According to a former classmate with synesthesia, Molly Prentiss is a peach.
“I first heard about synesthesia when I was in graduate school, because a woman in one of my classes had it,” says Prentiss, who studied creative writing at California College of the Arts. “We barely talked, but one day she approached me and said something like, ‘You’re peach!’ To her, that was what my color was—that’s what she saw when she saw me.”
Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimuli in one modality produce sense impressions in another, for example perceiving words as having flavors, sounds as having textures, or classmates as having colorful auras. And it’s the defining gift Prentiss bestows on one of three main characters in her artful debut novel, Tuesday Nights in 1980.
“Thinking through how things might look with a synesthetic brain really played in well with the type of writing I like to do best, which is forming odd connections or associations or misshapen metaphors,” she says. “They might not be the right ones, as most people would see them, but somehow, in my mind, I think of one—I think of the other. So it was a lot of fun to write from James’ point of view, because I got to do that as much as I wanted.”
Tuesday Nights in 1980 is the third novel to be published by Scout Press, Simon & Schuster’s ambitious new literary fiction imprint. (Its lead title was September 2015’s Did You Ever Have a Family by bestselling memoirist and literary agent Bill Clegg.) The imprint reportedly pre-empted the highly anticipated auction with a two-book deal worth more than $500,000.
According to publisher Jennifer Bergstrom, as quoted in the New York Times, Scout seeks fiction that is “literary but very accessible, not precious, not fussy, not esoteric.” Tuesday Nights in 1980 is that and more: expansive, comic, energetic, and compassionate. Its author’s gifts are evident—which, coincidentally, speaks to one of her novel’s themes.
“I’m really interested in what happens when a person is gifted,” Prentiss says. “If [a character] has been given an innate ability or talent, what are the possibilities, and also the inevitabilities, of that gift’s trajectory? Is it going to take them to soaring heights and then they fall? Or is it going to be pulled out from under them? Is it going to just age away?”
James Bennett, Prentiss’ synesthetic protagonist, has learned to translate his impressions into poetic, yet accessible art criticism for the New York Times. Along the way, he’s curated one of New York City’s most coveted art collections, full of presents and purchases from the scene’s most celebrated artists and up-and-comers.
“When he looked at art or wrote about it, it was as if James’s brain were on fire: suddenly the entire universe seemed available and clear,” Prentiss writes. “He saw giant perspectives and tiny details. He felt gushes of wind and crawling ants, tasted burnt sugar and gazed at skies’ worth of stars….Everything disappeared except what mattered: the potent, powerful stuff of life, the heart explosions, the color, the truth.”
On New Year’s Eve 1979, James is toasting success—and a baby on the way—with his wife, Marge, at the party of legendary art maven Winona George. The palatial SoHo home is filled with incredible artwork, and the hostess has made a game of telling partygoers’ fortunes based on the piece they’re standing beside when she greets them. For James and Marge, it’s a Frank Stella painting, prompting an encouragement to “go against the tide” in 1980.
But for a handsome party crasher named Raul Engales, Winona’s fortune is much more somber. She discovers the mysterious young man alone in a room listening to “Broken Music” by Milan Knížák.
“ ‘I don’t want to be grave,’ [Winona] said slowly, her eyes narrowing. ‘But this piece has a sinister quality. You’ll have to do what Milan Knížák did. You’ll have to lose everything—the whole song you’d memorized and thought you loved—in order to make something truly beautiful,’ ” Prentiss writes.
It seems he already has: Raul recently fled an unbearable home situation and Argentina’s Dirty War on a miraculous American passport. (He was born when his late peripatetic parents were traveling abroad.) Living in an East Village squat, stealing space and art supplies from NYU, his goal is to perfect his craft as a painter and become recognized and respected for his prodigious artistry.
“ ‘Broken Music’ was perfect for the idea of Raul as an artist and how he becomes an artist—that feeling of things being messy and scratchy,” says Prentiss, who encountered the artwork for the first time while researching the book. “His journey is about finding something beautiful when everything he thinks defines him falls away, and that’s true for both him and James.”
Unlike James and Raul, Lucy Marie Olliason has yet to discover and define her singular talent. She’s only 22 and boldly moved from Ketchum, Idaho, to New York City mere months ago. (“Lucy didn’t want to have only one story. She wanted a whole life made out of stories: momentum, propulsion, characters, change,” Prentiss writes.) She’s beautiful enough to model and desperate enough to tend bar at a West Village dive named the Edge, where she meets Raul in the early morning hours of Tuesday, Jan. 1, 1980. She’s fated to become his muse.
“Lucy’s smart, but she’s young—she doesn’t know what she wants to be yet, but also I think part of it is waiting for the world to tell her what she is, to define her, and not being able to define herself,” says Prentiss, who, like Lucy, moved to New York City when she was 22.
“There’s a lot from my life in the book, and my experience moving to New York especially influenced it—that mix of ecstatic revelation and then also total disgust and the feeling of why the hell did I move here? At the same time, though, it’s one of the most powerful moments of my life, and it’s because of that butting up of the grossness and craziness of it all and these weird everyday moments of beauty and wacky serendipity that only happen here.”
Befittingly, an element of serendipity underlies the novel’s form: all of the present action in Tuesday Nights in 1980 takes place on Tuesdays, but neither the day nor the year has personal significance for Prentiss (who was born on a Friday in 1984). Rather, it’s a structural device developed with help from her agent, Claudia Ballard, to focus the narrative.
“At one point the book was very long, moved well beyond the year 1980, and had all these structural issues, which is always my problem,” Prentiss says. “So we talked about different ways we could structure the book, give it a tighter structure, a holding device, and at one point I had a section titled ‘Tuesday Nights in 1980,’ and we kind of together came up with this thought: what if that’s the whole book, and it’s only on Tuesdays, and it’s only in 1980? At first, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s going to be so hard’—but eventually I started having a lot of fun with it.”
The chronological constraint lends a fabulous element to Tuesday Nights in 1980—as James, Raul, and Lucy collide and collaborate on six distinctive days sprinkled throughout one watershed year. As Kirkus writes in a starred review, “The particulars of their connections, romantic and artistic, are too big and too poetic to be entirely plausible, but then, this is not a slice-of-life novel: this is a portrait of an era, an intoxicating Manhattan fairy tale.”
“It took me a long time to say ‘I’m a writer,’ to have that be my source of identity,” she says. “It’s something that I see a lot of artists, especially women, struggle with. Up until not that long ago, I was still defining myself by my day job—what’s the thing that makes you your money? What’s the thing that the rest of the world looks at you as? But I’m coming around,” she laughs.
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.