The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
This guest contribution comes from Timothy R. Homan, a journalist based in Washington, D.C.Counterterrorism officials in the United States, and elsewhere, have failed to utilize two easily accessible tools in the war against terrorism, according a former FBI undercover agent who uses his personal experiences to support his recommendations in Thinking Like a Terrorist (Potomac Books, 2007).Author Mike German’s prescription is simple: Examine publicly available texts published by terrorist groups and study effective techniques previously used by governments to combat terrorism.So how should the United States and its allies deal with al Qaeda? Readers who are hoping to gain secret access to the mindset of Osama bin Laden and his operatives will be sorely disappointed. The book devotes a mere 10 pages, out of 200, to discuss the U.S.-led war on terrorism.Instead, neo-Nazi groups in the United States and the Irish Republican Army are discussed in great detail. In that respect, German sticks to what he knows best, and he tends not to overreach. It’s unfortunate, though, because German doesn’t apply yesterday’s lessons to today’s challenges, other than pointing out that the United States fulfilled al Qaeda’s wishes by bringing the war on terrorism to the Middle East.In this very readable book, German’s greatest strength comes in describing his years working undercover for the FBI infiltrating neo-Nazi groups. His tales are riveting and put a human face on people known more for their appearance, as skinheads, than the complexity of their ideology. This 25-page section at the beginning of the book not only lends credibility to German’s later insights, it also reads like a primer on neo-Nazi activities in the United States, explaining how infighting and a lack of funding have rendered this fractured movement ineffective.But from there the book takes a questionable turn as German asserts that all terrorists operate in the same way. He says terrorists “don’t behave differently just because they live in different parts of the world.” Readers in Israel would undoubtedly dispute this claim, especially when one considers the prevalence of suicide bombers in the Middle East compared with the United States. To hear German tell it, busting up al Qaeda should be no more challenging than dismantling the Ku Klux Klan or the IRA. But that’s easier said than done.For one thing, the number of Arabic- or Urdu-speaking agents available to infiltrate al Qaeda is limited, to put in mildly, compared with white English speakers for undercover assignments in the United States or Northern Ireland.But when it comes to the meat of the book – how terrorists think, and what they think about – German excels. He describes how terrorists hate being referred to as mere criminals. They prefer to be known as political prisoners, if apprehended, and the martyr status that comes with it.Perhaps the most common characteristic among terrorists is having an us-versus-them mentality. It justifies all actions, no matter how violent. And these justifications come in the form of articulate and charismatic speakers, as well as prolific writers, aiming to foment fear and attract new members.Recognizing that there are always two sides to terrorism – terrorists and their targets – a significant portion of the book analyzes the actions of governments and discusses how they can sometimes act as the ultimate recruiting tool for terrorists, from investigations to prosecutions to torture. (References to abuses in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib are conspicuously absent in this portion of the book, though he later criticizes the detention of enemy combatants.)German takes an even-handed approach in describing the views of terrorist groups by letting them speak for themselves. He uses excerpts from communiques and manifestos rather than relying on experts to give summarized interpretations. Many readers are likely to be exposed to these unedited texts for the first time.But in citing these texts, German often disparages modern-day terrorist groups for cribbing their mission statements from previous terrorist organizations. At times, the same could be said of German’s book. Besides his personal experiences with law enforcement, German uses the work of historians, and even philosophers, to buttress his arguments.German eventually tries his hand at original analysis by introducing what he terms the Government Accountability Scale after writing, “First we need to find a way to evaluate the relative legitimacy of different governments using objective criteria.”c A noble goal, to be sure, but such evaluations usually require more than the four pages allotted by German.The scale is meant to measure the extent to which a government is either repressive or free and open, as a way to determine the legitimacy of terrorist activities. The only problem is that there are only two data points on German’s scale: fascism and democracy. Governments are either like Italy under Mussolini or the United States since its inception.This analytical tool contributes little to the existing body of knowledge about the relationship between states and terrorists. And for a book that doesn’t hesitate to lapse into government speak with acronyms like COINTELPRO, short for the FBI’s Counter-intelligence Program, the Government Accountability Scale receives no such shorthand. Perhaps that’s because referring to “the GAS” would detract from the issue at hand.German often takes a historical approach in laying the groundwork for his analyses. In doing so, he poses several thought-provoking, what-if scenarios to highlight terrorism’s evolution, and how perception plays a determining role.For example, should Polish Jews who attacked Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto be considered terrorists or members of the resistance? And what if Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was targeting child molesters? Would his actions be more acceptable?Overall, the book offers overwhelming praise for the infallibility of the U.S. legal system in its usefulness in fighting terrorism. But German has harsh words for American officials conducting this war, and he offers the moral of this story with the book’s parting words: “We can’t survive as a nation committed to the rule of law if we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We know what that kind of thinking is. That’s thinking like a terrorist.”
April Ayers Lawson’s debut, Virgin and Other Stories, arrives under the dazzling mantle of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize (2011). The prize-winning story — the titular “Virgin” — has much in common with its four bedfellows, exploring themes of sex, religion, and art. For these characters, questions of faith tend to be secondary and faint — not overwhelming, just inevitable — while their artistic and sexual ambitions are firmly in the foreground. The result is refreshing territory with unexpected crossover: Lawson’s work makes casual reference to Bob Jones University and to Damien Hirst with equal authority.
Miss May Grant, the histrionic piano teacher in “The Way You Must Play Always,” is trapped in a house with her ill brother, stressing the importance of tempo to bored teenagers. Conner, narrator of “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” masturbates to Andrew Wyeth’s Helga images. In “Vulnerability,” the narrator — who insists that her guest room is a “studio” — describes an affair with her art dealer. In “Virgin,” Sheila, a musician, is the child of “devout fundamentalists.” Miss Grant is no joke: she went to Juilliard. Conner’s appreciation of Wyeth’s paintings, even for masturbatory purposes, is articulated more clearly than anything the art dealer says about art. The painter with the guest room studio in Georgia finds representation in New York, and Sheila plays first viola in an orchestra. So which art is the good art? Who are the real artists? Who cares? Lawson’s stories seem to ask, rather gleefully. You paint and you play to distract yourself from pain. You are whatever you say you are.
This project of asserting identity — I am an artist! I am a Christian! — drives the finest of Lawson’s work. In “Virgin,” Jake marries Sheila, a virgin, who declines to have sex with him until well into their marriage. The story is crammed with flashback (in fact, dominated by it), but takes place over the course of a party Jake must attend for work. Soon enough, the reader inhabits Jake’s wary, possessive gaze: Sheila is “always…stretching lately, especially in public.” On another occasion, she “look[s] especially nice for her [orchestra] practice.” Sheila “ha[s], with her pouty lips, what [Jake] and his friends, as teenagers, would have happily referred to as ‘a slutty face.’” At the party, he worries about his ability to “mind” her. To put these thoughts in perspective, here are the story’s opening lines, in which Jake is gazing at someone other than his wife: “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.”
A-ha, we think: this is a story about hypocrisy, and marital jealousy, and double standards, and sex. “Virgin” is all of those things, but what lifts it beyond the familiar is the way Lawson guides her readers to join Jake in his ugliness. Like Jake, we wonder why a person comes home from orchestra practice at “close to two in the morning.” Like Jake, we wonder if Sheila’s missed therapy appointments are really due to “roadwork.”
Lawson, splicing Jake’s first impressions of his wife with the woman beside him, makes us wonder if the initial version of Sheila was authentic. “I hate flirting,” she announces upon meeting him, then explains the reason people like high heels: “Lordosis. You know: the arch of a woman’s back during copulation?” It’s a brilliant moment — a suggested knowingness combined with the awkwardness of choosing the word “copulation.” Sheila sounds as if she’s reciting an entry from the dictionary: it isn’t exactly sexy, but it’s very much about sex.
This is smart dialogue, spoken by eager, hungry, embarrassing, believable human beings. (“I respect that very much,” Jake says when Sheila tells him she’s a virgin; reading that, it is hard not to roll your eyes at him). The way Lawson uses backstory is less impressive. Sheila is a survivor of sexual abuse, and Jake is the son of a woman who falls in love too easily. Though these histories are not unworthy of her attention, Lawson uses them to provide traumas that explain everything. Using the device of a therapist’s office, Lawson gives Sheila several pages to speak, without interruption, about her uncle’s advances. The best of Sheila’s revelation are the moments where compassion and irrelevancy surge onto the page: for instance, her aunt Miri vomits upon discovering what her husband has been doing to his niece. “I remember how she leaned over to throw up on the hardwood floor instead of the rug,” Sheila says. A heartbreaking detail, and one that tells us more about Sheila than much of the exposition she delivers.
The explanatory traumas surface in other stories, too: in “Vulnerability,” the narrator, like Sheila, is a survivor of sexual abuse. In “The Way You Must Play Always,” 13-year-old Gretchen is found “alone with her cousin Jamie in the basement of her grandma’s house.” Though Gretchen ventures there willingly, after “several times,” Gretchen “did not want to do that again.” Jamie, who is three years older, “bit[es] her ear too hard in passionate moments.” Gretchen doesn’t want this, exactly, though, “she couldn’t remember if he’d touched her first.” Later — prescribed Christian school and piano lessons by her anxious, conservative parents — she “craves” her cousin.
In spite of Jamie’s hard bite, Gretchen wants the thrill of male attention. She develops a swift infatuation with her piano teacher’s brother, Wesley, who suffers from a brain tumor and spends his days smoking in his bedroom. During their first encounter, Wesley touches Gretchen’s shoulder. “Something in her belly stirred, this due not to his touch but to his smell. He did not smell good. But something in his musk, part dirt like the joint he smoked, part winey and sweet, made her want to put her face to his neck, the way she had with Jamie.” What follows are the antics of a bold, infatuated adolescent. There are small rebellions: Gretchen wears a silk dress to Miss Grant’s house “for him.” Then she wears it again, even though her mother forbids it, even though it is dirty, because she likes the way it feels. Gretchen’s longing for Wesley consumes her, though he can be grotesque in his illness — “he was the first person whom she wanted simultaneously to stare at and look away from.” Eventually, during Miss Grant’s too-convenient emergency absence, Wesley shares pot with Gretchen and “guid[es] her hand between the folds of the robe.” Miss Grant returns (another convenience) to interrupt this liaison shortly after it begins.
Lawson writes teenagers well — the few lines of dialogue from Fiona, Miss Grant’s other piano student, are hilarious and true — but here, as in “Virgin,” certain details feel contrived just to make the story work. The piano lessons exist as a direct response to Gretchen’s encounters with Jamie, a thread that gets dropped and abandoned early on. The lessons, Lawson writes, are meant to “ground” Gretchen. Alas, they do not succeed.
Though Gretchen never meets the narrator of a different story, I’m certain they’d get along splendidly. In “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” Conner, like Gretchen, is the child of watchful, religious parents. Like Gretchen, Conner is curious about sex, and much of the story documents his tedious, unsurprising pursuit of a girl at church named Ally Kapawski. Less convincing, though slightly more interesting, is Conner’s obsession with his mother’s friend Charlene, a transgender woman whom he finds intensely discomfiting. (“How did I figure out Charlene was a man? It just hit me — that’s the funny thing.”) Charlene’s death is rather ineffectual — it mostly serves as a way to launch Conner’s memories of her. The story’s most poignant moments occur when he is moved by the music in Charlene’s church: “When the organ started up I felt the vibrations of its notes through my feet…A shiver went up my spine and I felt all spiritual and corny.” And later: “The organ paused and started up again. The sound went up inside of me and I tried to push it out but I couldn’t.” This is a delightful and unexpected contrast to the loss-of-faith narrative (Conner’s father, for instance, mourns the weakness of his faith: “I don’t feel anything.”)
Conner, a great appreciator of Andrew Wyeth’s Helga paintings, confesses to stealing an art book from the library. In “Vulnerability,” the unnamed narrator also steals from the library — in this case, an issue of Art Forum featuring a painter she likes. In a collection of only five stories, two of them include people who feel the urge to steal something they could have borrowed freely. Or maybe they couldn’t. Lawson is sensitive to the consumer habits of children raised in conservative homes, where the morality of every song lyric, every page of a book, may be under scrutiny. In Gretchen’s case, her mother objects to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” claiming that its reference to heaven is “sacrilegious.”
There are escapes from these strictures, especially for men. In “The Way You Must Play Always,” Gretchen’s father occasionally drinks in the shed. In “Vulnerability,” the narrator’s husband also drinks in the shed — one of the few clues Lawson offers to shape the character. In fact, the husband’s primary function seems to be a way to explain why the narrator doesn’t have a job. Instead, she paints, develops fixations on other artists, and makes her way to New York to meet an art dealer.
Most of the story focuses on her pursuit of the artist, H., and the art dealer. The prose is frequently flat and repetitive, as it is in the weakest story in the collection, “Three Friends in a Hammock.” In “Vulnerability,” the narration can be painfully introspective, as when the narrator — who is both a painter and a writer — reflects on a conversation with her dealer: “But I wouldn’t have known how to write about him then because he didn’t make sense to me, everything he said seeming to have double or hidden or artfully implied meaning. But then again, possibly it didn’t mean as much as I thought it did. And when I think back on the whole conversation, a lot of what we both said did and didn’t make sense in a way.”
When the story breaks from dull summary, it’s often in the service of a shift in point of view. This can feel like a gimmick — we move from first-person to second to third — but, gimmick or not, it is something of a relief. The sections in third-person give the formerly first-person narrator confidence. Here she is just “the painter,” not an aspiring artist. Instead of sentences like “Complication radiated off of him in a way that I’d up until that time been unfamiliar with,” we get this: “Her skin appeared scaly in places…The odd white flecks of skin caught in the light like the pills on a thinning, overwashed sweater.” Third-person narration also frees the story to give a chilling depiction of the abuse she suffered: “[H]e would’ve reclined onto the bed from which he’d cleared the extra pillows and stuffed animals, exposing the bare flat surface of the bed that when she was alone frightened her so that she’d crowd the animals with whom she conversed when alone around on either side.” This portrait — of a person who mitigates her fear with the presence of stuffed animals — is far stronger than the first-person allusions to “the thing that had happened to me.” The pained evasiveness rings true, but the prose begins to default to that mode, to its own detriment.
When Lawson reaches for the concrete, the detailed, and the immediate, we get the best of what she can do: the “carnival grass” colors of a dirty silk dress, “a pale pink sliver of trout f[alling] from [a] fork.” We see meals of “clonazepam and wine and french fries.” We watch Conner, eager to protect his mother, attack a stranger until he feels “our bones collide.” When she avoids abstraction and resists exposition, Lawson’s prose grows sturdy, rich, irrepressible.
American War, the debut novel from Omar El Akkad, presents a highly plausible dystopia in the not so distant American future. The Second American Civil War erupts over a dispute about the nation’s energy future, with the North embracing green technology and renewables and the South clinging steadfastly to fossil fuels. El Akkad deftly places climate change as a primary force of national disintegration; the geography of this future post-coastal America has been permanently altered by climate change and geographic sectarianism, leaving the battle for American identity to be fought between the Midwest and the South. The new Northern (Blue) capital is Columbus, Ohio, and the capital of the Free Southern (Red) State is Atlanta. The landscape is dramatically different, but the tenor of the politics in the novel is eerily familiar. The newly dominant Bouazizi Empire of Middle Eastern and North African states united from the “Fifth Spring” Arab democratic revolutions is now seeking to manipulate a civil war in the once “soaring, roaring, and oblivious” America. Here, El Akkad not so subtly suggests the corruptibility of democratic states to imperial pursuits. He creates the theatre of conflict in which the novel’s protagonist stakes her claim.
Sarat Chestnut is a fascinating study of the border between justice and ruthlessness. Sarat grows up in a small river town in Louisiana just outside the Free Southern State until her father is killed in a “homicide bombing.” Early on, she doesn’t display inclinations that portend political consciousness, but, instead, an inwardness leading her to a crucial choice: resistance as an existential imperative or capitulation to the meaninglessness of war, death, and the transience of life.
Sarat spends her early childhood examining her surroundings, once pressing “her finger to the needles of a yucca plant,” and finding them “brown and rigid, immune to sun and storm.” It seems to her that nature is the constant, and it is meaningless. Consequently, she views sexuality as an ulterior concern, noticing the “dramatic concern for things that seemed inane and devoid of adventure: the color and style of skirts, the arrival of facial hair, the mysterious topology of flesh.” It’s an unusually extreme kind of seriousness for a kid her age; then again, this is an unusually extreme historical moment in which she finds herself. When her mother, Martina, moves the family to a refugee camp, the stage is set for Sarat’s radicalization.
At the ominously named Camp Patience, Sarat and her family subsist, waiting for the inevitable Northern incursion where they will be slaughtered. There, she is radicalized by a savvy ideologue named Albert Gaines. He hones her igneous intensity into a fixed bayonet of insurgent rage. Here, her naiveté is on full display. Betraying her provincial roots, she’s just not suspicious enough of the overly smooth Gaines. And the clues are not few. At one point even, Gaines, wearing an unwrinkled suit, jumps the shark by offering her caviar. Still, it is clear she is more taken by the persona of Gaines than by his ideas, which are little more than a melange of nativist and anti-imperialist tropes. She sees in him a cultured man, a man in the fray and above it, and it would be hard for any sensitive young person not to find that alluring. But the real radicalizing moment for Sarat is when Northern Blues storm Camp Patience and murder scores of helpless refugees.
El Akkad is excellent here in judiciously refraining from making clear whether it is Gaines’s ideology or the wanton carnage that radicalizes Sarat. When the Northern militias storm Camp Patience, she fights for her life, even relentlessly stabbing a foe until she can’t slash him anymore. Is this the inspiration Gaines imparted to her, or her desire to wreak vengeance on the marauding hordes from the North? After she draws her first blood, she cuts herself as a form of anesthetic as “the heat of life left the man, but she did not feel it.” She achieves the paradox of the revolutionary, of the insurgent, which is ruthlessness in the service of justice.
One weakness of the novel is the lack of development of Sarat’s close childhood friend, Marcus Exum, who departs early for the safety of the North, where he eventually becomes a Union Blue officer. Later on, the two are reunited and Sarat feels genuine warmth toward him, even though he has chosen a life antithetical to everything she stands for. Nowhere does she show this same level of mercy or understanding for anyone else, and thus it falls flat. We all know the mere fact of being friends with someone in childhood is no guarantee of sentimental feeling later, especially in the context of the novel here, where Sarat’s entire identity if predicated on a fiercely sectarian orientation to the world.
And that fierce devotion to radical insurgency should be her most noble trait, but, as the novel progresses, it proves to be the most damning. After she’s given up and betrayed by Gaines to the Northern forces, she is tortured in the “Non-Compliance Area” of the dubiously named prison, “Sugarloaf,” clearly a futuristic version of Guantanamo Bay. She is waterboarded and confesses to all crimes she’s charged with: “complicity in all manner of insurrectionist violence, things she’d never heard of before.” El Akkad here deploys a subtle critique of torture as not only immoral, but ineffective, as captives will say literally anything to make the pain stop — a direct critique of the Bush administration’s embrace of torture and Donald Trump’s lurid flirtation with it.
Roughly the final quarter the novel is narrated by Sarat’s nephew, Benjamin Chestnut. It’s the end of the war, and Benjamin is the voice of a postwar generation sorting through its cultural inheritance. He’s intrigued and ultimately disillusioned by his famous, war-grizzled aunt, living again with her brother (his father), Simon, and his wife, Karina, on the family property in Lincolnton, Ga., not far from Atlanta. Over time, he gets to know her. He feels affection for her, but, frustratingly, he never can get to the core of who she is. She remains inscrutable to him. Ultimately, in adulthood, Benjamin concludes that Sarat’s will to fight was an act of mourning, a profound unhappiness born of helplessness and protracted, pointless struggle.
He recalls one day from his childhood when he and Sarat went swimming in the river near their home. As they get out to dry themselves, he marvels at her body, that intricately austere record of the ravages of war, with its “strange rivulets of scarred skin that lined her upper arms and shoulders, dead-looking and paler than the rest of her.” When she was waterboarded, the sense of drowning overwhelmed her, and she couldn’t resist anymore. No one could. Drowning is universal. There are limits to resistance, even if there are no limits to one’s capacity to resist. Whether it be the metaphorical drowning of American cultural disintegration or the rising seas of a warming, carbon-clogged planet, Sarat’s lust for vengeance is a fight against rising waters sure to submerge us all.
Certain moments of writing duress don’t require the consultation of literary masters and heroes, they call for a different doctor altogether. Some days, after fussing with lamps, chairs and pens, the only activity that ends the wheel spinning and gains me safe passage to work is to look at paintings. As a graduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I visited paintings by Vija Celmins or Gerhard Richter on my way to class or the library. But I’m not a student anymore; I can’t go traipsing off to museums each time I feel stuck or uncertain. The next best thing, I’ve found, is to read about pictures.
The writer who consistently causes an idea to well up, an image to take form and become vivid, whose style and enthusiasm for visual art inspires me to leave my house and go see art as well as to stay home and make my own, is Michael Kimmelman. Kimmelman has been the chief art critic for The New York Times since 1990. For the last two years he’s been abroad writing culture pieces, “German Border Threat: Cheap Books” and “At Louvre Many Stop to Snap, but Few Stay to Focus” are just two standouts, and he has a pair of excellent books that promise to get the heart pumping and the brain cogitating on issues of form and content.
Painter Louise Belcourt introduced me to Kimmelman’s 1998, Portraits, Talking with Artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre and Elsewhere back when I was a casual fan of his Times columns, where these “idiosyncratic biographies” originally appeared in slightly different, more concise forms. The book is sixteen conversations Kimmelman held with artists – Balthus, Kiki Smith, Lucian Freud, and Cindy Sherman among them – as they led him through the museum of their choosing. Francis Bacon made a beeline for the Constables at the Victoria and Albert; Hans Haacke had as much to say about the way the Metropolitan functions socially as the art it houses; at the Pompidou, Henri Cartier-Bresson took out a sketchbook and drew Matisse’s 1917 portrait of the collector Auguste Pellerin.
When I read Portraits, I am simultaneously transported back to my earliest days of looking at art (the 1970’s, when my mother drove us from suburban New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel to Walter de Maria’s “Earth Room,” followed by a weird sandwich at Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD and the payoff: Spring Street Books) and forward, as I take my two children to see art around L.A. and as I write about characters whose lives are dominated by odd and makeshift art practices.
“Cézanne was the first painter I saw when I was a young art student: it was like knocking on a door and hearing an answer,” Elizabeth Murray tells Kimmelman. “You’re changing at that point in your life, there’s all that teenage angst, and I was looking for some reason to be an artist. And then I saw a little still life by Cézanne and it was like a voice saying hello to me. There was something incredibly sensual and human in Cézanne’s work.”
These essays are distinct from an interview or review; Kimmelman provides plenty of room for a wide range of artists to think and speak about art. Each essay locates the artist and his work historically in graceful, lucid prose. Kimmelman’s commentary is astute and he generously quotes the artists about the pieces they visit in an engaged and organized fashion. Only because the essays are so interesting does one mind that particular artists are not included.
Like Elizabeth Murray, I’ve had a transformative experience in front of a Cézanne (“Melting Snow, Fontainebleau” (1879-80), at The Modern in the late 1980s.) When I look at a favorite picture, I sense an assuring greeting akin to the one that Murray describes, the one that tells me that even though my own work can be hard and slow going, I will, by wit or by will, capture my own lyrical waves and exciting leaps. Kimmelman understands the push implicit in Murray’s words – the one that every artist makes in order to get right up close to her vision. He quotes Murray, “…he (Cézanne) hit on something that’s really essential for artists: allowing your unconscious to take you places that you may not even want to go.” These essays are invitations to the reader to do the same thing – allow your mind to rove unrestrained.
When I wrote my first novel, The American Painter Emma Dial, Matisse’s “Interior at Nice” and “Lorette with Cup of Coffee” were touchstones; they gave me energy and determination to forge a fresh path for my protagonist; they existed as proof that Emma Dial’s pursuits were meaningful and maybe thrilling. Mary Heilmann’s “Surfing on Acid” was the cover of the November 2007, Artforum; I tore it off and kept it with my manuscript and later with the first pass proofs, pretending it was the cover of the book.
In the early aughts, I heard Kimmelman speak in Chicago. He held a large audience of over-prepared art lovers rapt. “What about all these terms: modernism, minimalism, expressionism, neo-expressionism, post-modernism…” a woman wondered before his talk began. Kimmelman waved the question away. “Don’t worry about what other people, historians, call things,” he told us. Many in the audience had blue hair and were closely associated with The Art Institute, The Renaissance Society and University of Chicago. Kimmelman, the trained art historian, encouraged us to value our own impressions and to enjoy them.
Kimmelman observes of Kiki Smith that “…she’s also the perfect illustration of how an artist, as opposed to an art historian, talks about art because she freely says what comes to her mind without worrying about whether it’s historically germane.”
Now I live in Los Angeles, where the eight-mile drive to the Norton Simon Museum risks jam ups at the Pasadena exits and 210 merges. But in a pinch there are great treasures inside – Bonnard, Cézanne, Matisse. The collection includes Rembrandt prints though I’ve never seen them on view. But even reading about Rembrandt, someone else being moved by Rembrandt, Lucian Freud for instance, can conjure the moody portraits, the rich color, the faces gazing out as though we weren’t separated by centuries.
As Freud tells Kimmelman in the National Gallery: “You feel you are being privileged because Rembrandt is giving you an ennobling insight into the nature of people. I don’t mean he has made the people seem virtuous, but I mean it is ennobling to be told something so truthful.”
I’m writing a novel about a woman who is struggling to build a home for herself under the radar; the story is set in Los Angeles and much of it takes place outdoors. I look at paintings of people and landscapes to find details that I can’t observe in California but that I want to create in fiction. Any detail one might seek – a name, a face, a room, a shadow, an era, a feeling or the mere hint of one – exists in paint and it’s all available, for pleasure and plunder.
Freud continues: “I remember Francis Bacon would say that he felt he was giving art what he thought it previously lacked. With me, it’s what Yeats called the fascination with what’s difficult. I’m only trying to do what I can’t do.”
A number of the artists Kimmelman speaks with have things to say about Rembrandt, and not just about the despair and solitude he conveyed. Susan Rothenberg sought out a late self-portrait, from 1660 at the Met. “The texture of the surface is incredible, the buildup of paint in the wrinkled skin around the chin, and I realize that I’ll never get to this point myself but I hope someday to get to the point that Philip Guston did, knowing just what he wanted to paint, how to paint it, how much paint to use, how big the painting should be. Everybody has an end point where, if they do something all their life, they achieve a knowledge of themselves, like Guston. I don’t respect natural talent as much as perseverance.”
Armed with a murky outline, Kimmelman’s “Portraits,” the volumes of a few masters and heroes, tea and buttered toast, I inch forward at the computer, with various Renaissance and modern painters in mind, their shades of umber, ochre, sienna; associations come, I work with them, persevering through self-doubt and technical difficulty. Slowly the form, tone and texture of a story evolves, and the writing takes me to where I might not want to go and even, at times, becomes the very thing which I thought I could not do.