Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"an artist, are you not?"

Marly Youmans' 2014 novel Glimmerglass is--aside from being a love story, a mystery and a tale of renewal--a book about art. I might argue that "a book about art" should, properly, be a love story, a mystery, and a tale of renewal. Maybe that's the very argument I'm about to make. We won't know until we get there, will we?

Cynthia Sorrel, the protagonist of Glimmerglass, is a woman who believes that her best years are in the past, and that her years of highest potential were wasted--or sucked dry, maybe--by the hysterical and selfish man to whom she was married at the time. Cynthia is middle-aged, or past that, and she is tired. She finds herself renting a house in upstate New York (in the city of Cooper Patent, a fictionalized Cooperstown) because she is beguiled by the house's strangeness and beauty. Beauty, catching Cynthia's artist's eye, draws her into the tale of Glimmerglass.

During the first half of the novel, Cynthia remembers (or is shoved pretty hard into remembering) that she is an artist, a creator of things, a weigher and molder of beauty. She paints, she falls into a romance, she stumbles into a pretty good life in Cooper Patent and she finds a refuge from the world, a refuge in art:
...Cynthia felt [...] as if some creeping shadow of a horror were coming toward them as the sun set. Scandals in the capitals, disease leaping and spreading like a fire arrow that had sailed into dry thatch, a bird's heart bursting in mid-flight: what could she do? She bent over her paper, sketching a child.
But is art really a refuge? That, I think, is the big question at the heart of Glimmerglass. Do we hide within our art from the world, or do we confront the world with our art? Is art a barrier or is it a window, or is it maybe something more profound? There are a lot of windows and transparent objects in Glimmerglass, and there is a great deal of imagery about sight, eyes, faces and expressions. There's a constant subtext about the variety and uses of art, low and high.

As I said in my first post about the novel, way back when, Glimmerglass is thick with allusions to fairy tales and myths. There are imps, and angels, and demons, and a labyrinth; it is within this labyrinth that Cynthia Sorrel confronts (among other apparitions) what might be the spirit of art, or of creation: an angel-like figure named the Opal Bone. Bone is a mixed bag of an angel, an indeterminate spirit if you will. He has his own concerns.
"Angels are at war. We've been so for thousands of years. [...] Far off, demons seethe in the air. Like the shuddering of leaves before they fly from the trees in fall. [...] Even men can feel something evil pass by."


"I don't even know how I got here," she cried.

"This spot in particular? [...] A fortunate fall, don't you think?--or not--someone pushed you, I should imagine, over a parapet. That's the way it usually happens with my kind. One minute, paradise--the next, you're a dropping star, pointed to by small human children." [emphasis mine, and note the word fall]
In the end, I think, art is shown to be a way of seeing, a way of being in the world, not an escape from it. A way of being, of seeing, that involves labor. Dreaming in Glimmerglass is after all an active process, the dreamer responsible for his dreams. Art is decorative, sure, but the decorations of Sea House are cut from the same stone as the house itself, and so art becomes a way of exposing what lies beneath, a labor of exposition. Vision and work and no place to hide, that's art.

I confess that I put off writing this post for quite some time because I don't get some of the references Youmans uses. I tell myself that doesn't stop me from getting some of the underlying meanings, though. Mostly I didn't want to embarrass myself by not understanding the James Fennimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne references. I can see some of them but I don't know what they mean. This is not an argument that Youmans should've either explained the references or simplified the book (she should not have). I'm just saying that there's more to the narrative than I understand, which is a respectable position for a novel to hold.

I should remember to say something about Youmans' extraordinary prose. She's a poet, and her narrative rings with the sounds of formal verse and scripture, surprising touches all over the place:
At the opposite end of the room bulked an enormous wardrobe in black veneer with engraved bronze and pewter inlay.

[I love bulked as a verb]

"You're awake," she said, and nodded. "Welcome to woe."

[...] an occasional topknot of branches punctuating the walls.

[That's very fine, a topknot of branches. I won't quote it, but on page 148 there is a description of a hedge maze that moves through the seasons, from spring to winter, that's quite lovely]

He walked in a rage of brightness that robbed her of the last vestiges of movement...
The writing is not dense; there's a light shining through the carefully-placed gaps, the unfilled chinks. Maybe Youmans' prose is like a rose bush, prickly and beautiful and full of open space; hard and dangerous upcroppings in support of beauty. Something like that. All of that.


  1. Yes! Well said!
    May I add to your simile?
    Like a beautiful rose bush in a peaceful and elegant garden, _Glimmerglass_ (which I read and reread in small stages, several dozen pages a day) continues to surprise me day by day with each new page -- like another bloom -- displaying its beauty, paradoxically always the same but always different, and always surprising and pleasing me in its simplicity and complexity.

    1. I wouldn't call young Ms Youmans' garden peaceful; it's filled with sharp objects. The pricks are part of the attractiveness of the prose. It's a pretty good book.

  2. Thank you for thinking about the book some more, Scott! Love the prickly rose bush...

    1. I'm trying to write more often about books by living writers. Good books by living writers, that is.

  3. "There's more to the narrative than I understand." Indeed: I read Glimmerglass at Christmastime and found it moving and as meaningful and disorienting as a dream, but I soon realized I'd read it too quickly. I'll be diving back in for a second when I get the chance.