A TALE OF TWO BOOKS
If you’re drawn to stories of the art world (and who isn’t?), the beauty and the money and the chicanery, you might have considered picking up the following books. For me, aspiring writer that I am, they illustrated some of the differences between rather ordinary storytelling and the remarkable. I didn’t set out to make such a comparison, but the rather startling weaknesses of the first were all the more apparent upon reading the second.
The Art Forger is a debut novel by B.A. Shapiro (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013). Glossy and sexy, the cover is clearly intended to draw the attention of what I’ll call the airport patron: quick choice, disposable, and full of positive reviews (“engaging”, “addictive”, “ingenious and skillful”, “blazingly good”, etc.). It was the subject matter, though, that drew this reader.
It’s a twist upon a twist in the art forgery sub-genre: Is the stolen, now-recovered Degas the original work or a forgery? If the latter, is making a forgery of a forgery a crime? It’s an interesting concept, and in more sure hands it might have been pulled off.
For me, the term “insouciance” came to mind. (I can’t tell you quite why this particular word. I don’t remember ever speaking it aloud, let alone using it while writing. As you will know, it means nonchalant; free from worry or concern; without care.) What I can say is this: though highly skilled as a painter, an art technician who can duplicate the work of others, I found Claire, the forger in whose point of view the story is told, to be uncomfortably vacant. She’s a chalice filled by the cleverness and schemes of the other characters in the book. She does not act on the world as much as be swept along without struggle, without much assessment of right or wrong, without much care but for a one-person showing of her own.
It’s hard to imagine the writer intended this trait for Claire, for it greatly flattens the emotional range of the story and the reader’s empathic response to her various plights. Emotional connection and empathy are currencies no author can afford to lose.
My second problem is this: there are at least two timely and fortunate (for her) but completely unsupported coincidences which work in Claire’s favor. In one, there’s a lawyer art-groupie who frequents the struggling artists’ hangout where Claire drinks with her frenemies. (My first time writing that word, too. Maybe also the last.) It turns out—unbeknownst to everyone, including the reader—that he’s a high-priced, in-charge corporate attorney in precisely the field of law where Claire finds herself in trouble. Where did that come from?
The premise of the book is tasty, but it turns out to be thin soup for an unsatisfied appetite.
The second book, the much better book, is The Painter, by Peter Heller (New York: Vintage Books, 2015). Here the word that comes to mind is “inhabited.” The protagonist, Jim Stegner, is fully inhabited, both in body and mind. You are fully inside him, an accomplished southwest artist full of troubles and passion and sentience and reflection and sudden, unthinking bursts of maybe or maybe not righteous violence. You are right there and along for the ride.
One of the many talents of Heller is to bring his character to a point of dramatic resolution and then, time after time, pull the rug out with a not unexpected but nonetheless surprising return to apprehension. Each such twist is supported by what has come before. He has an impressive ability as well to describe the mountain South West, and manages to treat it as one of his characters. It adds a depth and richness beyond the ordinary.
I rarely mark up a novel. This one I did, and in ink. I’ll return to it and mine it for language and technique, its nonconformist syntax, and its remarkable characterization.
This book’s got grit and muscle and gristle. It’s a great read.