My friend Katie let me borrow her copy of The Arsonist, citing it as one of the best fictional portrayals she knows of a career aid worker readjusting to life in the developed world. Since one of the protagonists of my novel has to deal with just this situation, I was grateful for the recommendation. Sue Miller’s main character, Frankie Rowley, is returning to Pomeroy, New Hampshire, after years as an aid worker in Kenya. Her parents have retired to the house that was historically their summer property, but retirement isn’t going to be a smooth ride—her father, Alfie, is developing dementia, and her mother, Sylvia, must care for him. Meanwhile, someone is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people” in Pomeroy, and Frankie—attempting to find some direction—begins an affair with Bud, the local newspaperman. I’ve read some complaints about the slow development of The Arsonist; I can only assume that this is down to baffled expectations. It’s not a thriller about a firebug, but a portrait of a small town drawn into the discomfort of facing its class divide head on. Pete, the widower from whom Bud bought the local paper, suggests that the problem is due to an increasing sense of equality: in the 1930s and 1940s, his parent’s generation, he suggests, “knew their place”, and no one felt troubled by the distance between year-round residents and the seasonsal families who employed locals as maids and handymen during the summer months. Perhaps it does no one any favours, Pete muses, to pretend as though there are no longer any social distinctions, when a difference in privilege and in wealth is so clear. Thematically, this makes a nice counterpoint to Frankie’s concern about her own privilege as a white expatriate in Africa, someone who was always going to be helicoptered out of a potentially dangerous situation, who didn’t really “belong” there because she could opt out of certain hazards.
Frankie’s and Bud’s romance is maybe a little torrid, but this is mitigated by the fact that it takes so long to get going, and by Frankie’s resistance and awkwardness as she tries to figure out which choices will let her have the most meaningful or fulfilling life. Fulfillment is also a vexed issue for Sylvia Rowley, who resigns herself to an old age spent caring for an increasingly demented husband whom she has long since ceased to really love. Throughout, Miller maintains a firm grasp of emotional beats, the complexities of a long marriage and of claustrophobic communities and of the interplay between a longing for independence and a longing for love. I’m particularly impressed by her understanding of rural communities, the way that things like a Halloween Haunted House at the town hall or a barbeque at the fire station hold such places together. Her work reminds me of Anne Tyler’s.
Michael Andreasen’s debut short story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, was one of the proofs I was most excited about getting to this month, even though I maintain the pretense of not liking short stories very much. (I say “pretense” because I always end up liking the ones that I read.) Andreasen’s approach to fantasy or magical realism is to infuse fantastical situations with bracing jolts of recognisable modernity, or vice versa. The sailors stuck on a slowly sinking ship, for instance, listen to hip-hop through their headphones, and a child in the first story—set either in an alternate universe or the future—has the distinctly old-fashioned name of Ernest. The most striking element of Andreasen’s work is his skill at engaging a reader’s emotions, even if those emotions conflict. In the title story, for instance, a lovestruck kraken is sinking a ship inch by inch, day by day, convinced that the ship is one of its own kind. The kraken eventually spawns thousands of babies, all of which are murdered by the sailors in an orgy of destruction; at the end of the story, a young sailor on the doomed vessel is found to have kept one infant kraken alive. He pins it—still living—to an effigy of the ship, places a doll version of himself on the deck of the model, and tips it overboard. It’s a profoundly disturbing scene because it forces us to feel so many things at once: pity for a tortured young animal and revulsion at the man who could do such a thing; simultaneous pity and terror for the young sailor and his shipmates and their impending demise; poignancy and horror that humans can keep hoping, even while suffering a slow death. Not all of the stories in the collection achieve such a powerful cocktail of emotion, but they’re all just as weird and engaging.
What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? These are the questions posed by Tom Rachman’s new novel, The Italian Teacher, out on 22 March. It reminded me, thematically, of The Moon and Sixpence (and it explicitly cites Paul Gaugin’s abscondment to Tahiti and abandonment of his wife and children as an example of the cruelties that artistic genius commits and is excused for). The novel centers on Bear Bavinksy, a charismatic painter of forty or so when we first meet him, in Rome in 1955, with his wife Natalie (nineteen years his junior) and son Charles, known to all as Pinch. Bear might be a genius, but he is also controlling, serially unfaithful, and—the reader begins to notice—a bullshitter. Chronically jovial in public, he alternately manipulates and ignores both his current family and his children from other marriages, and manages to distract most people from noticing that he never says anything of substance; Pinch, who is desperate to be accepted as an artist by his father, interprets Bear’s evasions of direct questions in the way most flattering to himself, until he ages into knowing better. The early part of the book is spent in exploring the ways in which Bear belittles and diminishes Natalie’s artistic talent, but most of the novel is given over to Pinch and the ways in which his father’s fame, and his own thirst for approval, cripple his adult life. Parts of it are terribly sad—Rachman writes a few scenes for Pinch of such utter humiliation that they’re painful to read—other parts joyous. Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all. The Italian Teacher is a deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: Several thematic parallels between the three books read this week, most notably dealing with aging and/or dementia-struck parents. It was also illuminating to read The Italian Teacher after All the Perverse Angels; both are intensely interested in the production of art and how its value is determined.