Artists at work
IN this sharp, finely crafted collection, Valerie Martin, author of the novels “Property” and “Mary Reilly,” leaves behind the historical to peer into the lives of modern-day artists -- painters, writers, dancers and actors. At once psychologically insightful and playful, Martin here strips away the romantic notions of the artist and satirizes the art world: An artist sleeps with a gallery owner to get a show and, when he becomes famous, paints imitations of his own work. Success usually means selling out. Art is salvation and vengeance on the world. Artists destroy or betray themselves or the people around them. Or life intervenes and their ambitions are thwarted. At their best, these intriguing stories catch us off guard and startle us with unexpected shifts and turns that expose the darkness of the artist’s psyche.
The narrator of “His Blue Period,” a painter who owes his modest success to a famous artist and former friend, recalls how in their bohemian days the friend cared only for his art and ruthlessly used everyone around him. The friend’s finest work -- his blue period -- began with a blue-green mini-landscape in the upper corner of a painting. The narrator, who was hopelessly in love with the friend’s devoted girlfriend, tells us that the blue “was draining the life out of [her], as if it was actually the color of her blood.” Martin masterfully turns this portrait of an artist’s monstrous egotism into something more complex with a surprising revelation about our gentle narrator. He is unreliable, clueless or possibly in denial. His failure to act on his love has dire consequences, suggesting that passivity can be as destructive as egotism.
“The Bower” seems a somewhat predictable tale of an affair between a married drama teacher and her gifted 21-year-old student who plays Hamlet in her production of the play. When he breaks off the affair, she weeps for how close she came to ruining her life. Again, it is the shocking ending that gives this fatalistic story its dark shape and weight. Eight years later, she finds out that her former student was in a car accident. The image of him as Hamlet in the bower, pondering whether “to be or not to be,” the audience already knowing that his fate is sealed, is juxtaposed with an image of him on the night of the accident, having no choice but to act the tragic part life gave him.
Sometimes Martin’s comments on art, particularly “the myopia of the narrator” in fiction, slyly refer to her own work. The disjunction between what narrators (as in “His Blue Period”) say and what we know or begin to suspect creates tension and humor. On a visit to his hometown of New Orleans, the narrator in the title story, a modestly famous writer, runs into his college girlfriend, who has become grotesquely overweight. Twenty years before, she was bewitching, uncompromising and a prodigious writer. He adored her, but she brutally betrayed him and ran off with a lesbian. Now, he is repelled by her “unappealing bulk,” the heft of her unfinished manuscript and her squalid house.
Almost surreal, she hardly seems a believable character, and this story, for all its cleverness, feels contrived. Her request for his help in selling antique Zuni pottery, which she picked up on a reservation in New Mexico during her reckless years of drifting and for which she claims to be an agent, is too bizarre and outlandish, he cynically tells us. We never find out the truth about this pottery.
Much is left unclear. Our myopic narrator is bitter and cannot be totally trusted. He is rankled by her charge that his success only proves that he has always been a coward in his life and his writing. She, however, is fearless (to the point of self-destruction) in both. Even after her death, she haunts him with her massive unfinished manuscript, which he -- suffering from writer’s block -- knows could be better than anything he could ever write.
While the narrators captivate us with their frankness and vulnerability, some of the other characters seem remote caricatures. In perhaps the weakest story here, “Beethoven,” the self-destructive artist we see through the eyes of his delightfully naive 20-year-old girlfriend, a waitress (the only nonartist narrator), remains cartoonish. Only the “perverse but unmistakable throb of dark desire” she feels for him at the end -- suggesting the attraction people feel for artists -- gives him and the story some depth.
What often makes these dark tales funny is Martin’s wickedly acerbic prose. In “The Open Door,” a lesbian poet ridicules one of her academic “archenemies,” who has “the sensitivity to language of a baseball bat.” At a poetry conference in Rome, she complains about the city’s “monuments to tyranny and superstition every twenty feet” and about her lover’s “hard-sell campaign” for Italy. In an unexpected twist, the poet is astounded when her lover (a dancer who, Martin writes, looks like a Frida Kahlo self-portrait without the neurosis) asks her to choose between remaining in Rome with her or returning to the Connecticut college where they both teach.
The strangest and most disturbing is the last story, “The Change,” which floats away into a surreal landscape. A writer thinks his wife, an engraver, is going through menopause. Irritable and unable to sleep, she is completely consumed with her increasingly dark engravings. But our expectations are upended: The artist disappears, and her husband and we as readers of the story confront an eerie and “wondrous sight” -- a metaphor for the recurring themes of the human cost and extraordinary transforming power of art. Martin has startled us again. *