Trouble Using Light: The Complications of Art in the Fiction of Christine Sneed
Making art can gnaw at you, wake you up in the middle of the night, and promise you too many paths or none at all. Christine Sneed is a writer who, from the beginning of her career, has been drawn to characters who attempt art, whether it’s painting, acting, screenwriting, or sculpture. What adds a distinctive depth to her work is this added complication: in her stories and novels she reveals the changes that occur from this quest in not only the artist’s life, but in the lives of surrounding friends and family.
In her first story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry(winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction), we see Sneed play out the first examples of this obsession. In the title story, the painter and sculptor Antonio Martedi has been dead for over a year, and his granddaughter April still feels the force of his personality and art. Shortly before his death he gave her the present of three sketchbooks of his work, with a warning never to show them to anyone else, saying, “If I wanted someone other than you to have these notebooks, I would have sold them myself a long time ago or donated them to some art school library.”
April, a struggling scriptwriter, becomes involved with a young artist who has already achieved some minor success, but she’s never quite sure if his interest in her isn’t only a reciprocation of her own attraction, but also a disguised desire to “claim some part, no matter how doubtful, of her grandfather’s genius.” He particularly wants to see those private sketchbooks, and even if April suspects that she is being used, she is increasingly prepared to use her grandfather’s art to get what she wants.
Throughout this subtle, unsettling story, we see the dead Martedi and his art as described by the memories and interests of others, even through the critical summations of obituaries. Sneed’s first novel, Little Known Facts, in some ways seems like a tree grown from the seed of that short story. The central character, Renn Ivins, a Hollywood actor in his early 50s still enjoying a charmed career (fashioned by Sneed as an amalgam of perhaps Harrison Ford and George Clooney), is seen through the eyes of others in chapter after chapter. Lucy, his first wife, has never remarried; his second wife is writing a tell-all memoir; his son Will walks unprotected beneath the famous cloud of a father who has already won two Academy Awards and is well on his way to a third; Anna, his daughter, is a resident doctor who has begun an affair with a married doctor her father’s age. In each case their lives have been affected by the presence of Ivins’s well-rewarded talent and outsized fame. With every additional success that comes his way, his family members have to struggle against further diminishment.
Yet in the middle of the novel, Ivins himself is allowed to speak, through a secret diary that he keeps, and here the reader is offered the stone that has set so many ripples in motion. We eavesdrop on reflections and revelations not meant for us, and discover that, while Ivins balances a serious artistic work ethic with time he spends on charity work for Katrina victims, he also relies on a spiritual advisor to help him decide what scripts to accept, and that while he is publicly partnered with a celebrated young actress, he is also conducting a secret liaison with his son’s former girlfriend. It’s a complex portrait, and we see how his indulgences, blind spots, and well-crafted excuses for his behavior set in motion much of the toxic aftershocks of fame that are felt by his family. When Ivins, in writing in his diary about tragedy in film, observes that there is “so much poetry in sadness, a very different and possibly more potent variety than the kind of poetry you find in happiness,” he isn’t nearly as aware as he should be of the personal ironies of this insight.
It comes as a relief to see, in the final chapters, his family members beginning to take baby steps away from his emotional influence. His first wife, Lucy, has rediscovered a man who knew her before she became the wife of a famous actor; with increasing confidence Will is writing a screenplay; and Anna is beginning to take a closer look at her affair. But how strong are these steps? At book’s end, Ivins’s affair with his son’s ex-girlfriend is a revelation still waiting to be fully revealed, a foolish risk that may very well unsettle his family once again.
Sneed’s latest novel, Paris, He Said, her most subtle and accomplished work to date, may seem at first to follow a similar narrative pattern. Jayne Marks is a young artist in New York who struggles through two dead-end jobs to simply pay her rent. Her budding career as a painter is slowly slipping away, until she meets Laurent Moller, the co-owner of the Paris art gallery Vie Bohème that is opening a branch in New York. Though Laurent is decades older than she, they quickly become lovers, and perhaps too quickly he invites Jayne to return with him to Paris and live together in his apartment.
It’s not just about the sex, or their easy way with each other. Laurent claims to see something in Jayne’s work worthy of being nurtured, and he offers her space — and time — in his Paris apartment to create a studio where she can work uninterrupted, without the cares of having to pay any bills. Though other cares take the place of concerns about money. Perhaps Jayne is merely a modern version of a kept woman, indulged in by her lover. Or he genuinely admires her work, but there is an unspoken contract in place, sexual comfort for the possible opportunity of a showing at Laurent’s Paris gallery.
The first third of Paris, He Said, is told from Jayne’s perspective, with all her undermining worries on display, mixed with her attraction to Laurent, her rediscovered ambitions as an artist, her love of Paris. Like Little Known Facts and the revelation of Ivins’s perspective in a central chapter, the middle section of Paris, He Said is devoted to Laurent’s attempt at a memoir. When I looked ahead at the novel’s table of contents, I have to confess to an increasing anticipation that Laurent’s section would reveal the truth of some of Jayne’s worries, or worse.
But Laurent turns out to be more complex than any bad guy disclosures might offer. A failed artist himself, he turned to displaying others’ art in a gallery he established with an inheritance from his family’s vineyards. With his gift for discerning artists whose talent is also salable, his gallery becomes a success, and Laurent takes it upon himself to become an informal patron of selected artists whose work he believes to be promising. Sometimes his hunches work out, sometimes not. Sometimes he mixes sexual attraction with his patronage, and he believes enough in his motives for supporting art not to be too concerned about this potentially compromising complication.
Jayne is his latest hunch. With the time to think out her art’s possibilities and apply those insights to canvas, her art flourishes and Laurent offers her a place in a group showing at the gallery. All might seem to be well, but in the third section of the novel the internal contradictions of her relations with Laurent can’t be sustained indefinitely. With a Gallic insouciance he continues — not secretly enough — meetings with a number of his former lovers (some of whom are also artists he supported). Jayne, eventually able to interpret his absences, finds herself drawn back to the still-devoted boyfriend she left for Laurent. The power of art alone can’t keep them together, and the way Sneed recounts the initial steps of Jayne and Laurent’s eventual estrangement is quietly devastating.
“Before you make up your mind about me, slashing an X through the box of my murky character, you should know there is more to the story,” Laurent writes in his memoir, but this sentence could apply to every character in Paris, He Said. Because Sneed never descends to an easy headline of revelation, or a plot twist that offers a finality of judgment, Paris, He Said is a brave book. Sneed offers, with quiet confidence, her characters’ increasing complexities. People, like the best art, deserve more than one interpretation. There is little black and white contrast in Sneed’s work, and she lingers in every gradation of shade in between, as if gray were a full palette of color. Lurking in the areas where easy judgments can’t survive, she builds up and undermines a character at the same time, creating an attractive surface with her prose that also fills us with disquiet.
Few fireworks here, instead a slow, unsettling burn.