The author Penelope Przekop’s second novel, Centerpieces, is a novel that bravely tries to be a historical fiction about Van Gogh, art and the creative drive, but instead turns out to be a twisted narrative that describes a stifling world of corporate ladder-climbing.
Przekop herself, a “global quality director” for the pharmaceutical industry — a title as vague and important-sounding as many of the details in her book — is a businesswoman who “stepped back” from her career to become a writer and painter. In an almost unintentional way, Centerpieces is about creative drive, though not Vincent Van Gogh’s, but rather the author’s own understandable desire for art, creation and creativity to play a role in her life.
Centerpieces is about struggling to find meaning in a career dominated by the desire to make ever-larger sums of money. Thrown in for the sake of plot development and intrigue, however, are Przekop’s gratuitous speculations that stem from her historical research, around which the novel is based. She posed the following questions to her readers: what if Van Gogh faked his death? What if Theo Van Gogh was cheated of death by the intervention of his seemingly selfish brother? What if both men were together and alive today posing as pharmaceutical CEO’s? It is ultimately very disappointing that the premise of the book itself is what eventually ruins Centerpieces, slowly at first, methodically toward the middle, and disastrously in the final concluding pages.
The writers rule of thumb, write what you know, holds true for this novel, and the chapters describing corporate life, goals and interactions are by far the most engaging. Chapters set in the latter part of the 19th century, however, in Van Gogh’s actual time period (of which there are thankfully very few) are, however, written in an awkward style and are filled with odd thematic sentiments:
“we will stretch until we break; we will soldier though until the world listens, if only in the darkest night.”
Centerpieces left me wondering if using a real historical person, such as Vincent Van Gogh, around which to construct a contemporary fantasy qualifies as “historical.” Historical fiction usually refers to a story set in the past, in a real time and place, and through predominantly fictional characters conveys to modern readers the details of a particular time. Promoting Centerpieces as speculative historical fiction feels misleading, as readers will not learn about the artist, his life or work, from reading it. The book’s few informative facts are listed chronologically in an afterward. Centerpieces is not a work of historical fiction about one of our most beloved artists, and though it is not necessarily a book artists shouldn’t read, it’s definitely not a book about artists for art lovers.
The novel begins in 1890 with Vincent’s death, and from there begins the vampire-like story of Van Gogh and his brother Theo’s survival. In search of freedom from their old lives and faked deaths, the brothers escape together to America on an immigrant ship, Vincent ready for a place to paint with anonymity, and Theo suicidal for the woman and life he lost to his immortality — ironically, both men seem as miserable in their extended lives as they were in their real ones. From Vincent and Theo living in secret off the proceeds of Vincent’s paintings, artworks that notoriously gain notoriety and value after his death, Centerpieces jumps to the present Ellis Island and a large pharmaceutical convention, where we meet the dysfunctional and fascinating CEO brothers Ellis and Tom Spencer. It is here that the novel gains speed, wrapping it’s readers into what appears to be a compelling comparison between two different sets of brothers existing in two different centuries, whose lives are both unusually interwoven.
Today, it is rare to read about Van Gogh without reading some mention of his brother Theo. In the present tense of her novel, Przekop’s tone shifts from being peachy and grandiose to humorous and clever. Ellis Spencer thinks things like, “shouldn’t I choose my own brand of meaningless?” and, “like a mosh pit grab, they would hold and pass my deadened soul around like pall bearers.”
Tom Spencer, his brother, always aggressive and determined, expresses deeply resentful sentiments throughout. “Art is your disease,” he shouts in one scene, “it only brought you pain!
One of the book’s greatest disappointments is that we learn, about half way through, that Vincent and Theo, and Ellis and Tom, are not two different sets of brothers, but the same brothers with different identities. This overly literal turn in the story, from which the book never recovers, marks the beginning of its demise. Following the revelation that Ellis and Tom are Vincent and Theo, come a series of implausible and confusing events that lead us to believe that the brothers are vampires, or are at the very least vampire-like. This assumption is based on vague but foreboding dialogue about “living in the light,” not wanting to “return to the darkness,” a drug called “taperaquin” that they supposedly need to stay alive and too much biting and killing to go unnoticed — though it does go unexplained. The unhappy pair of 19th century bothers seem to have morphed into equally miserable 21st century brothers, who have apparently learned nothing about themselves in their longevity.
The two main female characters start out as interesting and engaging as Ellis and Tom, but devolve throughout the novel in much the same way. Holly Carter acts as the semi-autobiographical persona of the author herself. Holly is a pharmaceutical employee who works for Ellis and Tom, a single mother with a son away in college, and has recently moved to New York City to paint. She also falls deeply in love with Ellis. Her story of self-discovery begins with tragedy and longing, as she tugs the reader quickly through her past — “needless to say, death changes people in all sorts of ways. Seeing it so soon made me realize how the finality of loss obsoletes most of what makes up our lives” — and into her present, “I’m hungry for some kind of color; I ache for emotion.” Holly is a smart, articulate, broadminded introvert, who befriends her young landlord, a beautiful but bizarre young woman named Mimi, who believes she is a vampire for tragic and rather graphic reasons. Mimi in turn falls in love with Holly’s colligate son. Together, Holly and Mimi spend much of the novel unraveling the fantastic truths surrounding the identities of Ellis and Tom, while discovering within themselves a kind of recklessness neither of them knew they possessed.
Przekop doesn’t seem to realize she has on her hands an interesting novel about the mentalities, professions and industries that unnecessarily stifle creativity, and created as a distraction too many artificial moments of interest. Is Mimi a stripper simply so Przekop could write a juicy chapter describing Mimi’s sexuality? Why does Holly, who longs for emotion, color and life, turn away from Van Gogh when he reaches out to her with the truth about his unnatural life? As Holly says herself, “just once, I want to lose and find myself again, because I now realize that losing keeps us alive, and finding keeps us young.” Why would Vincent, who ended his own life, wish to be immortally unhappy? Why would he become immortal only to allow himself, for 200 years, to be ordered never to paint again by his brother? Why would Vincent keep alive the brother who stifled him with his faith, devotion and lack of understanding? These questions, along with many others, remain unanswered in Centerpieces, acting as flaws in the plot and problems with the premise.
In the end, the book has little to do with art, be it the making of it, the inspiration for it, or the temperament needed to peruse it. As the four main characters crisscross in convoluted ways in predominantly corporate environments, we actually forget that any of the characters are artists. Ellis, toward the end of the novel when he is once again Vincent, says in a moment of passion, “we’re all lunatics and monsters. Once you realize that, you’ll see that I am no different.” If his character actually embodied either of those things, Vincent Van Gogh might have been an infinitely more interesting protagonist for Przekop’s novel.
Penelope Przekop’s Centerpieces is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.