Last Reviews of 2008

Blogging friends, it has been a busy Christmas as ever, but I’m hoping now to catch up on my last reviews and do my blogging housekeeping before the New Year. Two creative, unusual and original books to end the year with: A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen and The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins. Both characterized by the hybrid mix of fact and fiction they bring together, I felt these were forward-looking books, books that had the measure of the twenty-first century and were an indication of things to come.

Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting is a book that follows the interlinked friendships of American artists from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. Cohen has managed to pick a chain of artists – photographers, writers, painters – who met and befriended one another, influenced one another, admired and gave the occasional leg up to one another. What’s most intriguing about this book is its structure. Each chapter focuses on a particular meeting, most often fictionalized by Cohen but based on a real event. Using the meeting as beginning and end of the chapter, Cohen draws out all the consequences and implications for the artists involved, mixing together biography, criticism and history. But what’s really interesting is that the same artists will appear two or three times across the book, as time marches on and they form new allegiances and reap the consequences of their earlier actions. Over the course of several chapters we watch Henry James go from a young boy, photographed with his domineering father at the portraitist Mathew Brady’s studio, through his mutually beneficial friendship with William Dean Howells, into old age and reverence by artist friends who were in turn influenced by him: Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather. It was the web of associations that provides the strongest and most fascinating part of this narrative. In this easy, accessible format, I felt I was watching American art itself change and grow.

This is a wonderful book for garnering all sorts of scraps and anecdotes about the canonical artists, and for gaining thumbnail sketch of their lives and works. Some artists, like Willa Cather, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston and Elizabeth Bishop, I had heard of but knew very little about. Other artists, like the critic Carl van Vechten and the photographer Alfred Steiglitz, were completely new names to me. Still other artists, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry Miller are notable by their absence, but evidently not everyone could be represented, and Cohen’s choices form a clever mix of the well-known and the obscure. Often the artists who have fallen out of the fickle public eye are the ones who were most active in facilitating the work of others and moving art forward. Photographers crop up a lot, in fact, as they provided much interconnecting artistic glue, often collecting portraits of the famous and the notorious and thus providing rich pickings to Cohen’s judiciously selecting eye. Cohen writes with a very plain and simple style, which is just right for the narrative. There’s so much to say, so much to impart to the reader that a florid style would just have made it harder to read. For my own part, I enjoyed the earlier sections of the book more than the later ones. As a purely personal preference, I found more interest in the lives of Henry James and Sarah Orne Jewett than in James Baldwin and Marianne Moore. But it didn’t matter – there’s a historical period for everyone’s taste in here, and no one said you had to read every chapter. Finally, Cohen provides good notes at the back of the book that explain what she has invented and what is factual, something I really appreciated. This is the way non-fiction is going, it seems to me – lots of fragments of stories, intermingled, so that sparks and connections fly. I loved this book, but on one level my spirits plunged when I read it – I so wished I could have written it myself.

The other book to review is Marianne Wiggin’s The Shadow Catcher, another interweaving of fact and fiction, but this time without the explanatory appendix, thus delivering it ultimately into the camp of fiction. Another story about artists (and photographers again) but very different indeed, it concerns a writer also called Marianne Wiggins, who is trying to sell a film concept about Edward Curtis, a man who became famous for his pictures of native American Indians. Curtis was a quixotic figure, portrayed in this book as a man whose ambition and drive made him single-minded to the point of psychosis. Except of course he wasn’t mad at all, just selfish and determined. When the book opens, Marianne Wiggins is attempting the impossible, pitching his life to Hollywood minions with all the nuance and sophistication left in. She can see how a simplistic biopic could develop out of the skeleton of the story, a handsome, adventuring man, on a quest to record the native Indian tribes for posterity out of a fear they might become extinct. Her story is focused altogether differently, on the human cost of Curtis’s obsessions, the wife and children he abandoned for most of their lives, and the way he cunningly reinvented himself in order to ensure his own wellbeing without a thought for those he left behind. Having framed Curtis for us, the narrative then splits into two directions, one heads back to the past, with a fictional recreation of Edward Curtis’s early life with his wife, Clara, the other remains in the nominal present as Wiggins receives a bizarre phone call from a hospital in Las Vegas where they claim to have admitted her father as a cardiac patient. This is strange indeed for Wiggins, whose father died twenty years ago. In this part of the narrative she heads out on a long drive to uncover the truth about this peculiar event, fuelled by the hope of elucidating the mysteries her father’s suicide left in his wake.

The ostensible focus of the narrative is on abandoning fathers. The whys and wherefores of men who can somehow walk out on their families, seemingly oblivious to the pain and the conflict they leave behind. It’s a book about the misleading trickiness of evidence – the artifacts and clues that history scatters, as well as the archival evidence in the form of pictures and photography. The text is studded with photographs, mostly by Curtis, but some personal ones of Wiggins’ family. The fact that Curtis’s photographs were somewhat misleading, applying a timeless gloss to pictures that were taken quite late in the twentieth century leads the reader to wonder, when we reach the picture of Marianne Wiggins’s parents, whether we are really looking at her actual parents, or is some fictional rug being pulled out from under our feet? Unreliability, uncertainty, tricks of perspective, the absolute enigma of silence and unknowing, these are the elements that weave in and out of the exquisite prose of this novel. Absent fathers end up glorified in legend, it would seem, but if inquisitive subsequent generations start to pick those legends apart, it is extraordinary to find how flimsy and insubstantial the stage sets of their glory really are, and how ignominious the truth may be. This is the upfront concern of the narrative, but while I read this book I got the distinct impression that the truth of the story, its heart, was somewhere else altogether.

This is a brilliant book in many ways, but an uneven one in others. The writing never falters in quality and Wiggins is amazingly good at chatting away in a disarmingly easy style while bringing thoughts and ideas into startling conjunctions. She makes it look simple and it’s extremely hard to do. Also the historical sections of the novel work wonderfully well. I was completely sucked into the story of Edward and Clara and their difficult marriage. But as we reach the end, it feels like the author puts her foot down on the accelerator and a lot of things I would like to have known about we zoomed past on the way to a neat, clever but slightly perplexing resolution. This is what makes me think that missing fathers is not really the heart of this book, because Wiggins has to exert such control over her material to make it so. Not that this diminished my enjoyment of the book in any way – I read this hungrily from start to finish. But the real beauty of the narrative lies in its lacunas and shadows, the shadows that precisely it cannot catch although they quite clearly indicate the presence of something real. I would love to have known what kind of license Wiggins took with her own family history, but she does not say and to some extent that frustration is part of the deal. However plausible her reconstruction of Curtis’s life, we cannot know whether she has the truth of it, either, as biography is the form of narrative from which an absolute truth is always missing. Exploiting the fictionality of what is real is a seam of gold that literature will continue to mine in the next few years, I think. And I’d warmly recommend either of these books as good places to read the burgeoning of literary interest in that borderline between fact and fiction.


5 thoughts on “Last Reviews of 2008

  1. Well I think it’s a good sign that you had such a strong reaction to the Rachel Cohen in the sense of wishing you’d written it yourself. So do you have something similar in mind – with different artists? Enjoy the quiet time and I’m interested to hear about the many books you got for Christmas.

  2. The Cohen book sounds really good as does the Wiggins. I have the Wiggins on my shelf. My husband read it some time ago and really liked it but he didn’t articulate his liking quite like you did, “it’s good, you should read it” isn’t very compelling and so it continues to sit on the shelf. Now I understand why he liked it so much! 🙂

  3. I had a chance to buy the Cohen book last week and I passed it up! Stupid me! Interesting idea that nonfiction is moving toward collections of intermingling fragments — if that’s the case, and I’ll bet you’re right, I’m very happy because that the sort of nonfiction I like to read. Jenny Diski does a good job of bringing together a number of different stories and teasing out connections among them.

  4. Emily – yes, I could quite see what you meant. So much happened in one chapter, and so many coincidences. A lesser writer than Wiggins would have ruined the book by that ending, but she still manages to pull it off – just! Pete – I might post a picture of my Christmas books, but there are quite a lot of them and it will look like sheer greed on my part (although I admit it – I AM greedy where books are concerned). The UK book market will never let me publish a book on literary history, not in these straitened times, but maybe one day, you never know! Stefanie – lol! There are moments when your Bookman reminds me so much of my husband it’s scary! 🙂 But I would love to know what you think of the Wiggins – it’s a very intriguing, very unusual and yet very accessible read. Dorothy – oh now you would like the Cohen, but never mind, because whenever you next need a treat, it will be there waiting for you! I have ordered Diski’s Skating to Antarctica because I loved the sound of it so much and can’t wait to read it. That kind of non-fiction is so interesting, but so difficult to write. Perhaps that’s why such fantastic books are created within those parameters.

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