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.