Chick lit has come to bohemia, at least to judge from the handful of books that have recently arrived unbidden in the mail. I was immediately taken by the title character of The American Painter Emma Dial (W.W. Norton, $24.95), a novel by Los Angeles mother-of-two Samantha Peale. A 30-ish New York artist with striking gray hair and uncanny painting skills, Emma seems authentic to her core, and inhabits a quite believable contemporary bohemia set in SoHo, the East Village and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Though the mise-en-scène is convincing, the artworks Emma makes are not. She is the full-time assistant of a 50-plus male artist, self-centered and petty -- another spot-on characterization -- whose barracuda-like dealer sells his huge but essentially domesticated landscape paintings, works with titles like Spruce Grove (made wholly by Emma under his instruction), for a million dollars apiece. Lucien Freud as tree-painter, perhaps, or a one-note non-postmodernist Gerhard Richter?
The unlikely prospect that Emma’s ghost-painted works should be so much in demand, the savvy art-world reader thinks, may be just a simple demonstration of the distance between the imaginations of artists and writers. Better, though, is the hidden insight it offers into the construction of esthetic value. For no matter how accomplished our author’s rendering of people and plot in words on a page, she cannot create in fiction those unseen social and economic networks that seem to magically produce esthetic value in the real world.
As for Emma’s story, it turns out to be a fairly familiar one of self-discovery and rebirth. It had me hooked till about page 50, when it was revealed that she was carrying on a rather lackadaisical if callisthenic affair with her boss -- another bit of novelistic accuracy that nevertheless put me off the story right away. Missing from the book, I thought, were all the young male artists who in real life would be buzzing around this attractive female (this notion took me back to the ‘70s, when several young women of my acquaintance were willingly snapped up by much older successful artists, members of the Frank Stella-Douglas Huebler generation). As for our fictional Emma, it turns out she has eyes for still another dinosaur. Ah, you gals.
What’s the mirror image of realistic characters and phony artworks? Real art set in a ludicrous narrative. Such are the pleasures of author Elizabeth Robards’ With Violets (HarperCollins, $13.95), which purports to tell the story of Berthe Morisot, Impressionist painter and frequent model for Édouard Manet. With such fictionalizations, of course, it’s impossible to know what to believe -- and despite what the postmodernists might think, narrative doesn’t benefit from a confused reader, constantly wondering if the tale is just a bunch of stuff and nonsense. According to the promo copy on the back cover, Morisot became Manet’s lover. True? I asked a real-world Impressionism expert. "Surely not," he said via email.
In With Violets -- not the most comfortable book for a guy to read on the subway, by the way -- you can be sure of one thing: it’s set in France, as proven by the frequent use of French in the dialogue, as in "Bonjour, Mesdemoiselles," or "Au contraire," or the delightful "moi?" (Where did Miss Piggy come from?) More significantly, perhaps, our imaginary Berthe is one of fiction’s more unsettled characters, as the "mesmerizing, shameless rogue" -- that would be Manet -- "steals her breath," sends her stomach into "tight spirals," launches "feverish lurches of pleasure in her belly," "plunges her into deep water," etc., etc. and etc.
All this sugar shock practically shook the book from my hands, and it opened suddenly to one of the last chapters, which reprints in full Louis Levy’s epochal review of the 1874 Impressionist exhibition in Le Charivari (both Robards and Wikipedia seem to use the same translation). For me, that very contemporary text provides a better, and even more astonishing, suggestion of real life in the 19th-century French avant-garde.
What razzle-dazzle there is in Christiana Spens’ The Wrecking Ball (HarperCollins, $13.95) comes at the end, where one of the several characters who narrates the novel gets all trippy on a train (describing a sunset, of course): "Pink and gold painted over dusky cornflower blue, distance colored lazy angelic yellow, pale and deep at once, shades of smoggy gray touched with smudges and sparks of azure. . . ."
Such pyrotechnics are rare, however, as the book is a kind of unarticulated haze of desire, for partying, for alcohol and drugs, for affection and love. The narrative of this episodic novel, set in a hipster milieu in New York and London, is as formless as the lives of the nightclubbers who populate it, which makes it avant-garde, I suppose. The book isn’t about art, anyway, though it does capture certain after-dark aspects of the bohemian experience.
It turns out that the author is 19, and finished the book in three weeks, rather less time than it took Richard Brautigan to write In Watermelon Sugar, the whimsical trifle that passed for light literature back in 1969, when I was Spens’ age.
One more novel, easily the most substantial of them all, is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Pantheon, $24) by the prize-winning British author Geoff Dyer. Not exactly chick lit, obviously enough, the book still has a search-for-love narrative at its core (and don’t they all). Or a search for something, anyway, as the title might suggest. Jeff’s last name, Atman, is the Hindu term for the true soul, though I remember from my days as a devotee of Guru Maya that the Atman was likened to a too-busy consciousness, like a mouse in the walls of a house.
Jeff is British journalist, on assignment at the Venice Biennale, and his cynical observations are witty if familiar: "You came to Venice, you saw a ton of art, you went to parties, you drank up a storm, you talked bollocks for hours on end and went back to London with. . . a notebook almost devoid of notes. . . ." The narrative is authentic and fairly amusing, from Ruscha to risotto, with many pitch-perfect details drawn from the biennales of 2003-07.
A conscientious art-lover might sour on this sort of thing, however. Who wants a shallow, melancholy British journalist as a tour guide? But that would be the point, as the second half of the book finds our hero immersed in India, on his way to ascetic self-discovery. This spiritual travelogue seems quite real -- we’ve pretty much left the art scene behind, which is a relief at this point -- and in the end, Jeff becomes a prototypical Westerner reborn in the East. In my mind, it’s to Dyer’s credit that Jeff walks off into the sunset in his dhoti, possibly enlightened, possibly demented or possibly both.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.