Column: Mysterious Musings

Reviews of "Liars Anonymous" and "The Forgery of Venus"
Robin Agnew

Robin Agnew

[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest.]

“Liars Anonymous” by Louise Ure (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $25.95)

“When had I crossed that weathered threshold that divided the world between citizens and survivors? Between what could be and what we are in our darkest hours.”

I know I’ve really enjoyed an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of a novel when I look back and see how many pages I’ve dog-eared, for one reason or another. In the case of Louise Ure, it’s for her use of language, which is both precise and original. Sentences like “I missed my friend Catherine like she was a country I could no longer visit,” and “Her teeth had click-clacked with nervous energy while she filled out the paperwork, like a sleeping rabbit dreaming of carrots” are so evocative, and so vivid, they stay with you. It’s not often this kind of clarity is found in a hard-boiled mystery novel, but here it is. Maybe the beauty of the language is meant to carry the reader through the story of Jessie Dancing, which is one of the darker books I’ve read in a long while.

It’s told in first person, so you as a reader see everything through Jessie’s lens, but Ure is asking you at the same time to make your own judgment about her behavior. She doesn’t make it easy. The story begins more or less simply: Jessie is an operator for an OnStar type service, and she gets a call from a man who appears to have been assaulted while she is listening. There’s of course nothing she can do – it’s too far away – but she calls the police and is questioned by them extensively as they go to look for the man and the car; both have disappeared. The man’s wife also wants to talk to her and she takes the day off from her job in Phoenix and goes back to her hometown of Tucson to talk to the man’s wife.

It’s when Jessie goes home that her back story begins to emerge. She’s recently been released from prison and is estranged from her mother; the reason for it is teased out through the story, which gathers acceleration as the pieces of the man’s disappearance begin to fit into other events. This book is solidly put together and the story is complex, but what really sets it apart are the characters, especially Jessie, and the setting, which to this Michigander is fairly exotic.

As the parts of Jessie’s past life begin to tie into the present crime, and her life circumstances begin again to disintegrate, you’re caught up in her investigation even as you want to reach through the pages and tell her to stop. The ending is both inevitable and heartbreaking, and will likely stay with you for a while after you close the book, as will the character of Jessie Dancing.

“The Forgery of Venus” by Michael Gruber (Harper, $14.99)

“I want to paint in a culture that transcends the art that expresses it. And all that’s gone.”

Some books are like a drug. Even though you know you shouldn’t, you find yourself staying up late and snatching time out of your day to read them. Michael Gruber, an author whose wonderful books I carefully ration, is such a writer, and his latest book “The Forgery of Venus” was for me practically irresistible. I kept actually hiding it so I could get work done but it called me back and I was forced (yes, forced!) into reading more and more. Gruber is an insanely original writer – he has an imagination the equivalent of writers like L. Frank Baum or J.K. Rowling – but he puts his imagination in the service of us lucky adults.

In this outing, his story concerns one Chaz Wilmont, a gifted painter who nevertheless feels he’s been born at the wrong time. The current art scene doesn’t suit his love of the old masters, masters whose technique he is able to channel. To make things more complicated, Chaz has been raised from birth to be an artist by an artist father who’s described as a “second rate Rockwell.” And while he’s exceeded his father’s talent, he hasn’t achieved the kind of acclamation and success that those around him feel he deserves. He instead cranks out a living as a highly paid magazine illustrator.

The book is framed by another narrator, one of Chaz’s roommates at Columbia, who encounters Chaz years later (where the story begins) at an auction for a newly discovered painting by Velazquez. The old roommate – who lives a staid life – thinks Chaz looks terrible, and thinks he must indeed be actually crazy when Chaz tells him that the Velazquez is a forgery. He then adds that he, Chaz, painted it himself – in 1650. As a concept for a novel this turns out to be pretty mind bending, and it’s as though we as the readers are the staid roommate who listen to the CD Chaz has pressed into his hand, making our own judgments about his outlandish story. Yet, such is Gruber’s skill as a narrative storyteller, you’re drawn gradually into Chaz’s tale. It seems almost believable.

Chaz, it seems, has decided to be part of an experimental drug study in which he takes something called Salvinorin A in a controlled environment. (The kind of thing that was actually done in the ’60s with LSD). The study is attempting to find out how the drug affects creativity. The first time Chaz takes it he has the experience of living in another time and place – and it seems absolutely real. Each time he takes it, he goes back to this same time period, and each time the result is both disorientation and a huge burst of creativity. He paints a series of paintings for a magazine of famous actresses done in the style of Velazquez, his favorite painter. The magazine rejects them as not quite what they wanted, but when he shows them to his gallery owning ex-wife, she loves them and puts them in a show. They sell out almost instantly.

None of this story sounds simple, but it’s really just a framing device for Gruber’s musings on the state of modern art, the joy and pain of creativity, the realization of mediocrity of talent, and the essential mystery of actual genius. When Chaz eventually ends up in Italy commissioned to paint a copy of a Tiepolo fresco-using Tiepolo’s original cartoons, you’re there with him. If you’ve ever in your life picked up a pencil or a brush, you’re also with him as he lays down every luscious brush stroke. There’s a real joy and mystery to the painting sequences that are almost transcendent.

There is also some real depth of thought here about perception, reality and the nature of time. As you as a reader flit between Chaz’s “actual” life and his “life” as Diego Velazquez, time becomes fluid for you as well. Gruber’s beliefs about art are passionate ones – if you love modern art, you probably won’t agree with them, but if you love old masters, and Velazquez in particular, you probably will. I dog-eared lots of pages as I read, but this quote stood out for me: “I mean, really, what is the world now? I mean visually. Image after image on screen, but the kicker is we aren’t actually allowed to see them, I mean actually study them long enough to derive meaning, it’s all quick cut and on to the next one, which essentially destroys all judgment, all reflection.” Chaz’s need for reflection and his love of museums – the sacred places where he and his ex-wife get along, and where he simply finds beauty – are ones that I happen to share. If you do too, Gruber’s book is meant for you to inhale.

One Comment

  1. By Mo
    April 11, 2009 at 1:06 pm | permalink

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