A work of art within a work of art is never just a work of art. If the imaginary art is bad, which it often is, it becomes a target for satire and something of a defense mechanism – a way of anticipating criticism of one’s own work and neutralizing it: You know I know what bad art is, so what you’re holding in your hands cannot be bad art. But it’s also how writers work their own artistic obsessions and preoccupations into narrative. And it’s fun. At least, I had a good time coming up with the imaginary songs, albums, books, and one sculptural installation that figure into my first novel. At their most compelling, though, fictional works of art within fiction go far beyond the jokes. They work against solipsism and toward expansiveness, engagement. Their inclusion in narrative makes for fiction that is part of a larger, ongoing conversation about representation, identity, invention and self-invention – without getting all tripped up in it, announcing it, or apologizing for it. It’s not easy to narrow down the long list of novels that do this well, but these are five that especially resonated with me as I was trying to invent my own true fakes.
Children of Light by Robert Stone
In his fourth novel, published in 1986, Stone places us in a world of glamorous dissolution and excess: a destructive romance set within a Hollywood film production. The imaginary movie, being shot in Baja California, Mexico, is an adaptation of The Awakening, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel. Chopin’s story of Edna Pontellier, a well-to-do wife and mother in late 19th– century New Orleans struggling against the social conventions of her time, is a favorite of troubled actress Lu Anne Bourgeois. Years earlier, during a tumultuous affair with screen writer and actor Gordon Walker, Lu Ann introduced him to the book, he wrote the script with her mind, and now that The Awakening has been revived as a feminist text, a movie is finally being made. It’s going to be “prestigious, timely, and cheap.”
Lu Anne and Gordon are no longer “young and fearless,” and by implication, no longer so resilient. Walker is living at the Chateau Marmont, after finishing a run as King Lear. His wife has left him and his “inner resources” are failing him. He looks “like a man in his forties who drank” (and who will also, over the course of the story, do a whole lot of cocaine). Lu Anne, who goes by the stage name Lee Verger, hasn’t fulfilled the promise of her early work and her “subsequent career, like Walker’s, had been disappointing.” She’s gone off her medication, her schizophrenic hallucinations have returned, and her husband and children have departed the shoot. When Gordon leaves L.A. and heads to Mexico to join her, we know they’re doomed; we just don’t know how badly it will end.
Stone uses the fictional movie to create yet another level in a multi-layered work. The parallels between Edna and Louisiana-born Lu Anne are obvious and the novel is freighted with allusions (to the Bible, to Shakespeare) that are rendered, by the characters themselves, with such intelligence and feeling that even at its most heavy-handed and overwrought, it’s a wonder. Stone gets to have it both ways. Operatic emotion and events that are shot through with a mocking yet soulful irony: “Half purely romantic, half higher bullshit.” And while his writing isn’t typically described as laugh-out-loud funny, so many of his lines make me do just that. (Irony being contextual, though, they lose their humor when I try to isolate them here.) Satire doesn’t seem to be the ultimate goal here, though Stone’s so good at it: In addition to the fake movie cast and crew, he gives us Dongan Lowndes, author of a single well-regarded novel – Naming of Parts – who now writes “well and bitterly” for magazines. He’s there on assignment and everyone loathes him.
The movie-within-the-book is meant to be a failure, compromised in several ways, but I so wish I could watch Lu Anne on screen. See her depth, her “dark blue saintly eyes and a smile that quivered between high drollery and madness,” bringing to life the script that Walker wrote for her.
The Wicked Pavilion by Dawn Powell
Powell’s novel takes place in New York City in the late 1940s, centering on the fictional Café Julien and the Greenwich village bohemians, party girls, and wealthy art patrons who plot, gossip, dream and fall in love there. It’s never quite clear who is working whom. Unless you count Powell, skewering everyone’s pieties with her exceptionally cutting wit.
The invented art at the heart of the book involves the talented but under-recognized painters Dalzell Sloane and Ben Forrester, who decide to cash in on the posthumous fame of their dead friend Marius, whose work now commands a high price. “The greatest favor Marius, the man, had ever done for Marius, the artist, was to die at exactly the right moment.” Dalzell and Ben create counterfeit Marius canvases and pass them off as undiscovered originals. Dalzell rationalizes it this way: “If his integrity, morals and whole spirit were to be corrupted, why then let it be by Success for a change.”
Powell fills the book with near-epigrammatic observations and life lessons. If anyone ever tells you something like “I’m a perfectly frank person so let’s be honest with each other,” know “that the one thing a perfectly frank person cannot take is frankness.” There are echoes, in subject matter and in tone, to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Powell also admired Henry James and she has his keen understanding of human nature, though her characters are more broadly and farcically drawn than his. (While so much of Powell feels fresh, there are some tossed-off characterizations that make this book decidedly of its time; it was published in 1954.)
Powell’s focus here is not so much on the art as the bubble around it – dealers, buyers, critics, party-throwers, party-goers, and hangers-on. To the extent that Powell suggests this can’t be divorced from some more authentic or innocent experience of the work, her writing is deeply cynical. But it’s warm-blooded. She can take apart just about anybody, but she does it, ultimately, in the service of poignancy. You sense she’s suffered hurts and humiliations both outright and subtle (for the curious reader, her journals reveal it all in painful detail) and that’s where she’s writing from. Here’s Sloane, on the aging heiress – playing bohemian in a “Tyrolean peasant outfit” – he’d been in love with twenty years earlier: “[S]eeing through her made him feel the more bound to her, as if her transparency was precious and must be protected. He wanted to have her go on thinking she was powerful, beautiful, and that all men were in love with her, because that was the Cynthia around which his youth had revolved; for the capricious vanity that was Cynthia’s to be shattered meant the end of hope for him, too.” Even the self-interest, mixed with empathy, is tender.
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
The imaginary art in Spiotta’s 2011 novel involves the Chronicles of Nik Kranis, aka Nik Worth. It begins as a scrapbook of actual events and ephemera from the late 1970s when Nik, then in his twenties in L.A., was in a band, The Fakes (what else?). When a record deal almost materializes and then disappears, so does Nik’s real-world ambition and the Chronicles begin in earnest, a 30-odd year invented “history of his music, his bands, his albums, his reviews, his interviews.” The sprawling compendium includes write-ups by his so-called nemesis (who got his start at Creem and now writes for the Los Angeles Times) and liner notes by one “Mickey Murray,” a New School-tenured “Greil Marcus Professor of Underground, Alternative, and Unloved Music.”
There’s something pathological about Nik’s obsession – his father gives him a guitar on his 11th birthday and from then on, “it took him over like a disease.” But there’s also something celebratory and freeing. In the Chronicles “all his loves ran without restraint, unfettered and unashamed.” He blurs the line between real and imaginary in his archive: “When Nik’s dog died in real life, his dog died in the Chronicles. But in the Chronicles he got a big funeral and a tribute album. Fans sent thousands of condolence cards.” Nik actually does write and record the music on the tribute album. It exists, if only for an audience of one – his sister Denise, who narrates most of the book. “I knew how to listen to him,” she notes. Eventually, Denise’s twentysomething daughter Ada, an aspiring documentarian who puts all of her work and life online, decides to make a film about her uncle, whom she sees as “a devoted, unrepentant eccentric.” Nik agrees to the project with sardonic self-awareness: “Hell, I’ll be the next Henry Darger.”
Spiotta’s parodies of rock/pop conventions and the music press are spot-on. There’s The Fakes’ album Take Me Home and Make Me Fake It, Lozenge (“Nik’s short-lived one-man electro-boogie band”), a 1980 album called Sylvan Shine, released by Nik’s side project, a British electric folk trio. Then there are the independent/niche record labels: Mountebank Industries, Cold Slice, Pause Collective. All of this is supremely clever, and if it risks becoming, as Denise puts it, an “overly elaborated joke,” it never does. Instead, it builds into something larger, more disturbing, and more heartfelt about creativity, preservation, memory, longing, and love.
There is another imaginary work of art, though not really an intentional one, in this book. It’s a cake Denise’s mother made years ago for her daughter’s birthday. Denise has all but forgotten about it until her mother, whose mind is disintegrating, pulls the memory out of the past. It was “a beautiful Bowie birthday cake,” circa Aladdin Sane, “with the frosting lightning bolt across his face.” Denise only recalls it as a photograph now, but I can’t shake the image of her as a girl, in their white stucco bungalow in Hollywood, a couple of blocks off the freeway, with this cake, and all of her dreams and desires.
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
Warner’s 1995 novel opens with Morvern – a twenty-one year old working a dead-end job at a supermarket in a Scottish port town – finding her boyfriend’s body on the kitchen floor. It’s Christmas and he’s killed himself, leaving a note and a completed novel on the computer. So Morvern replaces his name with hers on the cover sheet, prints it out, and sends it off to a publishing house. Out of grief, entitlement, a grim sense of humor? It’s not clear what exactly motivates her, but then, this is not a novel of psychological analysis. It’s one of observation and atmosphere, told from Morvern’s first-person, ever-observant perspective, in language that doesn’t call attention to itself but is precise, evocative, transporting.
Morvern takes us from a chilly winter in the Scottish highlands to the warmth and color of coastal Spain, as she spends her book money on travel, drugs and dancing. Which might sound like a lot of affectless detachment, if she weren’t so finely attuned to details. There’s the “goldish lighter” she uses for all of her Silk Cut cigarettes, the “Dusky Cherry” polish she paints on her nails, her description of getting dressed to go to a party with her friend: “Lanna brought out the little black number, shoes and the stockings, then as I twisted and tugged the dress on, Lanna’s hair touched my eyelashes while she leaned across tightening the bits on the suspenders. There was a tiny hole in the dress high up on the right shoulder… Lanna took a black felt-tip from her bag and, biting her lip, she colored in my skin under the hole.” Later, out swimming in the country, Morvern sits smoking and watching “Lanna’s pale body appear through birch trees and mellow shadows up by the jutting rock. Her freckles seemed to match the frills of bright sun being let through the leaves behind her. The ginger hair that turned blackish when wet was slapped in a rope over behind her back.”
There is often a soundtrack going and Warner gets specific with the (real) music, not to score points but in a way that feels integral to Morvern’s character. Coming through her Walkman: Can, Miles Davis, Lee Perry, PM Dawn, Kraftwerk. Mornings on a hotel balcony are for “Cucumber Slumber” by the Weather Report or Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets.” Her “sunbathing” mix makes me want to find a beach.
So we get fake-real music playlists and a whole fake novel, though we never get to read any of it. We only know, from the comments of a couple of publishing people, that it’s “really, really heavy.” While we can guess what kind of writer her boyfriend is, we come to know exactly what kind Morvern is. Her narrative becomes the real work of art.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
Kushner’s 2013 novel is loaded with imaginary art: bad art, great art, not quite art, even never-made art. (“It didn’t matter that it was never made. That it was unmakeable was its brilliance.”) Kushner uses all of it to connect the New York art world of the mid-to-late seventies to the radical movement and violent, political upheaval in Italy of that time, through a young woman we know only as “Reno.”
She is 21 years old when she arrives in New York, wanting her life to happen, outwardly cool though hardly invulnerable: “It may go without saying that I was the type of person who would call a disconnected number more than once.” She falls in love with Sandro Valera, an artist 14 years her senior, whose family happens to own an Italian empire built on rubber tires and motorcycles. Reno’s loves are drawing and speed – motorcycles, downhill skiing – and though she studied art and film at the University of Nevada, it hasn’t prepared her for the sophisticated codes and shorthand of downtown Manhattan in 1975, much less those of upper-class Lake Como society. So she’s watchful as she encounters a host of indelible characters.
There’s Ronnie Fontaine, Sandro’s friend and fellow artist, who trades in irony and dissimulation. His monologues are just one of the many masterpieces in this book, as are the titles he invents for his fake autobiography (Table for Two for One: An Autobiography; Married but Looking: My Story; You’re Soaking in It: My Secrets). There’s the older art couple Gloria and Stanley Kastle. Says Gloria, at one point, to her sobbing husband: “You really devalue the tear when you do this.” Then there Sandro’s mother, Signora Valera, a petty, judgmental woman who retires to her room in her enormous villa to watch dubbed episodes of Sanford and Son at a loud volume.
Kushner doesn’t merely spoof the pretentions and absurdity, the heightened artifice of this world, but finds the significance in it; that its language and cues may be confusing and exclusive, but they have meaning, they’re worth deciphering. As Sandro says of Ronnie: “You have to listen closely. He’ll say something perfectly true and it’s meaningless. Then he makes something up, but it has value. He’s telling you something.”
Reno wants to distinguish between truth and lies, but complicating it all is the notion, and action, of performance, performing yourself. For Reno, it may be less about an opposition between true and false than a tension between calculation and chance. At the end of a long, fraught night, Reno watches Barbara Loden’s 1970 film Wanda, in which the title character leaves her husband and kids and drifts, eventually into a botched bank robbery. Reno thinks: “The point of the film was not the stark life in a coal-mining town, although that was how Sandro had read it… It was about being a woman, about caring and not caring what happens to you. It was about not really caring.” Leaving things to chance may look like passivity but isn’t really that.
There is so much dazzling reflection and refraction in this book, that in reading it, I often feel like Reno, made aware of all the macro and micro connections between machinery, industry, violence, exploitation, and art, but unable to articulate what it means. Early on in the book, Reno gets what she thinks she’s been waiting for, finding herself “in the current” of things, sitting on Ronnie Fontaine’s lap in a big black Cadillac with a Southern derelict-gentleman photographer and his mysterious girlfriend. They’ve left a bar on 14th street and seem to be driving and driving, only to end up a few blocks uptown at what Reno learns is the Chelsea Hotel. They’ve been driving in circles, but Reno’s along for the ride, discovering, decoding, arriving at a place not all that far away but new and alluring.
Deborah Shapiro is a writer in Chicago. Her first novel, The Sun in Your Eyes, will be published this June by William Morrow/HarperCollins.