Fiona McFarlane: “Art Appreciation” from TNY, 5/13/13

TNY Art: Tim Flach, "Kinda Ready"

TNY Art: Tim Flach, “Kinda Ready”

Henry Taylor had always known it would have money one day, and this confidence was vindicated when his mother won the lottery on Thursday in August of 1961. Still, it wasn’t sure he could afford to quit his job, so he went into the office the day after he heard the news.

I encountered this story as I was finishing up notes on Bartleby; if I see a vague similarity, is that because I happened to be reading them at the same time? Both feature unambitious, safe, status-conscious narrator-protagonists unable to override a single point of stubbornness in a new-arrival other.

Though this story, unlike Bartleby, is third-person, we are still only allowed to see the other – Ellie, the office girl Henry sets his sights on once he has money – through the protagonist’s filter. And it’s quite a filter:

She had the quality of a bird among grasses, peering out in nervous excitement, eager for a mate but afraid to abandon her safety. He was certain that she had taken this job not to make flimsy dates with different men but to find a husband

That a woman might have a job only to find a man – the details are in question, not the intent – is a skin-crawling attitude, though accurate for the time period in which this is set (1961). The setting, for that matter, is Australia, which is something new and different for me (except for David Brooks’ “Blue” which remains one of my favorite short-shorts ever, and, oh right, The Thorn Birds (oh, come on, you read it, too, and you wanted to go see a sheep ranch and deflower Richard Chamberlain; how differently that miniseries plays now, post-revelation).

Ellie gives Henry her own reason for taking a job, however; she’s rebelling against her parents, whose more academic and artistic lifestyle involves worn carpets and broken dreams. Her mother would’ve been an artist had she not married her father, an academic. But Ellie’s more practically minded:

… She was tired of living beautifully on too little money, tired of her parents’ belief that education was worth any sacrifice, and wanted to prove to them that it was possible to take a job in the world, so far into the heart of the world as an insurance firm, and still love art. Because she did love art.

Again, the conflict between art and commerce. I’ve been running into it all spring, it seems, from Project Runway to, again, Bartleby, the Writer who rebels against the Lawyer. In this story, Henry wouldn’t know Art if it kissed him on the ass, while Ellie is merely paying it lip service. But that’s enough to disturb Henry.

Ellie takes a Friday night art appreciation class, and throughout the story, it remains a bone of contention between Henry and her. Friday night is his night to go to the dog races; Saturday he does horses (and on Sunday he does Kath, which we’ll get to). He likes gambling, which may seem incongruous to such a safe personality, but he gambles the same way he chooses Ellie as his wife: safely, coldly, dispassionately.

I don’t see much passion for art in Ellie, either, but since we see her through Henry’s lens, it’s hard to tell. Still, she’s taking art appreciation: looking at art, learning about it from a safe distance, not creating art. Full disclosure: I’m signed up for an art class, beginning next week (Coursera is addictive; good thing it’s free), and I fully expect I’ll drop it once we have to actually create art; I’m more interested in understanding how art works than in making it, much like fiction, so I have good standing to pontificate on this issue. Those who can’t do, no longer teach; they blog.

What interested me most about the story (which didn’t interest me all that much as a whole) was Henry’s perception that life started going well for him once his mother won the lottery and he anticipated becoming “rich.” This windfall has no financial effect during the story; he doesn’t get any money, and for a while I thought the story might be about how his mother declines to include him in her good fortune. But right away, before he has any money or even a promise of a share, his life changes, just on his belief that he’ll be coming into money.

He gets a promotion, for instance (it’s hinted it’s because of his inheritance, though it may just be coincidence) and acquires Ellie, which he never would’ve done before he expected to have the money to marry. He’d been getting along with Kath, the proverbial “sure thing,” for some time, part of his Sunday routine: lunch with Mom, sex with Kath. He dismisses her, the way one would a barber; she knows he’s got another girl, a “real” girl, not a floozie to sleep with. She accepts this. Kath, too, is quite passionless, but in her situation, she needs to be.

Kath, the most human character in the story, provides the decision-making scene. She happens by his pre-race hamburger joint one Friday, goes “to the dogs” with him (I have no idea if “going to the dogs” has the same connotation in Australia as it does here, but I suspect so; Henry is slumming, miffed that Ellie won’t give up art appreciation for him). He ponders how nice it would be to have wife who would go to the track with him, instead of to art appreciation class. Then she asks for money. She appears willing to perform services for the money, leading Henry to finally act like half a mensch: “She was willing. It was her being willing that made him stop.” He’s made his decision.

I was sure, after reading the story, that this would turn out to be an opening chapter in a novel that would follow Henry and Ellie, with Kath perhaps flitting in and out of the picture, but no. McFarlane does have a novel coming out this Fall, but it’s unrelated.

I would imagine my dislike of the story is evident from my comments; I found it single-note. Had it not been for the connection to Bartleby, which I may have invented just to find something to do, I would’ve been even more harsh. It’s interesting that McFarlane mentions, in her Page-Turner interview, her “interest in the excitement and confusion of this time.” I know nothing of 1961 Australia; I was awfully young at the time, but my impression is that things didn’t get interesting in the US until 1964-5. In any case, I don’t get anything exciting, certainly, from the story, and not much confusion; both Henry and Ellie seem rigidly set in their views of the world, and manage to work out a compromise around art appreciation that, I’m guessing, will not survive a year, much less the decade.

But that’s another story.

One response to “Fiona McFarlane: “Art Appreciation” from TNY, 5/13/13

  1. Pingback: Fiona McFarlane–”Art Appreciation” (New Yorker, May 13, 2013) | I Just Read About That...

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