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