In New York’s Chinatown, a young painter agrees to line up worthy tenants for her landlady in exchange for free rent, with paradoxical effects on her art.
It’s 2009, with the Great Recession at its height, and 20ish Henriette Truax is finishing up art school, hoping to make new pieces for her own solo show. She faces a problem common to young artists trying to work and become known in New York City, “the art market’s world capital”—it’s hideously expensive. La Ma (short for Landlady Mary; real name Liu Mei Min), a tiny, dryly fierce Cultural Revolution survivor, owns Henriette’s Chinatown apartment house and proposes a deal: lower rent (later renegotiated to a rent holiday) if Henriette recruits suitable tenants. “No white trash. No trash black. No Chinese not legal. Bourgeoisie people,” explains La Ma. Henriette is reluctant, thinking her current neighbors are fine, but two part-time jobs aren’t enough to pay the rent and buy art supplies, so she agrees. Gentrification, though, pushes out Henriette’s quiet neighbors and introduces “an invading, displacing, colonizing force” that actually makes executing her artwork more difficult. In her thoughtful but tough-minded way, Henriette concludes: “Face it: my first duty is to myself, the myself I’m going to make of myself.” Inspired by the image of an abacus, Henriette’s work comes alive, and with La Ma’s patronage, she gains a huge opportunity granted to few young artists. In his debut novel, Harley often employs a somewhat heightened style that works well for the fantasy atmosphere. At one point, Henriette and La Ma’s male “minder” have this exchange: “I have rarely seen dungarees more elegantly modeled.” “In that case, kind sir, vamoose!” The author understands how artists think—visually, not so much in terms of narrative—and he gets how ruthless they must be, especially female ones, to succeed. For example, Henriette rejects her tipsy father’s plea to leave New York and return home (“Pop, you may wallow in eighty-proof self-pity for the rest of your days, but such an old age I find neither attractive nor, much though I have inherited your taste for whisky, even remotely sympathetic”). Harley’s images, too, are sharp and expressive: La Ma’s voice, for example, is “harsh as a raven greeting a chill dawn.”
A distinctive, engaging dual portrayal of wish fulfillment and gritty, hard work from a writer who understands artists.