Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The value of picturing others (Books - Getting the Picture by Sarah Salway)

Sarah Salway's Tell Me Everything was not only my favorite novel of 2007, it introduced me to an artist who, like me, is fascinated by unusual human souls - the people life would typically try to ignore - obsessed with the creative process, and, through these common points I made a friend. So I read Sarah's recent novel Getting the Picture in that context (full disclosure complete).

The novel references a visit made by Maureen, a reserved, conventional, and married young woman, and her more adventurous friend, to Martin, a photographer who photographs woman nude. Martin not only ends up photographing Maureen, but also falling in love with her. Cut to the present day at Pilgrim House, a home to which Martin retires. There he writes long letters to Maureen, who has since died, and hatches a plan to be near George, her stern husband of many years, so that he may infiltrate her family. This body of the story is told through a series of letters, emails, and phone messages written by the book's cast of characters and in this way the reader uncovers the story (as Martin does), rather than reading a straightforward narrative account of it. This could be gimmicky but I found the form made the plot into a puzzle while at the same time making the novel very easy to read. One could call it a light read, but by that I don't mean insubstantial, because its themes are anything but. It deals with love and regret as seen from the perspective of the end of life. It observes the way people can close themselves off, how they can hide from the difficult experiences life throws one, particularly within families - and there are two families in this novel - one is Maureen's husband, daughters, and grand daughter and the other is the residents of Pilgrim House who themselves constitute a family. It also treats accessible human beings in a familiar, I would almost say ubiquitous situation - dealing with the needs of aging family members. It does so with realism and humor and it uses imagination to bring complexity and dignity to the aging characters; it does not rely on cliches, defining them by their diseases and limitations. In this way I would think Getting the Picture a shoe-in for book clubs. It is so much about our every-day experience. Upon finishing it, I immediately recommended it the Ragazzo's mother for her's.

I found Martin's need frighteningly desperate at times. He questions George trying to discover what he aspired to be in his youth. When he says "An accountant," Martin is incredulous:
I tried to look interested but not even his dreams were original. Remember you telling me you wanted to be the fairy at the top of the Christmas tree? And how you once spent all holiday crying because your father wouldn't put you up there. I would have made a tree big enough for you to stand on if you'd have spent even one Christmas with me. You know that. I felt like breaking down your window one Christmas when I saw you'd put up one of those artificial trees. I knew that wouldn't have been your choice.
Later in the story Martin sets himself up as a creative mentor to Robyn, George and Maureen's grand daughter, in a way that first seems helpful but later turns manipulative and even abusive of her. I'm not sure if Sarah intended Martin to come off as manipulative in a quirky but charming way or somewhat pathological, but his treatment of Robyn ultimately came off the latter to me.

The photographs in the novel function as icons, as they do in life, symbols of people - they are not the people themselves. Photographs are frozen in a past time, so this book also treats the theme of memory and how as one ages life can become less about day to day activities and interactions and more about past ones. Artists too can rely on memory to fuel their imaginations and there were times I could imagine Sarah, although I dont' know whether this is true, having found a few sepia photos at a flea market, and how these may have unleashed her imagination to create this story. What she has made in this novel is not as integrated a creation as Tell Me Everything, it does not have as coherent a narrative thrust, but nor do I think it means to. It is like a visual art installation in which each message is an image or object we can pick up in our hands. I am more aware of the artist working in this piece. In fact, when Martin mentors the character of Robyn to to try to bring the sullen teenager out of her self, it is through imaginative writing exercises that he is successful. So Getting the Picture means to make the reader aware of its process, it means to show its seams, for in some ways it is about the creation of character - in life as in art.

The novel's leitmotif is a photograph and a negative, if you will: the superficial versus interior knowledge of another person. The snapshot one gets when knowing someone only from the outside in a single context, versus who they are inside, who they are when they relate to their intimates, who they are to themselves in their fantasies, and sadly, who they become when there is no one to whom they show their deepest selves. As a literary device the letters and messages are an appropriate form for this novel in that they are like snapshots, you need more than one to know the whole story. And while a nude picture is literally revealing, it does not necessarily give the viewer an intimate relationship with the subject. However the subject themselves possesses that whole story and so posing for that photograph feels a kind of risk, perhaps akin to the risk we take when we tell someone we love them, or the risk artists take when they put themselves into their work. That is the reverse image contained in the novel, the risk that it takes to be known. This is not just the artists' journey, it is everyone's and this novel's message is that the risk is worth it.

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