“There is so much pain in the world”: Carole Maso’s “The Art Lover”
In 1990, when Carole Maso’s novel The Art Lover was first published (SF: North Point Press), there weren’t many recent and obvious precedents for including photographs and other types of reproductions with a novel. A few that come to mind that would have been more or less widely known were Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Kobo Abe’s The Box Man (first published in the US in 1974), Theresa Hak Kyung’s experimental novel Dictee, and Andre Breton’s 1937 novel Amour Fou, which finally appeared in English in 1988 as Mad Love. So The Art Lover, which contained some sixty-five or so reproductions of astonishing variety, really broke new ground. The book includes snapshots; photographs of articles torn or cut from the New York Times and other newspapers and periodicals; reproductions of artworks by Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Charles Demuth, and others; images of lost animal posters found around New York City; illustrations from textbooks; and more. And because so many of the embedded photographs involve texts of one sort or another, they become additional narrative voices that expound on topics like artists, works of art, and the stars in the night sky. My favorite is a tiny clipping (apparently from the Times) which supplies a correction to a previously published recipe for braised chicken.
The core narrative in The Art Lover, which takes place in 1985 and 1986, concerns Caroline Chrysler, a thirty-year old novelist who has returned to New York City to deal with the estate of her recently deceased father, Max, who was a renowned art historian and professor. This narrative is frequently interspersed with sections of the semi-autobiographical novel that Caroline happens to be in the midst of writing at that time. And then, toward the end of the book, the fictive curtain is momentarily pulled aside and we briefly glimpse Carole Maso writing The Art Lover.
As Caroline tries to come to terms with the relationship she had with her father, she learns that her close childhood friend, Steven, is in a nearby hospital with AIDS, and his struggle and gradual decline becomes an equally important part of the book. Thus, this often angry, despairing narrative of remembrance, grief, fear, loss, friendship, hope, and art joined a growing list of novels that focused on the AIDS crisis starting in the mid-1980s. The character Steven was modeled on Maso’s friend, the artist Gary Falk (1964-1986), a New York City-based artist who exhibited in several of the city’s galleries and at the New Museum.
It’s not too hard to guess at some of the motivations Maso had for heaping images into The Art Lover (there is approximately one image every four pages). For starters, two of the main characters are an art historian and a contemporary artist, and a considerable amount of conversation and memory revolves around specific works of art and museum exhibitions. Second, Maso used The Art Lover as a memorial to Gary Falk, the artist who is depicted as Steven in the novel, reproducing a number of his artworks in the book. But perhaps more important, I think, is that The Art Lover serves as a snapshot of New York and, to a lesser extent, the US at a specific time. While the writing in The Art Lover continually drifts toward poetry – there are lists that read like poems and actual poems by Maso inserted into the narrative – the book is also infused with a documentary impulse, as if Maso wants to etch certain moments into her memory. And this is why I think that Maso included such a wide variety of images. She dwells on a couple of high profile national events like the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS-related causes. But the primary focus is on the day-to-day experiences of living in New York – lost pet signs posted on walls, overheard fragments of conversations, the appeals of panhandlers begging for money on the street, articles in the daily paper, messages on the answering machine. Caroline, who has spent her adult life quietly in rural New England, is relearning the noisy, chaotic, and unforgiving city in which she grew up and which her father loved so dearly. Here, she addresses her father posthumously:
I am back in your city of light, Max. City of dark, city of death. City of beauty and scum. Of saliva, your city of saliva, Max.
“Not my city of saliva.”
“Please help me.”
“I am recently widowed.”
“I have no food.”
“My house has burned down.”
“I am a Vietnam vet.”
“I am the Emperor Caesar.”
“I have no food.”
City of the starving and homeless.
Your city of elephants and lions and horses. Goddamnit, Max, whoever dreamed there’d be so many animals in this urban center? City of parakeets and ferrets on the loose. Lost two-legged dogs. City of pieces. Max, why didn’t you ever mention that everywhere around you young men were dying?