Thoughts: The Museum of Modern Love, by Heather Rose

First book review from new flat! We have no kitchen and it is a minor nightmare of inconvenience, thanks covid! But it is ours.

I really liked this one. Yes, it’s pretentious, and in a lot of ways nothing happens, and it revolves around Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present piece? installation? but it came at the perfect time and was exactly what I wanted. Something quiet and gentle and emotional. Sometimes books get lucky that way.

And confession: the fact that I’d heard of The Artist Is Present before reading the book made me feel a little smarter and more cultured. Just a human thing, I guess.

I don’t know a lot about Abramović other than a few articles I’ve read, but I find her work interesting in a way I don’t find a lot of modern or performance artists interesting, and that definitely contributed to my enjoyment of The Museum of Modern Love. I don’t know what it is – I can see at least that there’s something being said in her work and get wordless nuances of what it is, which I don’t get from some other contemporary artists. Maybe that means I’m a simplistic person or that Abramović’s art is a bit populist. Who knows.

So The Museum of Modern Love follows several characters through the three months of The Artist Is Present. Some characters only get one or two episodes, or only come into focus in the last part of the book, or are left alone quickly. Our main protagonist is Arky Levin, a cinematic composer living alone for the first time, his daughter, Alice, grown up, his wife, Lydia, living in a hospital in the last stages of a degenerative genetic illness. To add more complications, she’s non-verbal after a stroke, and before that had arranged a legal restriction on Arky coming to see her ever, because she didn’t want him to see her that way.

All his friends think he’s a monster for meekly abiding by this. He isn’t sure. He’s doing what he’s been told to do. And doing what he’s told has in a way been what he’s been doing for his entire life. He’s just moved into a new apartment – while Lydia was on her way back from a business trip, between the move, she had her stroke, so she’s never seen it – which Lydia wanted for the location, which Lydia arranged the movers for. The housekeeper takes care of the shopping, cooking, cleaning. Alice was given power of attorney for her mother’s health issues as soon as she was old enough. And Lydia points out to him in a couple of flashbacks when she’s in hospital that she needs to look after herself right now, and can’t look after him. This might be part of the reason why she banned him from seeing her; pre-empting having to manage his feelings and take care of him even then, at the end of her life.

There’s a sort of helplessness about Arky that is a little unappealing, a man-child aspect to his personality, facilitated by his wealth and wife. Alice doesn’t get along with him very well, and it’s never overtly stated why. She keeps her distance from him, and therefore from us. She’s clearly having a hard time with her mother, and her father’s passivity is no support.

And all this is part of him, but he’s not an unlikeable person. He’s having a hard time too. He’s not very social, and has uncharitable (snobby) thoughts about the other people he sees as he spends his days aimlessly (well, deliberately) in MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York), but I empathised with him. He’s at the stage of his life where maybe he’s passed the peak of his art. The project he’s working on now seems to the reader to maybe be an optimistic pipe dream – a Japanese animated film whose director is enthusiastic but whose backers seem not to be prioritising. It’s left hanging at the end. Maybe it’ll happen and maybe it won’t. Maybe he’ll do a good job and maybe he’ll never find the spark. His life and goals don’t dictate the span of the story – The Artist Is Present does.

And this is just one character, and there’s so much more to say about him, and then there’s the others…

Art and all of its human support network – artists, teachers, muses, critics, commentators, agents, appreciators – are a running theme in the book too. The narrator only intrudes briefly, but seems to be some nebulous, timeless muse-being, or inspiration, looking down on the story.

Grief is also a theme, or maybe that’s just an offshoot of the absence/(artist’s) presence threaded through the whole. A dead husband, Lydia who’s never seen the new apartment, Arky’s absence from his daughter’s life, the ghost of Abramović’s mother…

Abramović too features (but of course), and I liked those parts too. Quick parallel to be drawn in my reading life to Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella, which I read last year, and which contains J. D. Salinger as a character. I felt really iffy about it – partly because he was still alive, partly because of the way he was inserted in the story (the “ease his pain” instruction seemed particularly presumptuous, given the implication that he hadn’t really signed off on any of this), a variety of reasons. I didn’t get that from Abramović’s portrayal here. In the acknowledgements Rose tells us that Abramović granted permission (and that all thoughts attributed to her are fictional), but even before that I was OK with it. What’s the difference? Well, the most obvious one is that Abramović is a performance artist and Salinger a very reclusive writer. I think partly it’s the way it was done, too, with a light touch.

At first glance The Museum of Modern Love is a pretty light book, but then I start trying to write about it and finding all of these things inside it that I noticed and took in but so seamlessly I hardly noticed. That, more than anything, is why I like writing these weird little reviews.

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