“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?
I reread The Art Lover in 2023 and wrote about it here.
Hi Terry, I am a follower of your blog and currently a first-year PhD student researching photo-embedded fiction, specifically focused on the theme of longing and desire for “home.” I am probably going to analyze The Art Lover, and may also investigate The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon, and possibly Everyday is for the Thief by Teju Cole. Currently reading Hunters in the Snow by Daisy Hildyard, The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck, Eyes by William H. Gass, Running in the Family by Ondaatje, and have read several other photo-embedded books as I try too narrow down which are best for this project (novels and short fiction). Can you recommend any photo-embedded books I haven’t already mentioned that have to do with seeking home, belonging, identity; and/or seem to emphasize a sense of longing, and/or are in the same vein as Carole Maso’s book. (I wrote my Masters thesis on Sebald and will only include his work peripherally in my PhD). Any suggestions are appreciated! Thank you, Valerie
Does anyone know if Maso and Sebald were aware of one another’s work in the late 80s and early 90s? I know Sebald’s photo-embedded novels were not published in English until the late 90s… Do we know what writers/literary artists may have inspired or influenced Maso’s book The Art Lover (and also ongoing, as she is working on a big project that supposedly will also feature pictures). Thanks, Valerie
Valerie, I would be very surprised if Maso knew about Sebald in time to publish The Art Lover, since Sebald’s first book using photographs – Schwindel. Gefühle – came out in the same year as her book (1990). Conversely, Sebald seems to have had almost zero interest in American literature. On his death, his library contained only a handful of books by American fiction writers, none contemporary. Terry
I came across this article when searching for information about The Art Lover for a presentation I’m working on for class. I see it is from four years ago so I won’t be surprised if it’s not an active thread. First of all – thank you! I’m quite new to this style of writing and postmodern literature in general, so I have found it helpful to read your’ insights on this work.
Also, I have a question about Gary / Steven / David. Early in this piece you wrote, “Maso used The Art Lover as a memorial to Gary Falk, the artist who is depicted as David in the novel”, which gave me a fright as I have just prepared my assignment about Steven as representative of Gary. Later you speak about Steven / Gary, so I’m thinking this was perhaps an error? I also got mixed up between David / Grey / Gary at one point – it’s easy to do. David reads a bit like Steven i noticed – and we don’t see much interaction with Grey. Anyway, if you see this, perhaps the David slip can be corrected – OR you might be able to help me understand that David is Gary too??
Nga mihi nui (Many thanks)
CJ, You are correct that Steven is the character who stands in for Gary Falk. I mistakenly wrote David’s name one time in my post, but I have corrected this now. Thank you! I hope everything is clear now.