new work I will always seek out (and in fact I’ll be reviewing her latest, Ghost Wall, for its fall release date, which is one reason I took The Tidal Zone off the shelf now). She has two earlier novels I haven’t read yet, and also a memoir; I look forward to reading them as well.