This book should have been called "What the Light Looked Like," but couldn't, since the title's been used before. That phrase is a leitmotif running through "The Art Lover"--though it is a childhood game that the characters play, it poses a melancholy question; it becomes a code phrase for painting, for visual perception.
As it happens, "The Art Lover" is a functional, descriptive title--the book is more a deconstructionist art gallery of the author's sensibility than a conventional novel. These pages contain photographs of artworks, art reviews, news reports, star charts, "found" and composed poems, botanical information. These "pieces" form a puzzle, an album of memories, though the style is in no way retrospective; it is as contemporary and self-conscious as a style can get in our post-structuralist age.
Still, "The Art Lover" has its literary ancestors, among them Virginia Woolf's "The Waves." Like "The Waves," the mood is elegiac, sensual, obsessed--with long passages of intoxicating beauty. "The Art Lover's" interior monologues succeed and fail for almost exactly the same reasons as Woolf's.
If the technique works, we can watch the elements of narrative and character "break apart," the way a painting can be analyzed, broken down into color, shape, symbol, light. We can see into the origins of character.
If the technique fails, the characters' thinking grows claustrophobic--the lyricism becomes mannered, self-aware, smothering.
"The Art Lover" does fail in places but also manages occasionally to succeed at its herculean literary task. Carole Maso carefully weaves her "symbolic" elements into the tapestry of the ordinary. Every inch of the "canvas" has integrity, like a Cezanne.
The novel presents over and over, like art lecture slides, the text-paintings we are to consider. We see again and again, through the narrator's eyes, a family picnic, a beach scene, fiddlehead ferns, a vision of Christ and Mary, an image from a William Carlos Williams poem, the "starburst" on a farmhouse door. Integrating these "signifiers," the narrator tracks her own imagination as it writes the novel.
The reader gradually comes to realize that the first scene we are presented with is the primal scene of the novel-to-be--like a detective, or a psychiatrist, the narrator tries to isolate where the danger or sorrow will come from in the "story":
I cannot guess yet how remote I, the onlooker,
I the one who is telling the story, have become,
how cautious. If there is a clue in this scene
of something about to go away, I do not see it.
I overlook it.
What cannot be overlooked, eventually, is the starburst window over the door of the house--which becomes the image of death, stroke, explosion, both figurative and literal, cutting into the novel's life and that of the narrator's.
The reader is faced with two family "histories," each having to do with a missing father. One family is the "invented" family of the novel (the one our narrator is writing), and this missing father is a composer. The second family is the narrator's family--the missing father here is an art historian and artist--and we gradually realize that he and the "invented" father of the novel are one in the narrator's mind. One father dies, the other father deserts his family. Like Chinese boxes, we see the first canvas being painted by the narrator (Caroline), then we step back and see that her story is being painted by the "real" narrator (the author herself)--who, in the book's final "revelation" uses her own name to further deconstruct the creative process. Sound confusing? Try to remember that we live in the age of literary gamesmanship.
What is finally being considered here is the entire process of making art, of acquiring perspective, of "gaining control" over what we represent through art and language--how we see and read ourselves and the politics of the visual.
There are numerous crypto- or sub-texts: These include the life of Christ, his relationship to his mother Mary, and his God-father; astronomy, relationships of the stars to each other in the heavens and their influence on characters; feminism, how "fathers" arrange the heavens, teach prescriptive views of art and thought (in fact "dispense" perception itself) and how the daughters change their lives in response to prescription; painters as killers-of-life; art restoration, and so on.
The Jesus-figures culminate in Gary, the friend afflicted with AIDS, who closes the book. It becomes clear that it is his death that the author has been circling from the beginning, his death that is the belated centerpiece of the canvas.
In their own moving version of the mother-and-son Pieta, the author touches Gary on his deathbed, realizing that he is blind:
"A few days before he died, he said, 'Carole, you'll never guess what.' He was so thrilled when I came to visit him that day. 'What is it, Gary?' I asked. 'It's the most miraculous thing,' he said. 'I can see again!' I put my left hand on his left hand and waved my other hand in front of him and realized that his eyes were darkened now with his wonderful and perfect sight."
The ending is symmetrical and emotionally right for this ambitious, unsettling book. It matters less, looking at the whole canvas, that the lyric passages lean to the purple, or that the mother-figures in the book are weak and one-dimensional. Like Woolf, Maso has found an innovative way to see, like a laser, into the human heart.