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“You must do it, but you must be fearless.” Those were the words Australian author Heather Rose heard as she sat before Marina Abramović in 2010 during Abramović’s performance retrospective The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was during this retrospective that Rose knew she had to write a novel. Sitting with the artist, she silently asked herself whether she could write the book, hearing the artist’s response in her mind. This was the story Rose told during her November 28, 2018 book launch event at the MoMA, which, due to illness, Abramović could not attend.
Rose describes sitting in front of Abramović for what she thought was six to eight minutes but later learned through the video stream was 46 minutes, moving through time and space as they gazed into one another’s eyes. Through that experience came the novel The Museum of Modern Love, published in Australia in 2016, and in the US in November of 2018, by Algonquin Books. The novel follows Arky Levin, a film score composer with a comatose wife and distant daughter. Arky attends The Artist Is Present and meets Jane, a tourist and recent widow enthralled with the performance. While the novel focuses primarily on Arky, the chapters jump back and forth between Arky, Jane, and Abramović herself, as well as a few minor characters, centering on Abramović’s work and taking place during the artist’s three-month performance retrospective in 2010.
In many ways, the novel falls short of expectations. Hearing Rose talk about her experience during the book launch left me enthralled and eager to read about the transformative power of The Artist Is Present. However, I found myself losing interest in the novel, slogging through the text in the hopes of finding some deeper meaning, but to no avail.
For starters, I didn’t care about the characters. Arky Levin is wholly unlikeable. While plenty of great stories star unlikeable characters who are difficult to sympathize with, Arky remains generally uninteresting.
Part of the problem could have been the text’s narration. The narrator is a sort of omniscient figure spanning time and acting almost as a puppeteer. For instance, the narrator states, “I drew Levin’s attention to the day outside. He went to the window and saw sunlight dazzling the fountain in Washington Square.” This puppeteering aspect identifies the characters as figures of the narrator’s own making. However, it’s dropped early on, and instead, the narrator becomes just omniscient and all-knowing, creating a sense of distance from the characters. I can’t feel what Arky is feeling or understand what Abramović is going through because I’m being told by this third party. Yet, I wanted to get closer to the characters and deeper into their psyches.
In one scene, Arky sits down in front his makeshift “Marina pillow” and pretends he’s sitting before her in the museum. Rose writes, “He felt a little bit silly …” This exemplifies the way the writing does not get us close enough to the character, and similar instances occur frequently within the novel. “He felt,” “She thought,” and other such phrases sprinkle the text, keeping the reader at a distance from the characters. Rather than a narrator telling me what a character thinks and feels, I want to see and experience those feelings through the language. This recalls the age-old adage of “show, don’t tell.” Instead of writing, after a game of tennis, “He hated to lose. And he was disturbed by out of shape he was,” I would have liked to get inside the character’s head, feel what he feels, and understand what that sense of disturbance meant; maybe then, I could care. Marina Abramović’s character, too, fell flat, and I remain in awe at how one could make even the most interesting of people seem uninteresting simply through lackluster narration.
A creative writing instructor I had in grad school once declared, “I never want to see anyone shrug in your work,” calling it cliché and overused — a lazy way to show a character’s indecision or ambivalence. While I don’t necessarily abide by these set-in-stone rules, I did find myself disappointed by sentences like, “He shrugged and stretched his back,” recalling my former professor’s words.
The novel also tries to take on too much and introduce too many characters. Though the main focus was on Arky, Jane, and Abromović, several chapters were devoted to minor characters, such as Arky’s daughter Alice, his friend Healayas, and others that seemed of little importance to the story. There were so many characters that, at one point, I found myself confused and unable to keep track of names. Towards the end, we even have a chapter dedicated to a man named Arnold Keeble, at which point I began to backtrack, wondering if I’d missed something or forgotten a character entirely.
The novel’s centerpiece, though, is Abromović’s performance in The Artist Is Present. During the real-life performance at the time, many described transformative experiences that I myself, not having attended, could not quite understand. So, when I picked up Rose’s novel, I looked forward to gaining some insight as to why the performance meant so much to so many people. In the end, though, the details fell flat, and I remain unable to grasp what people, both in life and in this novel, experienced as they sat before Marina Abromović.