July 14, 2009

Book review: "The Painting and the City," by Robert Freeman Wexler

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The Painting and the City, by Robert Freeman Wexler
The Painting and the City
By Robert Freeman Wexler
PS Publishing / ISBN: 978-1-90630-153-8

For those who don't know, the last ten years have seen the emergence of a brand-new subgenre in the arts, ironically enough inspired by and named after a now-dead genre over a century old: it's called the "New Weird," and as explained by one of its biggest champions, genre expert Jeff VanderMeer, it's essentially an update of the old "Weird" literature that was pumped out by the ton during the first half of the Victorian Age, back before such modern genre terms as "science-fiction" and "horror" had been coined to begin with. But see, Weird lit was more than just a catch-all term back then for any supernatural story, which is what has prompted the return of the phrase even after all these more specific genres have now been defined; because as anyone who's read these old Weird tales can tell you, such stories also contained elements not seen in these more specific modern genres, a pervasive sense of gloom and strangeness not tied to a specific cause like a UFO or serial killer, a sort of all-encompassing sense of "weirdosity" that transcends the well-worn tropes of more narrowly defined genres like ghost stories or cyberpunk or surrealism. (For more, see for example my review a few years ago of Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, once called by no less than HP Lovecraft himself "the finest Weird story to ever come out of New England.") Ever since 9/11 and the death of postmodernism, or so goes the argument, we've seen a profound rise again in these kinds of unclassifiable projects (most famously typified by the hit television show Lost, which crosses so many genres that no one knows what the hell to call it); thus the term "New Weird," as a way to identify these fantastical stories that fall outside the usual boundaries of our existing genre "industries."

And perhaps no other currently working author more deserves the label of "New Weird" than Robert Freeman Wexler, a "writer's writer" who is intensely admired by a whole series of genre authors more famous than him, but whose work simply doesn't sell as much as theirs; he's the author now of a previous novel, novella and story collection (itself reviewed at CCLaP last year), all of which have been well-received yet remain semi-obscure in terms of the bigger culture at large. And a big reason for this is because Wexler is not just a New Weird adherent but literally a one-man genre unto himself, kind of like how the movies that David Lynch makes can't be called anything else but "Lynchian." For example, take his latest novel, the impressively ambitious The Painting and the City, which as it progresses ends up displaying elements of steampunk, magic realism, conspiracy-style paranoia, hallucinatory black humor ala Hunter S. Thompson, urban hipster world-weary character drama, even Lovecraftian alien-squid soul-crushing dread; but instead of combining into a muddy trainwreck of clashing styles, here he elegantly entwines these elements into something unique that you've never seen before, a story neither too fast nor too slow nor too dumb nor too smart, which at the end can ultimately only be described as "Wexlerian."

See, the novel is set in a 21st-century Manhattan, among a circle of aging successful urbanities for whom Brooklyn is still considered a far-suburban trek; our protagonist, for example, respected sculptor Jacob Lerner, has a life almost entirely defined through the edges of the inner borough, with even his regular excursions to distant leafy college campuses more enjoyed as an occasional needed getaway from the city, and not for the destinations themselves. And this is important, because the novel is also about a different Manhattan, and how it compares to the one we now know -- the Manhattan of the mid-1800s, that is, which as I mentioned last week in my overview of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, barely existed back then once you got above the old northern city limit of Houston Street. It's a New York that until surprisingly recently had still been known as the Dutch-owned trading village "New Amsterdam," its populace packed like sardines into a series of smoky crooked narrow lanes all crushed together on the southern tip of the island, the layout still reflecting the natural hills and ancient Indian paths of the pre-Victorian city, instead of the artificially flattened landscape and harsh Euclidean grid that came after the Industrial Revolution.

And in fact this turns out to be a major theme of The Painting and the City, the schism between our clean modern urban centers and the organic "old city" cores from whence they grew, and especially the way that these "altstadt" citizens leave behind relics that influence even our contemporary times; after all, this is how these two periods come together in this book to begin with, by Lerner becoming obsessed with a Victorian-Era painting recently discovered by a friend under mysterious circumstances (in a bricked-up room in the basement of an old brownstone, surrounded by a pentagram of burned-up candles, after a friend of a friend gutted the place to make room for a trendy new restaurant). It's through his investigation of the painting's history that he eventually comes across the journal of its creator, European freelance portrait artist Philip Schuyler, pages from which make up a full third of Wexler's manuscript if not more; and it turns out to be quite a tale that Schuyler has to tell, one that in good steampunk fashion combines the dramatic (a satanic Scandinavian version of the Freemasons), the supernatural (unspeakably hideous creatures discovered accidentally in the East Indies), and the historical (such as the fact that Charles Dickens in real life happened to be visiting New York in the same year as our story, and that he had a real-life love for adventure that makes it easy to picture him getting involved in our fictional entanglement).

But see, this is a perfect example of why this book should ultimately be called "Wexlerian" instead of traditionally steampunk; because instead of the zippy action thriller that most authors use this kind of milieu to deliver, Wexler turns in a much more slowly-paced, contemplative novel, one that uses these explosively visual images to examine much headier issues like identity, fate, and especially the way that our surroundings actively influence our beliefs and decisions about life. In fact, for those familiar with it, you can see this book much more in the tradition of John Crowley's phenomenal old "Aegypt" series that I'm in the middle of reading these days, of how it's predicated on the idea that an alternative, technologically advanced version of Egypt used to exist in ancient times (think Atlantis), but that proof of it can only be subtly spied in snatches on the edges of what is said in old historical documents from the period, and added together only by full-time academic scholars who have spent their entire adulthoods reading and parsing such obscure old documents. This novel feels very much like that; like that all these impossibly bizarre things happening on a subterranean level in New York, accidentally stumbled across by both Lerner and Schuyler during two different periods of the city's history, are happening not for some grand evil humanity-changing purpose like is so often the case in genre thrillers, but simply as part of the even grander daily life of the millions who simultaneously live there at any given moment.

This is why I refer to Wexler as a "writer's writer" in the first place, why it is that so many other full-time writers are such huge fans of him in particular; because to fully appreciate the story being told here in the maximum way it can be appreciated, you need to understand just how many usual stereotypes of genre literature Wexler is deliberately skipping, and the only way to understand that is to be so familiar with the usual stereotypes of genre literature that you're absolutely sick of them by now, which is often the situation with fellow writers. The Painting and the City can be enjoyed by anyone, but is especially a treat for the most well-read out there, those who usually fly through genre novels and are not intimidated by writing that occasionally gets quite dense; as I've mentioned here before, I consider such novels to be the literary equivalent of a rich dessert, something to be regularly added to our reading diets but only on special occasions, requiring an extra-large commitment but delivering extra-large rewards. It's not for everyone, to be sure, and it sometimes has its problems as well (such as prose that threatens at points to turn awfully purplish); but it's also one of those books that has the possibility of getting really under your skin depending on who you are, one of those titles that continue to pop up randomly in your mind for years after you finish it. It comes strongly recommended today for existing fans of genre literature, and especially all of you whose annual book lists can sometimes stretch into the dozens and even hundreds of titles; such heavy readers will find a particularly pleasant surprise within this deceptively normal-looking "spooky story."

Out of 10: 8.7

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:30 PM, July 14, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |