The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall

(In an effort to ensure that all of Sarah Hall’s work is covered in some form on these pages, I am collecting all material I have written on Ms. Hall. What follows is an essay, which covered all of Hall’s fiction up to Daughters of the North and appeared elsewhere in slightly different form in 2008. Hall’s fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, was the subject of a roundtable discussion that was published on these pages during the week of September 7, 2009: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five. An essay on Sarah Hall’s fifth book, The Beautiful Indifference — infuriatingly without an American publication date, but available in the United Kingdom and Canada and well worth your time — is forthcoming. You can also listen to my one hour interview with Hall, conducted in 2008.)

Sarah Hall’s fiction ekes out a territory somewhere between Scarlett Thomas’s “novels of ideas” and David Mitchell’s narrative know-how. In her first two novels, Hall examined the dramatic effect that the construction of a reservoir has upon a small town (Haweswater) and chronicled a tattoo artist’s journey from a gritty English seaside resort to Coney Island, its fraternal twin across the Atlantic (The Electric Michelangelo). Her third, Daughters of the North, adopts aspects of dystopian fiction reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed, presenting a world in which women’s reproduction has been regulated, the economy has collapsed, and environmental resources have been whittled away. An isolated army of feminist revolutionaries represents slim hope for human progress: Daughters‘ futuristic time frame, its more concise prose, and its first-person perspective would appear, at a cursory glance, to be at odds with the 1930s settings, lengthy descriptive passages, and omniscient narration contained within Hall’s first two novels. But the novel represents both an extension and an evolution of what might be best perceived as a narrative inquiry into the relationship between humanity and environment.

This close connection is intimated by Hall’s tender attention to terrain. In Haweswater, the earth’s manipulation is an essential part of the story, with a river “redirected out of the lake — flowing within a man-made channel away from the heart of the building arena.” One of the women in Daughters has a “blue tattoo above her ear ran all the way around her skull, down the median of her neck, disappearing at the hem of her jersey.” These passages share a unique directional quality that provides a moody map for the reader, reflecting the deeply tactile manner in which Hall’s characters relate to their world.

But Hall’s characters must also contend with a constructed world of their own making, a topographical tapestry of makeshift structures and occupied edifices, closing in. Michelangelo‘s hero is mostly confined to a hotel and tattoo tents. In Daughters, an initiation ceremony involves throwing a new revolutionary recruit into a dog box for a period of time. And the harsh price to pay for this self-actuated world is not unlike that embodied by the child in Ursula K. Le Guin’s philosophical essay “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” who is forced to live in a small, squalid room so that others might enjoy a constructed utopia.

The body itself is frequently as scarred as Hall’s environments. Haweswater‘s main character, the farmer turned anti-reservoir activist Janet Lightburn, has a star indentation on her forehead, the result of a bullock’s kick and “a reminder that her life has included the sporadic brutality of her family’s trade.” Likewise, in Daughters, one of the female soldiers has a dent in her forehead, described as “the mark of a perpetual frown, an expression that seemed to be worn perhaps even when she did not mean for it to be present.” In both cases, the mark serves not so much as a stigma but as a proud physical badge of hard work. It’s as if these women are the new Zeuses of the landscape, with untold deities springing from their foreheads to follow in their footsteps.

Michelangelo‘s chief protagonist, Cy Parks, grows up in Morecambe, working with his mother in a hotel for consumptives. He is horrified by the bloody basins he must collect in the halls, but this leads him to be relatively inured when he serves as an apprentice to Frank Riley, a bawdy tattoo artist who teaches him his artistic skills. Interestingly enough, Cy’s mother shares the steely fortitude of Haweswater‘s Ella, who is Janet’s mother. Ella likewise contends with the visceral horrors of nurturing the wounded when serving as a World War I nurse but has no problem inhabiting this “brutal landscape of the mind.” Indeed, Hall’s female characters are often stronger than their male counterparts. During Cy’s encounter with a dissatisfied customer, Grace stops this contentious banter with the flash of a knife, telling Cy shortly afterward, “You are a kind man. I think if you ever truly had to sting someone, you wouldn’t survive it.”

Hall’s environments sometimes take on the metaphorical characteristics of a body. In Michelangelo, Coney Island is a “fat, expensively dressed in-law with a wicket smile and the tendency, once caught up in the mood, to take things too far.” That both Coney Island and Morecambe are “made up of a multitude of interdependent entertainment cells designed to remove a person from the dimension of ordinary life” suggests that these vacation spots are not so much living and breathing organisms, but complex environments presenting alternative ways of living to the commonwealth. And if this desire for an alternative existence is so seductive, it might also explain what causes Daughters‘ protagonist, Sister, to venture northward to Carhullan, a farming community run by an idealist with the telling “Tricky Dick” name of Jackie Nixon.

But as these environments become anthropomorphized, the faces of Hall’s characters, in turn, reflect the fierce qualities of landscape. In considering a career-ending assault upon Riley, Michelangelo‘s Cy notices “how a man’s face in barbarity will show traces of compassion even though it is already determined in its fulfillment of cruelty.” When Cy first meets Grace, the muse he falls in love with, Grace’s face is described as “pale and vividly sloped.” Pages later, Hall observes that “the face under the make-up seemed not be hers.” As Grace watches Cy draft a sea of illustrated eyes upon her body, her face one rare part of the canvas left bare, Hall describes the “dark red hair pinned back off her recessive face.” The phrase invokes “the old distinguished grace” of Yeats’s “Upon a Dying Lady”, who reclines “her lovely piteous head amid dull red hair….rouge on the pallor of her face.”

Equally important in this interdependent relationship is the way that Hall, in her first two novels, separated her descriptive prose from the chatty islets of her dialogue, as if unable to unite these components into a singular narrative landscape. But in Daughters, Hall began merging dialogue and description within the same paragraph, causing an altogether different postmodern device to emerge from this blending. The novel, which is the fictional statement of a female prisoner, has much of its “data lost.” And this lost testimony involves unseen violence. This is a particularly striking elision, considering the grisly consumptives and tattoo customers in Michelangelo and the brutal deaths of expendable reservoir workers in Haweswater. Hall appears to be sharpening her own formidable talents for novels of greater complexity and accessibility. There may be masterpieces in the future, but, in the meantime, these three fine novels present a great novelist in bloom.

Reminder: Live Conversation with Sarah Hall on Tuesday!

sarahhall2This is a quick reminder that Sarah Hall and I will be in conversation tomorrow night (i.e., the evening of the week commonly referred to as Tuesday) at McNally Jackson at 7:00 PM. Since there is a good deal of weather within Hall’s most recent novel and weather forms the bedrock of all good small talk, it is very likely that we will be introducing meteorological patterns, either literally or figuratively, into the conversation at some point.

Hall’s fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, was the subject of a roundtable discussion on these pages. And I should point out that this conversation will not be recorded or released as a future Segundo show. This is a “one night only” performance.

For background information on Hall, you can listen to my previous conversation with her from last year. I also wrote about Sarah Hall’s first three novels for the Barnes & Noble Review.

Live Conversation with Sarah Hall — November 3, 2009

The Bat Segundo Show may be on temporary hiatus (with several shows still in the backlog). But that doesn’t mean that I’m not talking with authors. Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man (the subject of a recent roundtable discussion on these pages), will be coming through New York. She’ll be appearing at McNally Jackson on November 3, 2009 at 7:00 PM, where I will be chatting with her about her fourth novel.

Please note that this conversation will not be recorded or released as a future Segundo show. I am remaining a stickler about my hiatus. Thankfully, this particular conversation is permissible through a technicality. So here’s a chance to see the Segundo format unfold in real time with a very talented writer. Feel free to stop by on November 3rd for some high-octane conversation.

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Five

(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Many thanks to all the participants, to Gregory Henry at Harper for getting the books out to everyone so quickly, and to Sarah Hall for her gracious eleventh-hour participation.

Judith Zissman writes:

hallrt5Ed started us out with this, among other things: “This does raise the question of whether this structural tension stacks the deck against the reader.” And I was intrigued to follow that thread through your commentary — many of you commented on the beautiful but chilly still life of words Hall paints here, and her overtly formal techniques.

I like this kind of effort, and the way that the work itself becomes about representational strategies as much as it is about plot or character or other elements. The book asks the reader to participate in the act of making meaning, much in the same way that visual artists demand the viewer’s collaboration. When I was thinking about curating art to character, I found myself immediately thinking of Cindy Sherman’s work for Susan — the questions of archetype, sexuality, surfaces that thread through Sherman’s work are in part the questions Hall assigns to Susan.

Annette, too, feels archetypal to me – as Kathleen says, the title of her section gives it away (I picture her as The Blind Girl in the famous Millais painting, in that glowing light of divine vision). And knowing that, being handed the playbook for each of those characters up front, all at once as in a painting (as Brian points out), I was still interested in watching those sections unfold. I found them captivating.

I was less captivated by Giorgio, and less still by Peter. In each case, I felt less to explore under the surface than with the women, and I was less interested in their archetypal qualities. I suspect I’d be less interested in their paintings as well (Giorgio seems clearly to be Giorgio Morandi, yes? I couldn’t quite match Peter — did you have any luck with that, Peggy?), and am interested to see the broad split in our roundtable between those of us who thought the Susan sections most successful and those who thought them least
successful.

To me, the Susan sections were successful precisely because they asked so much of the reader: you (yes, you!) must insert yourself in to the work directly or actively resist that insertion – it’s a bold start to the novel and then unrelenting throughout. You are asked to be present for Susan’s wrenching pain, her transgressions and carnality. You’re not allowed to look away.

Peter’s foot stuck in the rock? Not so boldly compelling.

Of Hall’s other work, I’ve only read Daughters of the North, which shares with HtPaDM the strong female archetypes, the gorgeous Cumbrian landscape and the exquisite mastery of language. That work is definitely more plot-driven, but still quite formally experimental. I’m curious to read her other two books, and will do so next.

(Speaking of curiousity, and tangents, I’m amused that on Harper Collins’ web page for HtPaDM, the blurb for “New Books Similar to This One” suggests The Tenth Justice By Brad Meltzer: “Landing a prestigious position as a Supreme Court clerk fresh out of Yale Law, Ben Addison is on the ultra-fast track to success—until he inadvertently shares a classified secret with the wrong listener. And now the anonymous blackmailer who made a killing with Ben’s information is demanding…” Hee.)

Thanks for the invitation to participate. I’ve so enjoyed reading collaboratively with all of you.

Anne Fernald writes:

It’s been alternately moving, exasperating, and impressive to read through all these comments from beginning to end just now. But, as others have said, it has been a lot of fun to read this book along with you & I am grateful to Ed for including me in this experience.
 
Since I’m such a slow reader and such a terrible procrastinator, I saw these emails coming in, one at a time, over the past two weeks and saw many, many of them expressing frustration and even strong dislike for the book.
 
This took me by surprise.
 
I loved this book. And often, I haven’t been thrilled by Ed’s picks, so this was a lovely, welcome read. Sarah Hall is new to me and I am happy to have discovered her.
 
As Ed mentioned at the start, I’m a Woolf scholar. It’s probably no surprise, then, that what matters to me most is not plot: I don’t care at all if a novel has a plot. I do care about voice, about what Woolf called “tunneling,” that sense that characters have lives that stretch back before their novels. I care about careful sentences. Ed suggested “this book is something of an interesting rupture between the modern novel of consciousness and the postmodern novel of playful structure.” It doesn’t feel like a “rupture” at all to me, so I’ll quibble there, but I do think that this novel benefits from both modern and postmodern novelistic traditions.
 
Miracle finds this a cold book. To me, it’s a lonely book, but not a cold one. Hall seems to care about her characters: Peter and Susan reflect on their misdeeds in ways that suggest a strong ethical sense without passing judgment on them. She even offers Susan a complicated chance at redemption on the book’s final page. I don’t think a cold book would set Susan in motion, grieving for her dead brother, behaving badly, trying to find her way back toward life and feeling, and give her such a measured bit of hope at the end.
 
I was really struck by Peggy, Jenny & Traver’s critiques because they were so funny and, in being full of wit and energy, I found them hard to disagree with. When Traver writes that he was put off by “fancy prose clouds of florid fucking” and the “genteel exoticism” of the Italian sections, I see what he means. And Peggy’s incredulous, impatient “ “Italian villa plus cleaning woman, anyone?  Eat Pray Paint?” made me laugh out loud. Still, and in spite of the fact that I’m not much for erotic novels, I really loved the sex scenes and the way Hall had Susan use them to grope her way back to feeling. I really loved the description of her lover grabbing her bottom and splitting it like he was sectioning a fruit. Typically embarrassed by such comparisons, I found this one sexy and funny: a great way to revive the cliché about apple and peach bottoms.
 
I share Jenny’s distaste for writing bad reviews, so I had all the more admiration for the way she eased herself into the distaste. And, again, I guess I can see the stereotyping in the Giorgio chapters, but I didn’t mind it. Nor did I mind the fact that some of what he wrote didn’t really seem like the way a painter would talk about his work. Again, perhaps that comes from being a Woolf scholar, having spent decades thinking about Lily Briscoe and Woolf’s ventriloquizing of a painter: whatever Lily may say that’s odd, Woolf’s sister found it spot on. And she was a painter.
 
The Giorgio chapters, though, were vivid to me (though not my favorite narrative) because I recognized early on that they must be based on Giorgio Morandi, something the title page note confirms. Though I get to the Met much less often than I would like, my daughter, 6, and I spent a day there last January. We stumbled upon the Morandi show. She had her sketch pad with her and was determined to draw, so I spent a long half hour in the small show. The paintings, grey and tan still lives of bottles, grew on me, as did the sense of this artist as a great painter and a cold, quiet man. Wandering through the galleries while my little girl sketched Morandi’s paintings of bottles was a deeply moving experience for me and Hall got the benefit of some of those very powerful and wonderful feelings as I read her book.
 
Though the communist teacher admires him, I never thought him a communist: the teacher is always apologetic and firmly aesthetic in the terms of her admiration, always defending him against detractors. Morandi died in 1964, at a time when communism in Europe still had cachet and credibility among the elite. I did a little checking and confirmed my suspicions: Morandi had fascist sympathies, as this Yale Press book seems to explore.
 
I was fascinated by the narrative of Annette: I love the idea of a girl trying to escape the confines of  a Catholic village and I think the added complication of blindness allowed Hall to really explore that difficulty with added intensity.
 
I loved how seriously the book took Susan’s grief. As Jenny is a fan of books about twins, I enjoy reading about grief. Maybe I think I can inoculate myself against the inevitable. In any case, her descriptions of the unsettling sense of detachment from one’s own body resonated deeply with me. As someone said, for me, too, grief happens in the gut and intense sorrow seems to swaddle me away from life and from color.
 
But my favorite and the funniest was Peter’s narrative. I love taking this big, funny, lout and trapping him in a rock with only his mind to race as maniacally as all of him usually races. And rich and funny that this painter of rocks is named for the rock, Peter.
 
I also love the subtle feminism: the way that the shadowy women behind Peter and Giorgio and Annette are given enough of a life for us to know that they suffer, that their lives stink for being interconnected with these jerky men who don’t really sufficiently notice them. Someone else said that the second-person works to ratify women readers. I felt that, throughout the book, Hall really was imagining the suffering of the characters on the margins — male and female — in ways that struck me as feminist. I don’t simply mean empathetic, though that’s a big part of it: I mean deeply conscious of gender roles as they shift over time and the pain that we all suffer (including poor Nathan) from being trapped by cultural expectations.
 
This is a deeply Woolfian book and I loved it for that. I also found myself thinking fondly back on a much less-known and more middlebrow writer who writes about painting and grief: Sue Gee. I’m a big fan of hers and her Earth and Heaven, about artists at the Slade after WWI and the death of a child, was deeply, deeply moving to me. It shares with Sarah Hall a sense of some kind of complicated connection between art and grief: a refusal to make an easy equation, a refusal to make a choice, but an interest in how art takes from and gives back to life: that parents who are artists miss some of their children’s lives, but that they also have a way of mourning that loss that matters beyond themselves. My former professor and friend Harriet Chessman’s novel about Mary Cassat, Lydia Cassat Reading the Morning Paper, also treats similar themes with beauty.
 
I’ve already recommended this book to several friends. It gave me a lot to think about. As did our discussion! Thanks, all!

Peggy Nelson writes:

mountain1

mountain2

mountain3

So here are what I thought might be “Peter’s mountains!”   I was in Venice to see the Biennale, and saw the paintings there. They are by Daniele Galliano and all are 2009, interestingly enough.  The canvases were big enough, about 300 cm wide, so that you’d need your whole arm to paint it, and would need to stand back often to judge the effect of the whole.  But why I thought of Peter here was that the brushstrokes were bold and obvious, I think Peter would not be so much about blending things as the big feeling and the big gesture – but also conveyed a sense of geology.  He’s someone emotionally involved with nature in all its forms (family, quarry, feelings), and I think he would want to make the connection between a brushstroke that he “just feels,” and the sedimentary layers that are actually there!  (Note however, the fish as the priest’s headress/vestments – that’s not a Peter thing, too funny, too symbolic.)

I do like Judith’s suggestion of Cindy Sherman-type work for Susan.  Also, I did see something in an Australian art magazine, Art World (issue #12) that made me think of Susan as well, but stupidly I left the issue behind because I was stressing about my bags being too heavy again. Anyway these were wall-sized photographic diptychs, one side of which featured a contemporary person, alone or with a bag, barefoot, devoid of expression, while the other side showed shots of walls and angles in empty malls.  It sounds too clever and cold, but the visual impact was good, perhaps because of the lighting, the collection of angles, or the not-quite-expressionless faces, which allowed one to project psychological depth.  Actually, now that I’m describing them, it kind of sounds like Hall’s project as well!

Anne, Morandi is a great mapping for Giorgio!  (In my mind’s eye I kept thinking Manet’s “Asparagus,” if spears were actually bottles  😉

I had such terrible internet connections while traveling that I felt a bit like Peter in the rock (oh no, just got the religious pun there.  arrrrgh), knowing all sorts of interesting things were happening in this discussion, yet unable to participate b/c my connection kept getting dropped.  Did anyone else think Peter’s predicament a metaphor for castration?  I mean the appendage, his name, the balance with the other characters’ sexuality either acting out or repressed . . . We once had an entire lecture in Contemporary Art Theory about Castration Metaphors in Star Wars.  Interestingly, our lecturer had turned his polo collar UP.  Not sure he realized . . . Anyway, I thought it was the falsest note of the book to pen Peter in like that.  Especially when we have the recent example of that guy who actually did use a penknife to amputate his arm to escape from a canyon (in Utah?), and then wrote really beautifully about the horrifying experience.  Find another way to show us the flashbacks, I wanted to insist to Hall.

Miracle, I think your observation about the language of art criticism being the closest thing we have to spiritual philosophy is right on.  I’m not even a spiritual person, but I agree that that language holds that place in the culture, no matter how secular one personally is.  And thanks to Kathleen, I now have a much greater appreciation of Catholicism as a theme in the book, which I had skimmed over the first time.  I do think Annette died, and her Vision is commensurate with the divine images of the martyrs, turning their eyes upward while dying, in pain yet in thrall to a more beautiful picture above.  That kind of stuff pretty much drives me absolutely bats (not *another picture of Mary and Jesus looking “abstracted”), but because of that, I missed it as a theme the first time around.

Like Michael I was also reminded of films while reading it, maybe La Terra Trema for Italy fore and aft?  And Traver, what do you think: an Austin Powers/Blow Up mashup for Peter’s world?

I have also been thinking about what Kathleen and a few others of us said about a consistent authorial voice, and how for some works, or for some writers, that is not only ok, but desirable: mentioned were Roth, O’Connor, Dick, Woolf, and others.  And that made me pause, because I do agree with that.  So I reconsidered why I had reacted so strongly against it here, in Hall’s book.  It may be because I really wanted action, although in Virginia Woolf I do not mind the serious lack of plot.  But it may be that the combination of Hall’s beautiful yet somnolent voice, and her choice of still lives as subject matter, enabled the weakest qualities in each, like partners in a dysfunctional relationship.  I am again drawn to her including the Renaissance art manual as a coda, in which the importance of choosing different colors is stressed.  I think Hall has the answer to her puzzle-box there, but repressed the insight and abreacted it into this novel instead.

Sarah Hall responds:

First let me say how delighted I am that How To Paint A Dead Man has been part of this roundtable discussion. The reading responses have been fascinating, as have the wonderfully tangential avenues down which the discussion has ranged.

Every human state exists in life, and I guess the book tries to be a life study before it is an art study, which does not accord with some of the things that have been suggested: quite the opposite, in fact. I wanted to reflect states of being and ways of contracting with the world. We all live. We all die. We all love and lose and create and question and make meaning in between. For me, the book absolutely does not say that the meaning – the art – that we struggle to make is meaningless when set beside the life.

The exhibition that Susan curates, and initially disapproves of, about the personal lives and artefacts of artists, explores the desire we seem to have to hold practitioners up against their work, to have them explain the work, and often be commensurate to it. It might be worth me saying that what I think and what Susan thinks is rarely the same thing. It seems troublesome to mix up the work and the worker, which is part of the problem that I thought How to Paint a Dead Man explored. It worries me that an exploration of the problem seems to have been mistaken for the problem itself.

Life has few neat arrangements, answers or conclusions, except the great inevitable conclusion. Perhaps it’s a risk not to provide the reader with the level of consoling solvency much literature has conditioned us to expect. The most externally dramatic character interactions and outcomes, written for the sake of convention or superficially to ‘make something happen’ or ‘develop a character’, would have ill suited this novel; it is more of a speculative book, and my preoccupation was with character interiority and investigation. My own preference as a reader is simply to feel accompanied in my life’s experience by fiction, to feel that a novel is a companionable, resonant thing, a reflection of life’s complexity and opacity, rather than a reassuring guidebook with trite answers, or a theatrical set piece with a neat ending. Such are my reading preferences, and such was this project. This is why, for example, I wasn’t worried about the undermined jeopardy of Peter’s predicament. He survives the mountain ordeal – we know this because his story is set in the early 1990’s and he is alive in Susan’s narrative, which is set in present day London. His story is not really a does-he-doesn’t-he-get-out-of-the-mountain-trap story. The trap is the trap of himself, his life, his history and experiences. Can any of us escape this? How might we reconcile ourselves with our own traps?

At one point during the editing I went through and tried to tie the stories together a little more. But the narratives became too contrived and it seemed like such an insult to the intelligence and connecting skills of the readers that I reverted back to a version featuring independent but cross-resonating stories. The version of the manuscript published is the most successful version of the book, the most ‘true’ to itself and to its original ambitions. I do feel – as did those trusted others with whom I consulted during composition – that there are enough deliberate and straightforward connections in the book. Some are subtle, tucked away, and I hope satisfying to discover or uncover (Tom, Tommaso, hyacinths, erotic suffocation). The main characters do feature in each other’s stories, and the narratives all ask the same questions and explore similar ground: how shall we live? Who am I? What meaning is there in this world?

Annette’s story is essentially a dark folk tale. It still employs a degree of ‘realism’ but there seemed fewer requirements for absolute reality. High-resolution, if and when it is used, is used in Annette’s imaginative realm. Also the world in which Annette operates – she is blind and her experiential development has been arrested by her family – is a world of the senses, and of the mind’s eye. Not only of the mind’s eye, but also of the black hole – of the unspeakable powers beneath our impulse to represent, and make the world. The Bestia is there, only just held in check, in each of the four stories.

The sense of the second-person address being the right expression for Susan was intuitive too. That first line, ‘You aren’t feeling like yourself’, I think wrong-foots the reader but also contains its own strange logic when the reader discovers what’s going on with this character – the displacement of her identity. The second person asks the reader to think about who is speaking (or perhaps thinking) the story, and it also asks who is being spoken to. It is an imperative but it is also inclusive. Susan herself is made more remote through the device in a way, while the reader is implicated. Susan’s story, though it is about personal descent and dislocation, I hope really encompasses those modern anxieties we might have about how to be in the world, how to know and be ourselves, and how, despite ourselves, we might make something lasting. This is why I opened and closed the novel with Susan.

I think I can, with a somewhat European sensibility perhaps, become deeply involved with the ideas and philosophies at play in the work, rather than dishing up straight brazen plots and transparent prose. Critics have felt that I haven’t always succeeded in my work, that I’ve fallen off my own tightrope, and that’s likely true, but I guess I would rather try to be ambitious than not – isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

The book is not really trying to be like a painting, or to use language to evoke, echo, or embody visual art. I would caution against imposing a particular art historical or practical art theory, frame or critique on the author’s motivations and operations – there simply is not one at work in the text. It’s always odd and quite difficult to talk of the influences and scaffolding surrounding a novel. I am not so conscious of them. The novel is a world in itself, grown by its own inner insistences. The drafting and editing choices or instincts occur in accordance with that world’s habitat. Once a novel is completed those interior pathways, every one of which I felt I had fully explored at the time, seem terribly overgrown. Please forgive my inability to be more articulate, more revealing, or perhaps even more curious, about my own creative and constructive process. As I see it my duty is to articulacy in the work, in the fiction. I have no rigid academic take on my literary interests and motivations, creative imperatives or systems. Nor are the books academic fictions. The reader is free, and most warmly invited, to interpret the ideas, meanings, and structures of this book using whatever tools, theories, experiences, emotions, and intellectual faculties they possess and prefer to use.

The novel’s language was a natural and fluent expression for me, a way to tell the stories, a way to evoke and extrapolate. First drafts look very similar to later drafts as far as sentences, descriptive images, and metaphors go, though there are of course cuts, additions and refinements along the way. I’ve never viewed richer language or poetry as a barrier between the book and a reader –- any reader. I don’t consider this work to be exclusive. Literature can be rich and layered. It can also be plain and one-dimensional. It’s up to a reader to decide which kind they want in their diet, and there’s no telling who wants what.

In the end I think literary fiction is, and must be, divisive, because it is particular, often has identifiable stylistic DNA, takes risks, issues challenges, isn’t always comfortable, doesn’t always pitch an easy entertainment, and is imperfect. I know, fundamentally, that this book is, that all my books are, not to everyone’s taste. How To Paint A Dead Man won’t work for everyone. What else can I say? If it’s too cold, read it by the fire. If it’s too hot, put some ice on your neck. But thank you, sincerely, for reading it.

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Four

(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Jenny Davidson writes:

hallrt4Ugh, I am feeling awful about this — I don’t like writing negative reviews, I’ve been dragging my heels on finishing the book and writing a few thoughts for your consideration – but now that I’ve finished reading it, I will have to say that I pretty strongly disliked it!  I found both of the Italian “voices” almost intolerably artificial/stereotypical feeling — I particularly loathed the Bottle Diaries, which seemed to me much more like a non-artist’s view of what an artist might think like than anything actually insightful or persuasive or striking about art, but I found the Annette chapters also overly fey and affected.

I had nothing against the second-person voice used for the Susan bits, and I am interested in novels about twins, but I realized that though I felt that voice does an effective job for the novel of establishing mood/sensibility, I would have had a higher tolerance for it had it been used to narrate, say, a thriller/mystery plot.  And the Peter chapters seemed to me the most successful on Hall’s own terms, with a more complex character and voice and narrative structure, only I found him singularly annoying as a character as well!

In short, I am clearly not the ideal reader for this book.  Hall is a very skilled crafter of sentences, of course, and yet there is nothing magical about them for me, they do not take off and become transcendent, there does not seem to be some insight motivating them or even just the sound of language in some striking new way.  Anyway, I’ll now just put together a pair of paragraphs, my least favorite and the one that I liked the best in the book, to show more concretely what I see these weaknesses as being.

A good example of what I really didn’t like about the Bottle Diaries chapter falls on p. 72, the two paragraphs beginning “The room has gained infamy with very little help from me.”  The diction, with its air of having been translated, seems to me portentous but bland; there is something smug or self-satisfied, to my ear, in this ostentatious pondering on art.

A good example of what I liked — a paragraph that definitely stood out to me, although I still don’t think that the sentences themselves (the diction, the style) are as distinctive as what I see in the writers I most enjoy (Peter Temple, for instance, who I have been reading again recently) — the description of Susan and her lover stripping wallpaper and accidentally dislodging an old wasps’ nest (p. 257):

It was a hot summer.  The windows were open and one or two wasps had been drilling about the place.  Then Tom found the grey, cindery pocket in a wall cavity, and, thinking it was disused, he began to chip between its seal and the plaster.  Suddenly the air was swarming.  For a moment he was paralysed as the insects rushed and scribbled above the nest.  Gesu Cristo!  He picked up a decorating sheet, threw it over the two of you, and you stumbled from the room,s lamming the door closed.  Are you stung? No.  Nor am I.  Underneath the sheet he smelled of sweat and dust.  You could hear the wasps as they flew against the other side of the door, rapping softly like fingertips.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Anna and Kathleen: Your posts made me wish that I’d been more careful when writing my first post, and made me rethink some of the points I made altogether.

Anna, when I read your post, I felt an instant camaraderie. Usually, I’m one of those readers for whom the writing style is everything: If the writing is superb, I don’t care about anything else. And I found myself nodding in agreement with everything you said, even as doing so contradicted what I’d already said. Also Kathleen, I agree with you re: plot as well (especially since I stumbled across Lev Grossman’s WSJ piece). Though I like plots as much as the next reader, I’m not a plotmonger the way Grossman appears to be, nor do I think books without them are necessarily somehow inferior. I also realized, as I thought about it more, that my idea of a plot is pretty minimal. Someone mentioned Virginia Woolf; I really like her and think the interpersonal relationships she develops are plot enough. And have y’all seen the movie The Straight Story? Old guy drives across Iowa and Wisconsin in a tractor, meets people. Or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine? Guy rides escalator, thinks about stuff. That’s more than enough plot for me.

So why did I get fidgety? (Because I did, I can’t take that back.) Were I to start my post all over again, I would have foregone the concept of plot (which I ran with as far as I could in my caffeine-addled state) for the looser idea of movement. Which allows me to say a more concise thing about How to Paint a Dead Man than I managed to before.

In essence, Hall’s concept runs into a paraphrase of the old expression: Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture, and it has to do with the way you experience the two forms. You take in a painting, to some extent, all at once. Sure, you may linger over it, examine details, return to it later, but the experience of looking at a painting or photograph is basically one point in time. A novel, meanwhile, is stubbornly linear–you can’t see the whole all at once, and grasping the whole requires time–a lot more time than most people would spend looking at one painting. So using one to mimic the other is, conceptually speaking, pretty awkward (unlike, say, books about music–see the entire 33 1/3 series–or paintings about a specific moment in history). Put another way: What would a single painting that tried to mimic the experience of reading a novel look like?

I’m not saying anything profound here, and I imagine Hall thought about this a great deal as she set herself a kind of impossible task, intentionally picking up the wrong tool for the job, like grabbing a screwdriver when you need to bang in a nail. That she pulled it off at all is a real achievement; that she did it so cleanly is pretty miraculous. (I say this as someone who has actually used a screwdriver to bang in a nail; it’s not a good idea.) But still, the two concepts, writing and painting, are awkward bedfellows, and what made me fidgety, I understand now, was the lack not of plot, but of apparent movement. For so much of the book, the main characters are trapped–Peter literally so, others figuratively, and yeah, the tension definitely builds because of it. Hall does release us from it–in the final sections for each character, each one is freed from whatever has been trapping them–but perhaps the characters were stuck just a little too long for this particular reader.

That said, reading what I wrote, I realize that this is a small complaint about an otherwise quite impressive novel. And the more I hear what others say about the book–both positive and negative–the more HTPADM is growing on me. I suspect, too, that HTPADM is a book that would richly reward a second or third reading. For me, a second reading would be all about exploring the connections among the characters — a few of which I missed the first time (e.g., that Tom is Annette’s brother — that was a real “of course!” forehead-slapper for me when a couple people mentioned it)–and it’s quite possible that this kind of reading would reveal in HTPADM the sense of movement that I like when I read books.

P.S. Miracle, I love that you lumped Atlas Shrugged, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Battlefield Earth together. That’s a beautiful thing. Also, I can’t believe you don’t think Zep rules.

Michael Schaub writes:

While trying to figure out what to write about this, I kept going back to Ed’s suggestion that we all respond to books subjectively, and Brian’s great “ambitious little prick” moment (awesome) where his professor talked about the difference, such as it is, between admiration and love. (Which is not to say the two are mutually exclusive.) After I finished reading How to Paint a Dead Man, I realized that I’d have to read everything else I could find by Sarah Hall. I realized she was an undeniable talent and an extraordinarily gifted young writer. I admire her.

And I admire parts of this book. But I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t enjoy it, though there were parts I found interesting, and sections that were beautifully rendered. My reaction comes closest, I think, to Jenny’s – she and I were bothered by at least one of the same things: the chapters dealing with Annette and Giorgio, which we both found artificial. I did think that Hall did a great job in making Giorgio’s sections sound like English translated from the Italian, which has to be hard to pull off, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the reclusive master painter and the poor blind flower girl were stock characters in an Italy-romanticizing movie from the past. I actually wasn’t convinced at all that Giorgio and Annette were necessary as characters in this novel; they struck me as flat, especially compared to how well Suzie was rendered (and, to a lesser extent, Peter).

I loved, for the most part, Suzie’s chapters. Like Abigail, I wasn’t bothered by the second person – frankly, I didn’t even really notice it for a while – and I thought the conceit made sense given the questions of identity and twinhood (is that a word? It is now!) that the book raised. The most striking parts of Suzie’s installments, I thought, were the sex scenes – not for any licentious reasons; it’s hard to imagine colder, less prurient writing about sex than these. I loved them because they were cold -– I think that’s a word Miracle used, aptly, to describe the book. My problem with the book as a whole was that when it was cold, I wanted it to be colder. And when it was warm and sentimental, I missed the coldness.

I wonder if the book wouldn’t have worked better –- for me, anyway -– if Hall had stuck to just Suzie. Of course, this would have made it a different book entirely, so it’s not the most helpful criticism to make. Peter’s chapters almost worked for me; I lost him, though, when Raymie was introduced as a character, near the end. Raymie couldn’t have been more flat – she came across like the saddest character in the saddest Velvet Underground song ever written. The whole ‘60s reminiscing thing left me unconvinced.

But I want to get back to Ed’s point about judging this book subjectively. I have no doubt that at least 90% of my reaction to this book – both negative and positive – is purely subjective, purely personal. For a long time, I’ve been unable to read books, watch movies, even listen to songs that mention the death of a sibling. I haven’t been as unlucky as Suzie, but I came close, not long ago, and considering this kind of thing still unsettles me, nauseates me, makes me turn away.

Is that why I found the book off-putting? I have no idea. I’ve considered other possibilities, especially after reading the positive reactions from all the intimidatingly smart people taking part in this discussion. There are very few subjects about which I know less than visual art; I love it, but I’m as unlearned as you can possibly be on the subject and still be a high school graduate. I’m an American with a pitiful lack of knowledge of Europe. Did any of that make me miss something?

I don’t know. And I hate to keep saying that -– it sounds, to me, like a critical abdication, but it’s where I am as a reader right now. I wonder, though – to paraphrase the “eggshell skull” rule in law –- if authors and books have to take their readers as they find them, with all their blind spots and vulnerabilities and fields of ignorance.

I do know that Hall is gifted, and I do look forward to reading her other work. I’d love to see her indulge her sense of humor more (did anyone notice the reference to a misheard Stone Roses lyric in one of Peter’s chapters?), and I’d love to see her focus more –- I think my problems with the book stem from the fact that Hall, I’m guessing, thinks quickly, and thinks a lot, and the end result here wasn’t as tied together as I would have hoped.

Maybe, of course, the fractured nature of this book was supposed to be discomfiting. It reminds me of Annette’s mother reassuring her that no furniture would ever be moved in the house: “Nothing will be rearranged. There. Doesn’t that make you feel safe?” Safety, it turns out, isn’t really the point.

Amy Riley writes:

This discussion has been very interesting to read, as I’m fairly certain I would never have even considered the majority of the points raised if I had simply read this on my own.  To be completely honest,  I may not have even finished the book.

Which is not to say I didn’t like it.  There were times I actually looked forward to turning the page.  On a few occasions, I thought about skipping ahead to the next section of whichever narrative I was on, because from a plot standpoint I didn’t think it would make a lot of difference.  

The use of second person didn’t bother me but I don’t know if that’s because I found Suzie’s narrative one of the more tolerable ones to read or not!  It did make sense to use it for her…after all in her opening pages is a discussion of how people don’t use “I’ anymore because they “do not want to be involved in the desperate act of being.’  Suzie fits right into that in her grief she has lost her sense of self and connection.  She was only “I’ in relation to Danny, once Danny was gone who was Suzie?   I also looked forward to Annette’s sections, though I found her death bizarre.  The overall structure…the fact that the individual stories were only loosely linked and spanned years wouldn’t bother me on it’s own and in fact was one of the reasons I wanted to read the book. I am generally drawn to explorations of how our lives intersect and how our actions impact each other.  I suppose the very subtle nature of that in this book made it more realistic, but I felt I like I really had to work for it.  And perhaps the loneliness and the isolation were so extreme that the small ways these lives did affect one another never penetrated through that shield.

Looking at the book as moving from frame to frame or as a stillpoint in each character’s life was helpful to me in understanding the book or what it aims to be.  I don’t have much understanding of visual art so I do fear much of that went right by me.  While I appreciate the skill this book must have taken, I have to agree it’s not really for the casual reader.  In fact, when I told a friend who had read this book that I’d be participating in a roundtable discussion, she seemed uncertain about what we would actually discuss.

Traver Kauffman writes:

Hey, kids. I just finished the book ten minutes ago, and I’m now ready to make dumb jokes about it. See, I used to have this somewhat credible litblog, and then this and that happened, and now I write limericks and go for cheap laffs. Which is unfortunate, because this is a serious book, right down to the author photo.

Which I love, by the way. It’s standard practice, in some corners, to objectify the attractive lady author, but I’m just not going to do that. Still, and honestly, I’m a little in love with this photo. I want to buy fresh peaches at the farmer’s market, stay up until the wee hours peeling the skins, and bake them into a peach crisp so I can serve it with fresh bourbon whipped cream to my love, this photo. I want this photo to recline on a bed in a cheap motel and unroll its torn black stockings slowly whilst I read Bukowski to it in a cigarette voice. I want to reform the Stone Roses and take this photo to our first show, where I’ll dedicate “I Wanna Be A Dog”…er…I mean “I Wanna Be Adored” to it. Yes.

Is this a good book? Pretty good. Not the sort of thing I’d typically reach for, and something I probably would have tossed aside if not for guilt associated with skipping yet another Eddie Champ-curated roundtable. But it does pick up considerably around page 90 or 100–I believe I made a note about this in my thinkspace at page 99–and wasn’t much of a slog from that point forward.

Cheap and easy judgment: Susan is OK; Peter is better. And, yes, Peter is a man from central casting, in some respects, but he did benefit the most from the novel’s structure, in my view. That is, his character deepened and changed most–benefitted most–from the tellings of the other individuals (save Annette, but more about her later). From the “Fool on the Hill” sections I never would have pegged him as an iconclastic artist–more of your all-purpose crank–but by the time Susan and Giorgio are through telling him, it’s clear he’s a fellow of some (apparently well-earned) genius and prestige.

Susan seems like she could have been interesting, had she not been obscured in fancy prose clouds of florid fucking. Again, this is competently and perhaps well-written sex, depending on your politics, but transcendence-by-prick isn’t my thing. The second person didn’t bother me at all, even though it seems like a curious authorial choice. We’re meant to share in her experience most intimately, even as co-conspirators, and therefore most painfully? I dunno.

(At one point, I had a writing advisor who told me in no uncertain terms that reading second-person narration is like being cornered by a drunk. Of course, he was drunk at the time and I was backed into a corner at the Union Club in Missoula, Montana, so take that as you will.)

Giorgio and Annette: where to begin? I think others have touched on it, so there’s not much point in my running down these sections. Gorgeous writing? OK. But this genteel exoticism didn’t do it for me, especially in the Annette sections. Aside from the kind of relentless otherness (by way of stereotype, as others have noted), these bit in particular suffered from needless obscurity that doesn’t plague the other sections. By the end, I wasn’t sure what had transpired, and, apart from my lifelong stance against anyone being rudely violated by a beast of any sort, I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Boiled down, we have here a book with an interesting structure and a writer of some considerable gifts. I just didn’t love it as much as I love that photo.

I leave the floor to my fellow commentators, both more serious and more estimable than I.

Abigail Nussbaum writes:

Brian mentions plot, and specifically the recent Grossman fracas, which reminds me that I never talked about my own reaction to the book as a whole.  I tend to think of myself as someone who reads for plot, but then a novel like Remainder, or City of Saints and Madmen, or Light, comes along and reminds me that that’s not at all true.  It would probably be closer to the truth to say that I find it easier to read for plot, but I suspect that’s true of most people – a plot-oriented novel carries you along with it, whereas a plotless one requires you to navigate your own way through it.  Still, when I turn the last page of a novel my first response is often to ask what happened there, and if the answer is nothing or very little I often find myself without a handle on the work, which is why I’ve so enjoyed this discussion while fearing that I wouldn’t have much to contribute to it.

All of which is a prelude to saying that, like Michael, I admired How to Paint a Dead Man but didn’t love it.  As reviewer, the novels that I enjoy reading and writing about most are the ones that offer an angle of approach from which to engage with them – not necessarily plot, but some element that fires up my imagination.  I tend to think of if in terms of chinks in the surface, handholds and footholds.  HtPaDM feels very smooth (though it might not to others, and particularly those with a background in visual arts), which leaves me admiring it as an edifice, but unable to grasp its component pieces.  And without doing that, I can’t love it.

That said, I don’t think HtPaDM is a novel that wants to be loved.  As Michael says, this is a cold, cold book, and even those parts of it that might have appealed to sentiment — Giorgio and Annette’s narratives — never achieve enough life of their own to be more than sentimental.  Peter is puppyishly lovable, but his narrative is mainly concerned with describing the worst things he’s ever done, and there’s something almost deliberately off-putting about his predicament – he’s in physical distress and in need of assistance, but we’re encouraged to believe, as he does, that he’s not in mortal danger (in fact we know that he isn’t because he’s still alive and apparently recovered – though he walks with a limp – at the time of Susan’s narrative).  So instead of arousing tension and distress, Peter’s injury is aggravating and frustrating – he’s simply stuck.  Finally, there’s Susan, of all the characters the one who most resists emotional connection, with the readers as much as with the other characters.  The only aspect in which Hall seems to be courting the readers’ affection is with her prose, which is indeed quite beautiful (though she tends to fall flat when describing sex – I don’t have the book in front of me but there were a couple of metaphors for bodily fluids that seemed more than a little off).

All of which brings us back to HtPaDM as a painting in prose – capturing a moment, and attempting to engage the readers’ affection not through plot or character or theme but through beauty and superior technique.  It works, I think, though still in the sense that I can’t love HtPaDM the way I love other novels (it’s not just that I’m unschooled in visual arts but that they don’t appeal to me.  I’m all about narrative arts, and even music isn’t an abiding interest), and I find myself going back and forth about it.  On one hand, I admire Hall’s guts for even making the attempt to court a kind of love that her medium isn’t suited to, much less for having the skill to pull it off.  On the other hand, I’m not sure such a chilly trick ought to be celebrated – it’s brave, to be certain, but in the final accounting the result isn’t really a novel.

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Three

(This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

hallrt3This has all been a pleasure to read so far, and good to be meeting some of you, if electronically, for the first time.

When I was in my first year or so of college, and an ambitious little prick, I once asked a professor what I should read for the summer. For some reason I’d decided that I was going to read either a bunch of Faulkner or a bunch of Woolf. This professor smiled broadly when I laid out my choices (“what an ambitious little prick,” he was probably thinking ) and then said “I’d go with Woolf. I really admire Faulkner, but I love Woolf.” I promptly disregarded his advice and read a bunch of Faulkner, but the distinction he made between admiring something intellectually and liking it emotionally — and the fact that he was able to make that distinction at all, and so casually and easily — really stuck with me, and ended up having a profound effect on me as I struggled to become a better reader (a struggle I continue with today).

This isn’t a backhanded way of saying that I didn’t like How to Paint a Dead Man. I liked it fine. But I find much more to admire in it. The writing itself is gorgeous, pretty much cover to cover; for readers
who love language, Sarah Hall’s sentences are more than enough to keep the pages turning (like Abigail, I wasn’t put off by the second person, especially given that she makes it make sense really quickly).

The tone of the book is precise and exquisitely well developed (I didn’t mind, for example, that that characters pretty much sounded like one another, because it increased the book’s overall effect). And from a formal perspective, as several people have already mentioned, it’s really neat that the experience of reading a book about three painters and a photographer who works in a museum is bit like walking through a museum and looking at a series of paintings and photographs: Form follows function and subject. I also liked the way Hall framed (hold on to that thought) a lot of her subjects: the artists vs. the critics and the search for meaning, as well as the more specific question of whether all that noise people made in the late 1960s amounted to anything. (I think it’s kind of funny that the preoccupation with the late 1960s has been passed down a generation, possibly two, by the way. I’m told that teenagers these days are as into Led Zeppelin and the Beatles as I was when I was a teenager in the early 1990s. Which is interesting when you stop to think that, generationally speaking, teenage me or a teenager today getting his mind blown by Led Zeppelin to the detriment of contemporary music is akin to a kid in 1969 plugging his ears to Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and getting his mind blown by Frank Sinatra’s records from the 1940s, or Bessie Smith’s records from the 1930s. That said, I also happen to think that Frank Sinatra and Bessie Smith rule, but now I’m getting off course. Moving on.)

So Hall is really smart and a terrific writer. No question about either of these things. But I found it difficult to connect to the book, to give myself over to it, and I say this as someone who gives himself over to books very, very easily. What’s my problem? you might ask. It’s what a few people have already mentioned: There is almost no plot.

This isn’t the same thing as saying nothing happens. Plenty of things happen. But very little of it is due to the characters actively, well, acting. I can think of only one instance in which a character truly acts–Peter’s figuring out how to free himself from his predicament on the hill–and that happens almost at the end of the book. I know, I know–if the book is really more like a painting, then it shouldn’t have a plot in the conventional sense. Plots move forward in time, whereas paintings give you everything at once. I get that, and intellectually, I admire that the book does it; intellectually, I admire many, many things about this book, especially its conceptual underpinnings. But that didn’t stop me from getting, as Ed put it, fidgety.

It’s also interesting to me that Hall chose to have so little plot in her book, given that she raises a number of issues, both intellectual and emotional, that having more plot would help her explore. Here I’m about to semi-break one of John Updike’s excellent rules for book reviewing–“do not blame [the author] for not achieving what he did not attempt”–but I’m doing it mostly as an thought experiment, not to set the book up to fail. After all, plot isn’t just plot, as I have no doubt Hall knows. It’s a way to develop characters–are not characters defined by their actions as much as their thoughts, and sometimes the friction between the two? It’s also a way to–and I hate these words, but–operationalize and mobilize the ideas in a book.

Let’s go back to the way Hall frames her ideas. Peggy argued that “the character of Giorgio might be old-skool and prefer to leave his frame to the dealers and critics … but for Hall to accept this at face value and treat not only contemporary interpretations of Giorgio’s work via this trope, but to also view the other artists in the book through it, is doing no one any favors, least of all an author who proposes to use language to plumb meaning in visual art.” I agree with her, and couldn’t help but feel that, by leaving the idea static, an opportunity had been lost. Giorgio is a somewhat reclusive painter who has difficulty talking to critics. Peter is an outspoken, sociable painter who has no problem talking to and arguing with critics,
sometimes to their faces. These two painters write to each other all the time, it seems. Would it not have been interesting to have these two talk to each other directly about their relation to critics and the interpretation of their work? And argue about it? This would help us learn more about both characters *and* let Hall bounce from point to point to push the book’s ideas further–to get beyond the frame, or to fill it in. Another example: So Nathan doesn’t find out about the affair. Fine. But what if he did? Given that Nathan appears to be a fairly easy-going, lighthearted guy–in many ways, not so dissimilar from what we know of Danny–a confrontational conversation between them might have been interesting in moving the ideas in Susan’s story forward and showing us more about these two characters–Nathan’s relationship with Susan, and Susan’s relationship to both Nathan and her brother. Then there’s the ideas about the 1960s–so much fertile ground there, between Danny, Susan, Peter, and Giorgio, none of it more than briefly surveyed.

Clearly, more plot would result in a very different book, and might very well have destroyed both the concept of HTPADM as a still-life painting and the unmoving, tense spell that Hall casts through her writing–like I said, two things I really admire. So if the issue of the relative lack of plot came up, either while Hall was writing the book or in conversation with her editor, I can totally see why they weren’t explored. (It would be a great question to ask Hall directly, rather than have me blather on about it speculatively.) But somewhere in the ether, where there exist alternate drafts of the books we read, there’s a version of HTPADM that’s livelier, more argumentative. There are even glimmers of such a book in the final sections of HTPADM, and Hall is such a good writer that I believe she could have pulled it off, preserving everything that’s good about the book already while applying the same mounting energy in those last pages to the story all the way through: a still life, but still, life.

Kathleen Maher writes:

Having been away for a week, I found the critiques so far of How to Paint a Dead Man terrifically enlightening. Sarah Hall is new to me and the novel together with your insights have felt like a blessing.

As Ed wrote: discussing this book begs a subjective viewpoint perhaps more than most fiction. Taking this as permission, I offer a few personal facts that affect my response to any work of fiction that aspires beyond commercial goals: As an unschooled and mostly unpublished fiction writer myself, I take an author’s “authority” as real, and am reluctant to conjecture about other ways the book might have been written. Until recently, when I began experimenting with serial fiction online, I preferred a plot that lagged behind a story’s character and style.

So the still-life quality here and its plot–where the characters effortlessly change like day into night–delighted me.

It’s probably pertinent, too, that I consider literary “failures” as a sign that a fiction writer is honestly facing his or her daily task, which is always risk. Big or small, failure appears–to me–as fundamental to creative endeavor. Without it, a writer presents only safe, perhaps popular and even beloved, replicas. Further, should those so-called failures become published: hurray for the writer!

Finally, to the novel: I agree with Sarah Weinman that Susan required a second person voice, although my reasons differ from hers. The second person, for me, shows a person so self-absorbed that she or he might as well speak for everyone. That, I think, is what’s off-putting about it. It’s possibly even more egotistical than prose where every sentences begins with an “I.” Susan’s “Mirror Crisis” assumes obliviousness to everything but herself and her grief. As for starting the book with Susan, it was risky, but not much riskier than presenting a novel with four only slightly related protagonists in different time periods.

Yet, Susan’s “You aren’t feeling like yourself…” might especially appeal to women who rarely feel the universal voice champions their personal lives and perspective.

To me, Susan’s second person also announces that here is a woman who is certain of some men’s undying devotion. We take her universal word for it that her twin brother couldn’t settle down, because he wanted only her.Her faithful partner Nathan stays six years after her refusal to marry him. And while she grieves, which I know first-hand is abominable work, he does all the cooking and cleaning without asking questions.

Further, she — or — you — were the smart and capable twin.  Her father–we learn from his first person dreams during the phase where he’s trapped and for all he knows dying–adored and infuriated her.   

Along those lines, I enjoyed and deeply admired Sarah Hall’s writing of Susan’s sexuality. Maybe I’m reading the wrong novels, but graphic descriptions of a woman’s illicit, powerful desires and the frank activity satisfying them do not occur often enough in novels. Certainly not with Hall’s exquisite precision and grounded description of pleasure lasting hours, even days after an encounter.

Cliches? The author’s job is to make them new. They’re cliches to begin with because they’re usually true. (Though I agree with Miracle Jones that a Fascist flower girl, a psychic mountain, and a man’s foot trapped in blind twins would be fabulous–perhaps that’s a story she should write.)

That the four stories intersected at all– father and daughter, mentor painter and student, mentor painter and blind school girl– appealed to me. I believed it because the author wrote it that way and gave us plenty of evidence, whether we get to read Giorgio and Peter’s correspondences or not. But the novel’s beauty would have shown the characters as new and universal even if no relation existed among them.

Brian Slattery’s observation that the characters sounded alike was one I longed to see, because lately I’ve wondered if the lasting writers, the ones most appreciated, are like movie stars who play “themselves” no matter what the movie. They act like characters we associate closely with who we think they are. They’re the stars we recognize and remember.

Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Nabokov, and Philip K. Dick are only a few among a pantheon of writers whose protagonists’ tend to speak with the same authorial voice. In dialogue, it’s nice to find variation among the characters. But if I’m buying a Philip Roth novel, be it set in Israel, New York, or New Jersey, I want it to ring with his voice, his sentences, and sensibility.

Anna Clark writes:

I waited until this morning, until I turned the final page in How to Paint a Dead Man, to take in your perspectives on the novel. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on it, especially because in many ways they seem to differ from mine. For example, I seem to be unusual in that I very much enjoyed Sarah Hall’s book, without qualification.

Here’s why.

For me, the uncommon structure of the novel worked not simply because it assumes a gallery-like experience of peering into one frame after another, but because it is the short sections, the different forms of narrations, the four leading characters that we follow, all this serves the movement of the novel. The instability I felt as a reader in the first pages, unclear on what Hall was up to, transformed into suspense: what was Hall up to? Where is this going? In a novel that, as was mentioned, borrows from the artistic forms of landscape and still-life, the intervals we spend with each character before spinning off into another universe serves to maintain the novel’s profluence, its forward-motion.

While much has been made of Hall’s really fantastic language — she clearly is in love with words, which, frankly, is not a given among contemporary authors — some of you aren’t enamored with the fact that Hall’s language is consistent, even as she moves among her characters and her landscapes. (Though, to be sure, she does vary her vantage points among first, second, and third-person perspectives). This seems to me to be a wise choice: in a novel where so much is unsettled and atypical, using a more or less consistent language gives the reader something to hold onto as she moves through the text. It keeps the novel from veering into unhelpful fragmentation and absurdity. What’s more, the consistent language makes the textual rhymes more apparant; I found myself finishing one section where the images linger on, say, eyes and sight, and I know that that the next section will move to Annette and the stories of her pending blindness. What’s more, Hall’s language is so good, so striking, that it is an argument for itself. I’m happy to meet it, section after section.

Speaking of seeing the rhymes among the characters’ lives–you all have made plain that Girogio teaches Annette and receives letters from Peter; that Peter is Susan’s father. But there are other connections that emerged through the novel–revelations that happened not in the traditional ways of plot, but in the the authorial (painterly?) techniques that Hall embraces here: juxtaposition, association, composition.

I realized late in the novel, for example, that Tom, who Susan is having an affair with, is Annette’s littlest brother (Tommaso). It’s apparent that the bottle Annette leaves on Girogio’s grave–returning a gift he’d given to her–is the bottle that Peter steals when he’s in Italy and later gives to Susan for her exhibition of artist’s relics (though Susan never believes that it’s anything but a tall tale). Connections like these are never pushed on the reader, but emerge in the text, like delicate spices in a well-made meal, like the glimmers of movement that we see when we gaze long enough at a nature morte painting.

The novel carries its share of active tension: Peter’s horrific accident; Annette haunted by the Bestia, by her bizarre family, and the final incident at Girogio’s graveside; Susan’s secrets. But it’s no secret that this novel rides primarily on its stylistic verve. Suspense doesn’t take the usual trappings in How to Paint a Dead Man. But it’s there, in surprising costumes, and I thrilled to it.

One further point: it’s been mentioned that it seemed strange that we learn so few details about what the art made by these characters actually looks like. Such a lack of details comes in context of a novel that is emphatically a visual one. The characters spend an enormous amount of time looking at things; visual images are thick in Hall’s pages. It seems to me that the lack of narration describing Peter’s paintings, say, or Susan’s photographs is again an appropriate choice. No character is compelled to describe their own art to themselves in excruciating details, though we readers get enough information about their canvases to extrapolate; being visually-oriented, the intersections between the characters’ work and their world emerges (for example, through Peter’s life in the north country of Cumbria).

How to Paint a Dead Man is a risky novel, and it is carried by Hall’s sheer confidence and nerve. Even as it simmers under the prominence of the language and structure, this is a physical, muscular work of fiction–one that dwells on bodies, violence, sex, drugs, drunkenenss, blindness, cancer, pregnancy, movement–and so it is perhaps no surprise that it hits viscerally.

Frances Dinkelspiel writes:

I wanted to explore another aspect of the book: Annette’s death at the grave of Giorgio.
 
Throughout Annette’s sections I kept dismissing her mother’s concerns as the worries of an old-fashioned woman who resisted her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and who used Annette’s growing blindness as an excuse to control her daughter. After all, it is (somewhat) clear that Annette’s father died while in the presence of his mistress and that they may have been having a sexual encounter at the time of his death. This humiliated his widow, who narrowed her world down to her home, her church (and her tv church) and her children. She clearly only tolerated her brother-in-law and was oblivious to his desire to have a romantic relationship with her.
 
Annette was obviously very beautiful and she navigated her village and the market without fear. But she always kept a vision of the Bestia (beast in Italian) nearby. At first I just dismissed the Bestia as an Italian peasant superstition. He was the devil, obviously, and in Italy in the years after World War II, most Italians still held a close allegiance to the Catholic church.
 
But it turns out that the Bestia was real, and Annette’s mother’s fears were realized. There was a dark force out there and it was after Annette. This came as a surprise to me. I expected the story of Annette to be one of modernization. After all, her brother Maurizio had such a playful personality and her uncle was experimenting with cross breeding plants and other science experiments. The family had just bought a television, which I had expected would provide Annette with enlightenment about the broader world. (It did not) I thought Annette’s story would reflect Italy’s transition from a country rooted in superstition and religion to one governed by science and connections to the broader world.
 
Why did Hall kill off Annette, her flower, her innocent protagonist who had few aspirations in life, who pleased Giorgio, a true artist? Why did she make all the fears and superstitions that had surrounded Annette and her mother happen? Was she creating a counterpoint to the very modern Susan who refuses to marry, indulges in an affair with a married man, and seems to be having a child out of wedlock? Was Hall painting the trajectory of women in recent history? I don’t have an exact answer and am curious about other people’s ideas.
 
The last chapter of Annette is called “The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni.” Annette goes to church, hears the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to show his love to God. Annette vows not to be afraid any more and when the rapist approaches her, she does not run or fight back because “she has made a promise not to be afraid. She has made a contract with God to trust in Him so that He will keep her safe from harm.” Her blind obedience to God is her undoing.
 
At the same time, Hall writes this scene as if it is something beautiful, not violent. At least I wasn’t jarred by it. The last scene in this section is a dead Annette, her eyesight restored, flying over her village and watching her mother and brothers from afar. She sees a tableaux, a pretty picture as she goes to her death.

Kathleen Maher writes:

Frances, your response to Annette’s death touched upon a few things I had decided not to mention but have now supposed I might as well as dare. Readers have referred to this novel, which I found beautiful and stirring if not a straightforward page-turner, as one that lacked a plot and offered scant dialogue, both of which are true.

It’s just that literature promotes and discards and rediscovers style the same way bell bottom (call ’em boot cut) blue jeans, capris, loose clothes and then tight ones, short and long skirts create and follow trends. Plot plays big right now. And it’s likely that scholars discover connections and layers in novels that may or may not be intended. I think it was Jame Joyce who said whatever patterns people found in “Ulysses” were precisely intended. I use this as an example because I can easily imagine a keen mind spending a life time sifting through Joyce’s novel. (Finnegan’s Wake, on the other hand, I’ve never managed to read. And since I can’t make sense of it, I wonder if the novel, if not the author, was insane. But that’s me and I’m all too aware of my limitations.)

Plotless novels were once in published and praised, if not especially popular. Among the most revered I’d put Milan Kundera (yes, his novel have plots but they’re sketchy plots) and the few novels I’ve read by Camus. Perhaps scholars can find prominent, driving plots in Virginia Woolf’s novels, but I can not. Falling along a separate strata there’s Peter Handke and Larry Woiwode.

To touch upon a different strata there are countless “road trip” novels, drunk in Mexico novels, and what would you say about Henry Miller or Genet? They write about one episode after another. There’s action and dialogue but nothing I’d consider “plot.”

Regarding Annette, my sense was: terrible and random things happen. And while her mother did seem hysterical–and in fact didn’t face even the predictable challenges a daughter presents, like her period–her fears came true. That doesn’t mean she was right. If Annette learned Braille, for instance, if she were allowed to grow toward her adult self, perhaps she would have survived and married and had a daughter she was able to nurture more realistically than her mother treated her.

Of course all of that might have occurred if she continued to sell flowers in the market. But she was beautiful and unprotected there at a time when most young women are in school. The story of Abraham sacrificing his only son may be preparing us. But the old fashioned Catholic religion was in love with death. It was enthralled and obsessed and truly besotted with mortality. One’s whole life and its endless frustrations and tribulations would be rewarded in heaven. A young girl who threw herself from a roof and died because a man was approaching her with sexual intentions was considered a martyr. Disabilities–like being blind or lame–were revered. (Mental illnesses not so much unless the Virgin gave you letters.)

So in that vein, Annette’s vision is Divine.  A cradle Catholic as we’re sometimes called, I knew Annette would die in this novel as soon as I read “The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni.” If the family was to portray Italy’s progression into the modern world after WWII, Annette’s story would carry another subtitle. Further, to old-line Catholics, death is always exquisite and glorious, even when it occurred in the Roman Coliseum and lions ripped you limb from limb.

Miracle Jones writes:

Kathleen and Frances: Did Annette die? Do the dead dream?  Upon rereading the passage it is still unclear to me.  She chokes; she passes out.  But death?

Let’s say she did die.

Annette’s death cancels out Susan’s pregnancy, just as Peter’s escape from the hole cancels out Giorgio’s fiendish cancer deathtrap.  Balance!  Even as both elder gentlemen reminisce about women that they could not save, Peter gets a reprieve, returning happily to the woman he is now certain that he loves. Giorgio welcomes death for the same reason. 

Also, if Annette didn’t die, then Tommaso and Susan wouldn’t have anything in common and they wouldn’t be passionately drawn together as incest taboo guilt survivors (dirty feelings killed their siblings), and so there would be no “Yes Baby” at the end.

No, this is a book where everybody gets what they want, whether vision, absolution, rest, or epiphany.  And I think that’s why the plotlessness and silence of this book didn’t feel so strangling.  These people aren’t physically active, but they are certainly mobile in their intellectual and emotional lives.  They are artists, like we all are, and they earn their intellectual and emotional victories in the trenches of their own minds, battling themselves, each one of them winning in the end.  The music soars.

And here’s what Hall says about Ulysses, perhaps inviting us to think about Dead Man in the same way:

“After many attempts he has not read past the first twenty pages.  Something in the language has prevented him, he says.  But on the last attempt a revelation!  The text is a doorway, or a device for transporting the mind.  In itself it resists interpretation, but instead affords the opportunity to think in tandem, like a man riding a bicycle while aboard a ship.  Peter thinks this is what Joyce intended.  It will not make him unhappy to be oblivious to the narrative until the book’s very end, he writes, for he is sure to enlighten his mind in other ways.

“Such interesting philosophy!  My advice would be to concentrate.”

Brian: I’m with you on “fidgety” while reading this book.  I read it mainly while riding back and forth to work every day on the train, and I resisted it every single time I made myself crack it open, looking around everywhere for some girl to flirt with instead.  But once I was engaged, like you said, the language was pure pleasure, like chocolate melting on the tongue.  Of course, as with real chocolate, if you eat too much the dry bitterness hits the back of your throat and it turns sour. This book must be read in doses, with time in between to reflect and savor.  Several times I found myself deeply impressed by a particular phrase or word choice, raising an eyebrow, uncrossing my legs, and leaning forward — possibly sticking my furrowed brow in a straphanger’s crotch.  Hall is a surgeon with image and syntax.  Sometimes its rough to be American, to have your own tongue weighed down by so many awkward marbles. 

Also, NB: I think members of my generation listen to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin as if it is church music.  People who are really into that stuff are not to be trusted.  They will probably try to get you to come back to their place — not for sex or drugs — but to debate one of the seven deeply important books they own, like Atlas Shrugged, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Battlefield Earth

“Dad Rock” is quaint enough.  It takes you back to childhood innocence, even though all the lyrics are about drugs and fucking (also like church music).  There is the smell of incense, perhaps even a buried memory of a bearded man in a robe doing something obscene.  But I don’t think too many of us are going around ignoring the modern equivalents.  Instead, we find it fascinating that once upon a time “pop” could be so musically challenging.  We figure that back then the people who were craving American Idol must have been alienated and pissed off all the time; mad as hell at the whole dang world.  Hence: war.

Peggy: I can’t really disagree with you about anything, and I think I would mistrust this book too if I had to read a book about the glorious insights one gains while working in a coffee shop.  The crema!  The porcelain!  The rich and ineffable foam! 

As a painter and artist, I’m sure painting and art have been thoroughly demystified for you, and a book that traffics in such broad stereotypes ought to be truly villainous to your taste.

I can’t really speak to any of your criticisms, except to say that the language of art criticism is the closest thing the modern world has to  spiritual philosophy.  We want our artists to be wise and impenetrable.  We want our artists to be avatars of what they produce.  This piece of fiction presents a world where such a longing for “authenticity” is true.  A fictional world.  And this world is illuminating for a little while, even if deeply false.   

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Two

(This is the second of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Miracle Jones writes:

“You turned instead to the place where all depraved civilian requests are made and met: the internet.” — Sarah Hall, How to Paint a Dead Man

hallrt2This book was chilly.  Cold, cold, cold.  Not just cold: frozen.  Ordinarily, I distrust books that are so still and moody and arid, but I realized while reading How to Paint a Dead Man that I distrust those books because they don’t freeze anything worth looking at or worth taking the time to get your mind around.  Sarah Hall’s novel is frozen solid — your tongue sticks to it — but it is still full of life, like a snow-buried city in the Antarctic or an ice cube stuffed with worms. 

This book has assembled a whole helluva lot of interesting things — fast things, emotional things, beautiful things, above all ordinary things — and frozen them in time and space so that the artist can paint a truly remarkable still life.  The kind of still life painting that gives Peter brief transcendence at the end of the novel, a painting of which he says “was nothing for a moment, and then was everything.”

I certainly couldn’t recommend this book to a casual reader.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an artistic triumph even as it is not much of a page turner.  Instead it is an exercise in shade and light that must have been exceptionally difficult to pull off.  This book was far more engrossing than it should have been considering that there is no plot of which to speak.  The only events that really “happen” in the book are Peter getting his foot stuck in a hole (which only freezes things further; and how else to freeze this hyperactive madman?) and Annette’s attack by the “Bestia” at the book’s end.

(Who is that “Bestia” by the way?  Was I not paying enough attention?  I want it to be Ivan or Peter on their Italian trip.  I want that to be how Peter “unofficially liberated” the bottle that ends up in Susan’s collection.) 

Ed, your question about structure is the most important consideration here.  This book is all structure.  Form, composition, and relationship.  One must analyze this novel the same way one analyzes a serious, labored painting of dusty bottles on a table.  The four cycling sections each have a different pronoun perspectives (you, I, she, he), each centering on a main character living in a different decade.  Each of the characters are dealing with their own consuming “it,” their muse who is now dead and gone.  They each deal with this loss through changing the nature of their art, even as they are physically altered by shifting circumstances.

Susan curates a show of personal effects, Peter conquers mountains (literally and on his canvases), Annette lives through flowers, and Giorgio has his bottles.  There is a web of inspiration between the characters that is solidified by Susan’s affair with Tom (and its “fruit”), which ultimately makes a weird, circular nexus.  Tom and Susan are clearly breeding the Kwisatz Haderach.

And that’s it.  That’s the book.  The neat and artistic delivery of a complicated structural form, wrapped in very beautiful language, sentence to sentence.  But it is so clever when you consider the limitations!  It is so neat and mathematical and attentive!  Too convenient?  Too contrived?  Perhaps.  But so what?  This is the literary equivalent of “math rock.”  If this were an album, it would be by King Crimson.  It would be called Bottles

If you were to make a movie out of How to Paint a Dead Man, how would you do it without contorting the plot into a flashback-riddled caricature?  There’s no way.  It could be black and white, with only the objects that connect the characters in color: Tom, Peter’s letters, the bottle, and of course all the paintings and sculptures. 

I don’t think the Procrustean plot structure is this book’s weak point, however.  I think instead the contrived plot elements are what make this book suffer, plot elements that throw into question the “realism” of our Art Squad.  I mean, come on, psychic twins?  Dude getting his foot stuck in a hole overnight?  A noble Fascist painter?  A mystic and innocent blind flower girl? 

How about a Fascist flower girl?  A psychic mountain?  A dude getting his foot stuck in blind twins? 

But maybe that is the point.  The point is the characters each have all of these arbitrary characteristics, and each have none of them.  Maybe the point here is the same point as at the end of The Breakfast Club.

Note: Everybody seems to be agreeing about the rough beginning of this book.  Perhaps it should have begun at a different place in the cycle.  The first chapter sells a much different book than the one you end up reading.  That’s why it is so hard to walk across Hall’s “flagstones.”  Your mind is trying to synthesize the shifting perspective, unsteady about what is going to happen to “you” next.  The second person totally works, but I think it is a mistake to hit the reader with it first thing in this kind of book.

Mark Athitakis writes:

It’s a hell of risk, isn’t it, opening a book in the second person? Like the others who’ve commented, I’m immediately skeptical of any writer who works in that form (call it Bright Lights, Big City Syndrome), because it’s so hard to not look gimmicky and it contrives a false intimacy with the reader. Once I got past that initial irritation, though — and Hall is such an impressive stylist that it didn’t feel like a gimmick — I was free to wonder why Hall used it, and why she introduced us to Susan first.

My general take is that the novel is largely about identity, and how easily we lose our sense of ourselves. And the first chapter is sort of an overture to that them — not only is Susan fractured be cause she’s lost her brother, with who she’s had an unusually symbiotic relationship, but she doesn’t even get the benefit of using “I” in commenting about herself. She’s “you” — meaning the reader, somebody she doesn’t know and can’t access. A line in the second paragraph announces that point pretty clearly: “You can’t quite catch sight of yourself as you go about your life.” I don’t mind being disoriented a little, if the theme of the novel is disorientation.

It’s interesting to jump from Susan’s unsettled state to Giorgio’s exceedingly settled one. The painter is very much the novel’s emotional polestar — he’s dying, but at peace with himself, and the other three characters all seem to be striving for the kind of self-assurance he has, the easy dismissals he can make of others’ attempts to categorize him. It’s important that the journals we read actually exist in the world and aren’t just Hall’s Olympian vision of the great artist’s private mind — those journals are being translated and readied for display in the show that Susan is working on. Susan is capable of reading them, though unless I misremembering she doesn’t actually sit down with them — she’s too consumed by her despair, and the affair that she’s having with the man who’s actually doing the translation.

Regardless, I’m glad there isn’t a concluding moment in the novel where Susan comes across the journals, finds herself thunderstuck by their thoughtful, restful tone, and proceeds to reorder her life. Most novels that break up into multiple narrative voices seem determined to resolve their various threads neatly, but if anything the emotions are more unsettled by the end of the story than they were as the novel opens. One particular element of that which I found interesting (and which I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts on) is how Peter’s narrative is structured. His story is outwardly dramatic — he’s trapped underneath some rocks, and he’s in a feverish panic to escape — but there’s no real drama to the predicament itself. We know early on that he survives his ordeal. The true drama is in how the incident calls up a time during his youth where his behavior was at its worst. Does Peter’s entrapment expose his true nature (the callous young man perhaps complicit in a drug casualty), or does it strip away his true nature (his happy life as a father and productive, successful artist)? Hall keeps putting her characters into situations where they’re forced to confront those questions. (The author also wants to make some kind of comment on the 60s, I think—why else title Peter’s sections “The Fool on the Hill”?)

That’s enough for the moment, and I haven’t even gotten to Annette and the matter of the Bestia that Frances brings up; I had similiar questions and thoughts on that point, but I’ll defer to others for a bit.

Peggy Nelson writes:

The major theme in the book is a play on the literal translation of still life, nature morte — dead nature.  Stillness is like a little death.  OK.  All the major characters are stilled in certain ways: blindness, grief, old age, hiking, and of course death itself.  But the point of still life in art is that from the point of stillness we are supposed to gain greater contemplation, greater insight.  We purposely don’t portray the busyness of the world so we can clear our minds and focus on what really matters.  

But what really matters here?  We have (very) cursory descriptions of the actual art: “mountains,” “bottles,” “photographs,” we are given more detail about Annette’s flower-arranging!  (Not that flower-arranging cannot be an art, but Annette does not consider herself an artist, so we can leave that for now.)  What really matters in the book are not details of the art, but details of the lives: the actual bottles, the cleaning woman, the exhibit of artist knicknacks, their sex lives.  Life means something, because — it begets more of itself?  Because it leads to more life (symbolized by the pregnancy at the very end)?  Well, isn’t that a little pointlessly circular?  If something is meaningful “just because,” then we certainly don’t have to be still to get it.  That is not an insight, that is a justification.  

And, in this case, it is completely wrong: an artist’s life is more meaningful than their work?  No, it isn’t.  It is exactly the opposite, for the artist qua artist.  Why bother to do anything at all when you can just live?  An artist bothers to do anything at all because of the hope (and the promise if achieved), that one’s work will mean more.  Here I’ll lapse into the second person as well: if your great insight is that life is more important, you don’t have to become still to realize it.  And you don’t have to do art.  You have to stay moving, you have to live!

For the first two chapters I was captivated by Hall’s voice and her powers of description.  But then it paled fast — not because her voice failed, but because it never changed.  There are four major characters in the puzzle living in lightly interconnected but separate worlds, or at least separate enough to give them their own sequence of chapters.  Yet the voice in each one sounded exactly the same.  The only character that broke out of the beautiful yet somnolent prose was Mauri, Annette’s wild brother (who I thought *may have been the Bestia until I re-read it).  For Tolstoy, it is all *happy families that are alike, the unhappy (alienated) ones are supposed to be different – and should have their own voices.  Reading this book I was reminded more than once of the brilliance of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which represents a high note of sequential chapters/different voices.  In Hall’s book it’s not different voices/still lives, it’s same voices/still lives, and I think that did the characters a disservice.  The similarities are established by all the characters being separated from something essential.  But we don’t need the exact same cadence (comma comma comma. declarative. comma comma) to drive the point home; we get it.  I wanted to know more about their differences, in that that might illuminate different aspects of alienation.

The coda at the end is from a Renaissance book of painting techniques.  It says, literally, that how to paint a dead man is the same as how to paint a living one – you just use different colors.  This book was all the same color, the same voice.  Someone did not read the manual.

And I want to touch on something in the portrayal of Giorgio, the Italian painter.  We meet him as he ruminates on interviewers bugging him about “what it all means.”  Why the bottles?  Why still life?  Why the  single focus?  He is simultaneously frustrated with the questions, and pities the questioners.  Here, spend some more time.  Drink coffee and look at the horizon.  Stop thinking, pretty much.  

Full disclosure: I do “new media” now, but I got my MFA in painting.  And one of the major things we struggled with in the studio and the critique sessions was this paradox of expressing the ineffable.  Not in our work – we all knew when a piece was successful, even thought the styles were wildly different – but in talking about it.  There is the cliche, which this book embraces in Giorgio, of the artist-as-child: can’t talk about the work because doesn’t know how, is not smart enough, art comes from someplace *below the intellect, true artists with true access to this intuitive source are like children, innocent vessels of the spirit, or the flow, or what have you.  Now, this idea has old legs, but was really argued as a political trope by Clement Greenberg in promoting the Abstract Expressionists after WWII.  Jackson Pollock, the inarticulate vital force!  American ingenuity, innocence, and power!  See, old verbal Europe, what your decadence got you: Nazis, is what it got you.  We’ve cleaned the Aegean Stables with our pure energy, and here it is, expressed in our art.  Which of course is necessarily better than yours.  That’s when the “center of the art world” shifted to New York from Paris, and of course the money followed.

There is a truth that some things are not verbally accessible; we refer to the ineffable for a reason, there are meanings we can only gesture for, maybe they’re out there, maybe they’re not – and in truly great art we might see them revealed for a moment.  Or gestured towards in an intriguing way.  But it is a mistake to infer from this that artists are ineffable, that if they can work with images, language is denied them.  And that the minute they actually start speaking articulately, they’ve destroyed something in art.  Language is not the enemy of visual art, language is the frame.  And he who controls the frame, controls the context, and controls the money.  As well language gives the artist something to paint about – you do have to think, in words, in order to be interesting.  So we were encouraged — no, *commanded, to be verbal advocates on our own behalf, because otherwise someone else would do it for us, and yeah, they might not get it right.  Now the character of Giorgio might be old-skool and prefer to leave his frame to the dealers and critics, who apparently have done all right by him and his work.  Italian villa plus cleaning woman, anyone?  Eat Pray Paint?  But for Hall to accept this at face value and treat not only contemporary interpretations of Giorgio’s work via this trope, but to also view the other artists in the book through it, is doing no one any favors, least of all an author who proposes to use language to plumb meaning in visual art.

Abigail Nussbaum writes:

I think I’m the only one so far who took the second person in stride.  Not sure why it didn’t throw me at first, but once it became obvious that the different narratives were being told in different persons, my natural tendency to look for patterns and meanings took over, and of course the second person is the perfect voice for Susan, who spent her life completely focused on another person and feels lost and almost disembodied by their death.  As Mark notes, Giorgio is the most settled character, the most self-contained.  I don’t read him as incapable of analyzing his art so much as humorously uninterested in that analysis unless it taps into the aspects of it that interest him – the technical, which Peter is so in tune with.  What Giorgio doesn’t want to analyze is himself, and whether that’s because he’s comfortable in his own skin or unwilling to examine his past, or some combination of the two, the result is the most self-contained character in the novel.

Meanwhile, Peter and Annette are all about the great world outside of them.  Peter is the small-town boy who escapes (escapes a life in the dark like his miner father, who left the house before sunrise to go underground) and sees the wide world and joins in its revels, but at the same time there’s a part of himself that he’s kept inaccessible, an aspect that’s been left out of his public image.  Annette, meanwhile, wants to be in the world but is kept from it by her mother’s hysterical (though, as it turns out, not at all unfounded) fears.  Even so, she ‘sees’ more than anyone gives her credit for (though she doesn’t always understand what she witnesses), and participates in the lives of others.

I thought Frances’s comment about not seeing Peter’s grief for Danny was interesting, because there’s a lot that’s left unsaid or unseen in this novel.  Inasmuch as the narratives do connect with each other, they do so around, but not at, the most important moments in the characters’ lives.  Susan sees Peter just after Danny’s death.  Giorgio receives letters Peter sends him just before he becomes entangled in a poisonous love triangle and an even more poisonous marriage.  Annette meets Giorgio just before his illness becomes apparent.  Though we learn about the fate of Giorgio’s wife, we never find out why he came under political scrutiny after the war (given that fate, and the fact that he’s eulogized by Annette’s communist teacher, I assume he spoke out against fascism, but that’s not clear) or how that scrutiny affected his career.  We have no idea who rapes Annette – Like Peggy, I thought Mauri was the rapist, but it’s later revealed that he was at home at the time, and I don’t think it could have been Peter, because he takes his family to Italy and retrieves Giorgio’s bottle in the mid 80s, more than ten years after Annette’s narrative.

The crux of the characters’ lives is missing.  Except for Susan, who arguably doesn’t have a crux to her life, who is the most disconnected of the characters.  It is, presumably, no coincidence that Susan isn’t a ‘real’ artist, but seems to have settled in the nebulous region between artist, skilled technician, and critic/curator.  There’s almost no discussion of her work as there is of Peter’s, Giorgio’s, or even the watercolors Annette paints at school, and it’s stressed that her connection to Peter has smoothed her way into the British art world even though she’s missing his spark of genius.

In fact, though the second person narrative didn’t bother me, I found Susan’s narrative the least persuasive of the four.  It was the way she so quickly demolished her own life in the wake of Danny’s death, and the brisk pace at which she achieved this.  It felt like a condensed version of some movie of the week (or a more traditionally structured literary novel) about a person Dealing Badly With Grief.  Alienating loved ones, neglecting one’s work, fetishizing some object belonging to or reflecting the dead, having inadvisable, rough sex with someone inappropriate – these are all items on the checklist, and Hall rushes through them much too quickly.  The descent into sex clubs and internet porn was so rushed that it couldn’t transcend the cliché.

Not that there’s a shortage of clichés in the novel.  Peggy’s comparison to Cloud Atlas is apt but, as she notes, unkind to Hall.  Cloud Atlas uses broad clichés and genre tropes as building blocks, and builds something transcendent out of them.  How to Paint a Dead Man often seems to bog down in those clichés – the domineering, restrictive Italian mother and her hysteria over her daughter’s sexual purity; the wise old hermit; Peter’s narrative of sexual liberation and drug abuse in the 60s.  It’s only because Hall is such a fine and delicate writer that she gets away with these tropes at all (well, that and the fact that she doesn’t linger overmuch on any of them, and that as soon as one begins to grate she switches narratives and into another), but even so I quite often found myself knocked out of the novel by their broadness.

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part One

(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

This week, Sarah Hall’s fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, hits bookstores in the United States. And this website will be devoting the entire week to discussing Hall’s book. We’ll be serializing the conversation in five chunky installments from Monday through Friday. Be on the lookout for cameo appearances and some unexpected revelations. And feel free to leave any additional thoughts or feelings in the comments.

Edward Champion writes:

“A Truth is the subjective development of that which is at once both new and universal. New: that which is unforeseen by the order of creation. Universal: that which can interest, rightly, every human individual, according to his pure humanity.” — Alain Badiou

hallrt1A book of this type is difficult to discuss in a collective manner without bringing one’s own subjective viewpoint into the larder.  So I shall do my best to convey some initial thoughts and impressions as a starting point, with the hope that other views will mesh and rustle with multiple truths.

It’s fitting that this novel kick-starts with a Gaston Bachelard quote.  For what is this book but a series of epistemological obstacles?  We are given four separate perspectives (indeed, four discourses in the Badiou tradition, if we want to start throwing around impulsive philosophical parallels): a second person “mirror crisis” defying the I (or even the eyes reading this book); Signor Giorgio, the dour and dying painter who complains of overanalytical journalists (and overanalytical readers of his Bottle Journals?) who “feel they will catch my true self”; Peter, the Fool on the Hill forced to revisit the uncomfortable past after he slips in an almost absurdist manner into the earth; and Annette Tambroni, whose powers of imagination help her to overcome her diminishing blindness.  I’m particularly curious how your own reading perspective was shaken up by this structure, or if we might even sufficiently fence these experiences into a structure.  (Surely, it’s the failure of these characters to appreciate the undissected ambiguities before them that is part of the problem.)

For my own part, I plead guilty to initial impatience.  I became something of a fidgety bastard when the quartet failed to “connect” with each other and when the specific character details took their sweet time bubbling up to the surface.  Normally with books of this type, I’m content to walk atop the flagstones laid down by the author.  But that wasn’t the case here.  Fortunately, about fifty pages into the book, this feeling subsided and I eventually came to a point where I was eagerly turning the pages of the book as new details emerged.

I found it curious that my own structural prejudices were ferreted out like this, and I suspect this book is something of an interesting rupture between the modern novel of consciousness and the postmodern novel of playful structure. 

This does raise the question of whether this structural tension stacks the deck against the reader.  It also has me wondering whether this book is unfairly manipulating the reader, or legitimately doing so.  After all, we can all accept that a novel is a fictional construct.  Who are any of us to settle for “truth” when we are given, in this case, such intricate prevarications?  Aren’t we all looking for the Bestia?  But here’s the rub: is this book staking its claim for truth or verisimilitude entirely on solitude?  Signor Giorgio tells us early on, “Of all the conditions we experience, solitude is perhaps the most understood. To choose it is regarded as irresponsible or a failure.”  But did Peter choose his solitude when he stumbled down the hill?  Did Susan choose her solitude when her twin brother died?  Did Annette choose her solitude as she went blind (just before Giorgio offers her inspiration)?  These are all narrative developments that are clearly contrived, but don’t feel so within the course of the structure.  So what might this book be saying about the reader’s capacity to believe?  (Come to think of it, this book would make a great double bill with Richard Powers’s Generosity, which concerns itself with the same questions.)

As the book proceeded further, I became less concerned by these connections.   Perhaps I required my own subconscious landscape to root these many characters.  Near the end of the novel, when Hall began shaking up the order, I found myself pleasantly liberated by the constantly shifting manner in which I was lost.  Susan, as we learn at the end, has always been there.  But what of the other characters?  What is this book’s accent precisely, darling?  Or are such questions no different from the superficial banter one must endure at a literary cocktail party?

A few other quick notes:  It’s interesting that the painter-like usage of color in this novel is largely related to human fluids or suffering.  It’s interesting that so many characters are maimed or silenced through injury throughout the book.  (Also interesting: pages and pages without dialogue, rendering the characters as “voiceless” as Susan’s coma-laden friend.)  It’s interesting that there is both a hostility to making sense of art (through Signor Girogio) and a hostility to imagination (the snowflakes Annette “feels” against her face).  And in light of the book’s emphasis on solitude, it’s interesting that family (whether Annette’s or the proposal that Susan puts off) is something to be avoided.  One should not make the mistake of confusing the author’s intentions with the character intentions.  But is one permitted a confusion of art and real life?  If we don’t give into a novel, how then do we find an experience that is new and universal?  How then do we have our reading comforts ruptured by epistemological obstacles?

Frances Dinkelspiel writes:

I will just say upfront that I am neither as profound nor insightful as Ed, that I mostly read for pleasure, and that I read a lot. In short, I rarely analyze character motivation, themes sprinkled throughout a book, etc. I look for good writing and a way into another world.

I was immediately put off by the use of the second person in this book. I think it was galling of the author to use the “you” form in the opening because it alienated the reader rather than invited her into a particular world. But this annoyance only lasted a short time. I was soon drawn in by Hall’s writing and the other characters she created. By the time I came to the third of the second person sections I didn’t care anymore that the voice was so strange. I was engrossed.

I usually don’t like loosely linked narratives either. But once again, Hall managed to make me not care that her quartet of characters were tangential to one another. (How did they connect anyway? The painter Giorgio taught the young blind flower arranger Annette, and received letters from Peter, the painter in England. Peter was Susan’s father) Each character was his or her own self contained story (we don’t even see Peter’s grief over the death of his son) and most of the stories had sufficient narrative thrust, drama and tension that I wanted to know how they ended. And I guess I liked the idea that humans often unknowingly influence others in the world. When Peter was writing Giorgio, he was writing as a young painter to a master, little realizing that his penetrating insights and questions about the still lives would bring Giorgio such pleasure.

I do think this book is in large part about solitude, or put in another way, how we all stand fundamentally alone in the world, even when surrounded by family. At the same time it doesn’t seem to me that any of these characters, except Susan, is lonely. They all have their art, which gives them a profound connection to the world. They have a vision, and thus a place. And I wouldn’t even call Susan lonely. The death of her brother, someone with whom she had a strong physical attachment, has knocked her off balance. In the end, when she discovers she is pregnant and suddenly has another physical being she is attached to, we see the glimpses of her recovery.

Sarah Weinman writes:

How to Paint a Dead Man sneaked up on me. At the time I read it I was aware of being caught up in all the various perspectives, but now that it’s been a few days I’m thinking more and more about the interlocking narratives, the interplay of reality versus simulacra, art and life, and all that jazz (so to speak!)

Like Frances, I was put off, just a bit, by the second person perspective. But it quickly became apparent that Susan’s viewpoint had to be told that way because then we became privy to her transformation, her engagement with herself and her body and her sexuality, but she herself was rather taken aback by these changes even as she became more enthralled by then. So to step outside of herself, to feel things around her while succumbing to all these changes, gave Susan this greater sense of the visceral and the immediate. And truth be told, her viewpoint was the one I looked forward to the most, that sense of jabbing, rhythmic present in the midst of the larger historical context of Hall’s story.

But looking at the other perspectives, I loved how Hall took her time in making them connect, and trusting the reader to infer what he or she wanted to, even leaving things a bit fuzzy. Frances has it right, and those tangential connections also reinforce the power – and the distance – of these viewpoints. Giorgio is all about art even as, at least to me, he never quite got to where he was going. Annette, being blind, could remain in a state of purity that may or may not be up to 100% emotional truth. And Peter, somehow, both measures up and doesn’t measure up, and his legacy hangs over both Susan and her dead twin brother she both reveres and holds in suspicion.

And like Ed I got lulled into a sense of four-part harmony that, when Hall shook it up, seemed jarring – but then, that’s kind of the point. We’re lulled into a sense of order in life, and art is all about chaos and inviting in an array of emotions, however ugly or beautiful. So in the end it makes sense Hall would use as many vantage points as she could, setting it up almost like a sonata or a semi-symphony, and then she goes and gets all atonal on our readerly selves.

Later on if enough people have read the book I would love to delve more into the parallels between How to Paint a Dead Man and Generosity in terms of real/artifice and art/life.

Anyway, that’s my starting point, but looking forward to what everyone else has to say!

Sarah Hall Roundtable Next Week!

deadmanteaserThis is just a reminder that, next week, we’ll be devoting this website to a detailed roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man. The discussion, now in progress, has generated interesting asides on epistemological obstacles, whether second-person perspective is annoying, Procrustean plot structures, Fascist flower girls, The Breakfast Club, Bright Lights, Big City, still life vs. real life, the ineffable nature of artists, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, being “an ambitious little prick” in relation to literature, William Faulkner vs. Virginia Woolf, Led Zeppelin, John Updike’s rules for book reviewing, “failures,” and numerous muted connections throughout the book.

Of course, all readers are invited to contribute thoughts and feelings in the comments. But be sure to stop by next week and check it out.

And again, if you’re not familiar with Sarah Hall, you can read my essay on her first three novels for The Barnes and Noble Review. (The new novel is notably different from the first three.)

You can also listen to my one hour podcast interview with her from last year.

Sarah Hall Roundtable

deadmanteaserDuring the week of September 7, 2009, this website will be devoting its attentions to discussing Sarah Hall’s forthcoming novel, How to Paint a Dead Man. The novel, recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, concerns itself with four stories taking place over half a century. And we have assembled a rowdy crew to oar through these promising waters.

If you’re not familiar with Sarah Hall, you can read my essay on her first three novels for The Barnes and Noble Review.

You can also listen to my one hour podcast interview with her from last year.

The Bat Segundo Show: Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #206. Hall is most recently the author of Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army). My essay on Sarah Hall can be found at the B&N Review.

Condition of the Show: Remaining optimistic about a dystopian future.

Author: Sarah Hall

Subjects Discussed: Daughters of the North vs. The Carhullan Army, writing books that aren’t set in the present day, concern for environmental details, the comforts of familiar territory, catastrophe knocking everything to the past, the wandering impulse within British dystopian novels, Rupert Thomson, Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed, the tension between town and country, literary conversations and outdoing Margaret Atwood’s sense of terror, overcoming perceptions associated with women writers, Samantha Power’s castigation, being overly scrutinized, presentation of the author, the authenticity of testimony, writing a pageturner vs. a leisurely literary novel, being more selective with sentences, writing within confining environments, switching to first person, the origins of the Nixon surname, characters with reddened faces, rural words, Brave New World, names that echo across history, the origins of Rith, schools and buildings that shut down after centuries, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” the dog box and the military training that inspired it, a microutopia within a macrodystopia, nitpicking the apathy within Daughters of the North, the possibilities of revolt and verisimilitude, manipulating the reader and gray areas, violence that occurs offstage, women and violence, bumps on heads, the beauty of corporeal flaws and dilapidated environments, how society transforms the body, To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, sudden relationships and getting to the naughty bits, pornography, the risks of thinking on the page, and romance.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Hall: I think familiar territory is always of comfort to a writer. I find the North of England, where I’m from, fascinating. It’s a very dramatic landscape. It’s kind of a Wordsworth country. So you’ve got the Romantic sense on one hand. And then you’ve got the strange past battling with the future. I suppose Hardy did this to an extent as well. You pick a territory. And even if it’s rural, you have human beings working within that arena. So human drama is going to arise out of those interactions. And I’ve always felt, even though the settings are sometimes quite remote and underpopulated in my fiction, there’s enough going on. You can explore ideas of civilization, breakdown of civilization, human emotional dramas. All the rest of that. But I think what’s interesting with Daughters of the North is — even though we’re casting ahead maybe thirty, forty years from now — and I think British science fiction and speculative fiction does this a lot — there’s this idea of play. When catastrophe happens, everything is knocked back to the past. And so here is what you’re left with. Day of the Triffids. This strange science fiction going on. But at the same time, everybody’s going down to the pub like they always have.

Play

Sarah Hall

My lengthy essay on Sarah Hall appears in today’s B&N Review. If you haven’t yet read Hall’s Daughters of the North (known as The Carhullan Army in the UK), you’re missing out on a fantastic dystopian novel that won the 2007 James Tiptree, Jr. Award. For more Sarah Hall, you can also listen to this nearly 70 minute conversation at The Bat Segundo Show.

[UPDATE: Jason Boog also talked with Hall last November.]