“Don’t read this book if you are depressed. Yikes.”–Amazon.com reader review of Paint It Black
Janet Fitch has a new book out, Paint It Black, and so that this dark etching might be properly framed, and hopefully some light then cast in its direction, some background information will prove useful. Fitch’s first book, White Oleander, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club shortly after it was published in 1999 (a movie followed in 2002.) This after Fitch had labored in relative obscurity for years in her home town, Los Angeles.
Oprah Winfrey, TV’s well-read matriarch-cum-regent, has anointed more than a few deserving authors over the years.Jonathan Franzen is a member of some standing, though he has openly discussed the stigma of being a Book Club boy or girl. Oprah has moved mountains by moving Americans to read more, more Faulkner, more Garcia Marquez, more Carol Oates, Steinbeck, and – Sydney Poitier? In any case, Oprah has also moved a few books for hucksters like James Frey, a few more for the good people at, oh, Amazon.com. A writer would be right to wonder about the implications of being in The Club, because they are probably not all as easy to recognize and identify as the sudden affirmative media attention – and the accompanying thunderclap of fall-off-your-chair sales figures. For instance, what if the follow-up to your breakout book just isn’t very good? Franzen has had less to say on that subject.
Without discernible irony, Janet Fitch once professed to maintain a shrine to Oprah in her home, something besides a television. And why should she not? After all, Oprah’s induction of White Oleander into The Club made Janet Fitch an overnight success, validating years of work. The question is, what reader has a shrine to Janet Fitch, whether the devout Oprah acolyte, or, like me, just someone who picked up White Oleander at the sincere urging of a non-televised friend? And how many of the Fitch faithful will keep the candles burning for her now that Paint It Black is out?
It is hard to imagine that, with Paint It Black, support from the Oprah camp – surely the rock on which Fitch’s wing of her publishing house, Little, Brown, rests – will not to some degree erode. More pointedly, Paint It Black will confound the serious reader engaged in a comparison of the book to its predecessor. It’s not just that Paint It Black is a weak sophomore effort. It’s that what preceded it was of such quality, and soared to such great heights.
White Oleander does run before some powerful winds. It is written with a soulful savagery, the language never failing to try to capture both the broadest sweep of earthly beauty and the innermost essence of personal pain. The narrator, Astrid Magnussen, is fourteen when she begins her journey down a twisted chain of ever more fantastic and frightening L.A.-area foster homes. Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, a noted poet, is sent to prison for poisoning a man who was her lover. Yet even in prison, where her notoriety and artistic standing seem only to grow, Ingrid Magnussen maintains a profound, almost malevolent influence over Astrid’s life. Central to the book’s success is Fitch’s inspired evocation of the psychological connection between this mother and daughter, in all its complex, contradictory, and adversarial intensity. So, White Oleander not only floats, it slices over water into which other books sink.
Of course, White Oleander has its little leaks, and its leaks hint at some of the problems that sink its successor. It is too long – too much ballast, as it were, in the form of at times achingly florid, fulsome prose. In this passage, Astrid’s voice rings with a concise clarity: “Niki and Yvonne had pierced my ears one day when they were bored. I let them do it. It pleased them to shape me. I’d learned, whatever you hung from my earlobes or put on my back, I was insoluble, like sand in water. Stir me up, I always came to rest on the bottom.” But it keeps going, so on the same page: “I had been in foster care almost six years now, I had starved, wept, begged, my body was a battlefield, my spirit scarred and cratered as a city under siege.” Fitch trips herself up when she indulges in such passages, running on (literally) with these broadest of brushstrokes. Then, maybe an author deserves to be spared the criticism of reaching a bit too far if she proves, as Janet Fitch has with White Oleander, that she is capable of rendering a nuanced beauty, and a dignity, out of the often pitiable human condition.
Enter Josie Tyrell, protagonist of Paint It Black. She is a humble Bakersfield bean sprout transplanted in the big, bad city. Josie’s Harvard rich kid-turned-artist boyfriend, Michael, has a problem: he has just killed himself. Now Josie must struggle to find out who he really was. It’s tough. Along the way, Josie forms an unlikely bond with Michael’s overbearing, patrician mother, while occasionally navigating her way through the cemetery at Griffith Park, and the wilds of the 1980 L.A. punk scene, as it were, as it was, as it may have been. The book opens with Josie observing how an artist friend of hers, whom she poses for, becomes misty-eyed while listening to a John Lennon album in his studio, Lennon having just been killed. Josie’s take: “people were playing the same fucking Beatles songs until you wanted to throw up.” This is her disposition before she learns of the death of the love of her own life, but in any case, we’re off.
The trade winds that propelled White Oleander to welcoming shores have somehow conflated into a perfect storm of literary peril, and Paint It Black is a balky boat. Like that of the former, the tone of the latter is heavy, yet somehow hollow, so that a passage such as the following: “How right that the body changed over time, becoming a gallery of scars, a canvas of experience, a testament to life and one’s capacity to endure it,” which so closely echoes the passages from W.O. cited above, here seems so painfully self-conscious, more of a glance behind the curtain than into the heart of the character on the stage. Fitch relies so heavily on this sort of weight-of-the-world internal monologue; it quickly becomes redundant, like slapping a corpse. Part of the comparative problem is the use of third person in Paint It Black, where White Oleander was told in the voice of Astrid Magnussen, who is, after all, a teenager, not to mention an extraordinarily compelling character. Josie Tyrell, not so much, though Fitch seems literally to want to crawl inside her skin, and maybe should have. It’s tempting to judge third person narration more of a challenge because, unlike first person where the story is one big stream of monologue, the protagonist’s voice does not automatically set the tone. To borrow a hackneyed writer’s workshop phrase, the omniscient narrator must rely more on show than tell.
Fitch still shows a lot, a lot of Los Angeles, between Josie’s two spheres, the jaded punk-rock bohemia, slowly choking on its own vomit; and the coldly cultured upper-crust, slowly, well, choking on its own vomit. There’s vomit and excrement in every corner of this town. Witness this exchange between Josie and an exiled German punk rock hellion, Lola Lola:
“Americans insist on the superior shit, consuming acres of bran cereal, the better to have big attractive ones. Did you know that all the best perfume has a little bit of shit in it?”
Josie shook her head. A little turd floating in the Chanel No. 5.
Still with us? Okay then; moving on.
Fitch does know L.A. and, like a Joan Didion or a Mike Davis with a novelist’s elan, she reaches yet again for something lofty: a description of the cultural anthropology of Los Angeles itself. White Oleander accomplished this feat so thoroughly that the book could be required reading in such a course of study. But in Paint It Black, the vision, the spheres, never coalesce into something true, or even plausible. Paint It Black is never quite dull, though, and therein lies perhaps the best evidence that the soulful savagery Fitch conjured in White Oleander still burns.
At bottom, what awaits people who read and enjoyed White Oleander when they pick up Paint It Black is perhaps just a letdown. This idea has something to do with the reason why White Oleander was chosen by Oprah for The Club, now 55 books strong, or thereabouts. The letdown has to do with confronting a character, a young female protagonist, Josie Tyrell, who, though outwardly similar in some ways to Astrid Magnussen, is in fact fundamentally her opposite. There may come a moment when the reader realizes that Josie Tyrell is categorically unstable, the anti-Astrid. The book as farce is an interesting way to read it. And maybe, just maybe, this is where Fitch jumps the mic on what was almost certain to be labeled an Oprah letdown, a sophomore slump, or what have you, this second novel of hers. Perhaps, shrine notwithstanding, Fitch was discerning when it came to confronting the curse of The Club, and set out to create the anti-Oleander, something cunningly irredeemable. Something for critics to crow about – or not, as the unfortunate case may be. And something for Oprah to ignore.
These two books are black and white, and there are exhausted homunculi out there for whom they may someday be read all over.