Friday, January 8, 2010

Courting Eternal Dissatisfaction (Books - Authenticity by Deirdre Madden)

Deirdre Madden is doing it again. I am captivated by the characters - the painter Roderick, his frightened brother Dennis - who trained as a pianist but works a regular job and looks out for his brother - and the rest of their disapproving family. The conceptual artist Julia. William the attorney in mid-life crisis who wishes for the thrills of the artistic life. Madden creates the swirling eddies of their individual lives - Roderick working odd jobs while trying to establish himself as a painter, Julia growing up with a single Dad. William is the one character whose story remains in the present, as is true when we are in crisis. The swirling forces of these lives converge, or really it is not as calm as that, they crash together and this book maps the origins and consequences of that crash.

This book has many traits in commons with the other five novels of Madden's I recently read. It moves between past and present events without comment, allowing consequence to intersect with antecedent, and vice-versa, in provocative ways. Roderick's early career receives a boost when he wins a 6-month artist's residence in Italy. That 6 months turns into 11 years as he eventually marries an Italian woman and they begin a family, although when we discover that in the narrative, we have only met Roderick as a 50-year-old long after his marriage has dissolved, or as a 20-year-old, prior to his meeting his future wife. We discover the fact as he tells it to Julia when they first meet, an event that takes place several years prior to the novel's present time frame. Madden renders the experience of the flow of time more than the actual fact of when in the conventional narrative time line events may have occurred. She has this trait in common with Virginia Woolf, and like Woolf makes much that is both beautiful and consequential out of the abstraction of time.

What I have come to think of as Madden's trademark is the most common narrative action running through all of her novels - a character imagining the circumstance or experience of another or at least imagining themselves in circumstances other than those they currently inhabit. This activity is the meat and potatos of the artist and is in some ways what distinguishes shall we say the artistic soul from other types of human creatures. It is germane to this novel in that so much of most artists' lives are given to struggling against cultural forces that keep them from creating via lack of opportunity, lack of tangible reward, or simple lack of respect and therefore much of one's formative existence as an artist can be taken up with imagining oneself actually working some day (it can be a tremendous creative energy drain, in fact). William, the attorney in mid-life crisis, has decided upon the artist's life as the escape route from the trap he feels his life has become. In so doing he is imagining a present different from the class-bound, suburban, repressed one he finds himself in. One of creativity, one in which he enjoys courting risk, one in which his friends look different, and his living circumstances look different. The artist's life may be seemingly full of thrill from the outside, but it is an existence empty of the things most of us are taught to aspire to - regularity, predictibility, security (even if those are in fact illusory) - it is a life full of constant adaptation to changing fortunes, little hope of retirement accounts or insurance, a deep dependence on other's fortunes to earn what little money you do earn, and every picture you have of days of the great creative ahas can be balanced with 50 days of empty pages and frustrating struggle. It is a life of, as Agnes deMille told Martha Graham, eternal dissatisfaction. (Not to say it is all misery by any means. There was so much joy in the 25 years I spent as a theatre artist). At the half-way point in this novel, I am seeing this as a story about the consequences of imagining - for those who do it for a living and for those who don't. For those whose imagined existences are close to the truth and for those whose are far, far away.

What is interesting in reading Authenticity is that it is twice as long as the other Madden novels I read. Molly Fox's Birthday, One by One in the Darkness, Remembering Light and Stone were all compact and tightly focused books. The story is more sprawling and that gives the writing a different character, but not in the way one might imagine. The other books had a great calm, in this one the spring is tightly wound. Although Madden can take longer to develop her characters, she does not use that as an excuse to write lazily. More detail is packed into more layers that make up the individuals and the characters also interact in more various ways. In the other books I wished I could spend more time with the characters. In Authenticity I can, and am not dissapointed. Some of the themes that characterized Madden's other novels - moral responsibility, the influences of the church, and of the political turmoil in Ireland - are absent here. Authenticity expends all its energy on contrasting the conventional life with the artistic one. I am enjoying it heartily and am sure I will have more to say once I have finished it, as well as an excerpt or two to share.

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