Artist Marina Abramovic's marathon 2010 performance at the Museum of Modern Art becomes the focus of Rose’s tremblingly earnest novel, the Australian writer’s first novel for adults to be published in the U.S.
“This is not a story of potential,” announces the ominously angelic narrator who hovers over the novel, half muse and half ghost. “It is a story of convergence.” And so we meet Arky Levin, a noted composer of film scores, who has found himself unmoored after separating from his beloved wife. The circumstances are complicated: Incapacitated from a genetic condition, she has retreated to a home in the Hamptons, given their medical-student daughter power of attorney, and ordered Arky never to see her. It is in this state that he finds his way to MoMA, where Abramovi? is staging The Artist Is Present, for which she sits, still and in silence, as audience members take turns sitting across from her. There he meets Jane, a tourist and recent widow transfixed by the performance. She is not alone. There is Brittika, a Dutch graduate student writing her dissertation on Abramovic. There is Healayas, an art critic and old friend of Arky’s—once, she was the girlfriend of his longest-time collaborator, who betrayed them both. The performance is the gravitational pull of the novel, the point of convergence; no one emerges unchanged. Abramovic, too, is a character here: Large swathes of the book contend with her childhood and previous work, situating The Artist Is Present in her past. (Abramovic gave Rose permission to use her as a character.) It’s a bold proposition—Rose does not shy away from grappling with questions about the meaning and purpose of art—but too often, the answers to those questions tend to feel like platitudes about art and suffering. “Art will wake you up,” Abramovic’s childhood tutor announces. “Art will break your heart.” Art, Jane muses, offers “a kind of access to a universal wisdom.” The real power of the book, though, lies not in its philosophizing but in the unsteady tenderness between its characters.
A book that attempts to walk the thin line between the trite and the profound—and sometimes succeeds.