Nestled toward the very end of The Art Lover is a small autobiographical section wherein Carole Maso describes the vanishing, right before her eyes, of her friend Gary. It is such a fitting gem for this book about a writer writing a book that there, tucked in toward the end, full of oomph and sadness and love, is the author showing herself and her entire hand, literally invisible in front of the dying man’s eyes.
I think of death breaking like a star in your head.
Your eyes are black tulips, something beautiful and strange, something so rare, so unlikely. So lovely. Your eyes float separate from your illness . . .
I first read that section while sitting in a large jury-duty cattle-call room when I was twenty-two and I wept, softly but uncontrollably, as I read the details of his death and her love for him and the grief that was already upon her before he was even actually gone. I was slightly embarrassed, but too moved to care enough to try to stop. This is art, I thought. This is story. This is love.
Your bones glowed. Each day I traced your bones more and more easily, the head so much bone, the flesh melting. It seemed as if the flesh was melting from your face.
This book, with its fake posters and astrological charts and cropped snapshots of classical art, along with the professor who assigned it – brought me back to words. I had abandoned them. I was trying to be a mathematician. Concrete. Literal. Logical. Safe.
But numbers had never made me cry: not alone, not in public, not ever.
Maso’s book had arms that pulled me toward them, had a face, had lips that whispered to me. Before my brain had caught up, my body was charged with pinpricks of electricity. Words danced. Images raced through my veins. Possibility was filling my ears, a low static hum of what could be. Of what could be made.
In motions slower than a classical epiphany would demand, I changed course. After nearly a dozen major changes, I altered my route through college and stayed an extra three and a half years in my hometown to study writing, to chase after the words in that book, in the way they spoke to me, believing again in the act of getting at something with nothing but type on paper.
In Maso’s words: I was trying to get it down.
I still am. In every way I can.
As a necessity. As a way to make sense of the world.
I am going to write now. It is a way of telling the truth. Or nearing the truth.
The absolute truth? The literal truth?
Well, yes. Well, no. But something of the whole. Something of what it means to be alive.
I reread the book recently, and just like the second time I read it (nearly 5 years after the first time) I had a lurking sense of dread, of fear that it wouldn’t move me in the same way, that after so much dismantling of structure and plot and image and cadence, I would see behind the curtain enough to be more like the construction foreman watching a building take shape than the wonderous child, hand in hand with her mother, who can’t believe that humans actually create the things that we love and work and heal in – in short, that it would be just another book. An old story.
From the start, though, each time I read it, the words are there: perfect, measured, stacked up and bare. I am in her world, immediately.
Wiping tears away this time, last time, the first time, this book – with its puppet strings so opaque and right in my line of sight – reminded me: this is how you get it down. This is how you try to get at all of those wordless things – how you dance around them and over them and beside them and do your best to say it right, to say it at all, to say it. However hard, however you fail to get even close to exactly right – it’s worth it, it’s always worth it.
The Art Lover is absolutely a novel grounded in a specific time. Just one story of AIDS and the loss that came sweeping across whole communities, reducing people to bodies held together by broken parts and memory. The story is of this world. But it is also, as all great stories are, of something less concrete. A story so right in the actual details of it, but also about something less particular and more nebulous. The narrator pile things up (lists, words, images) to shore against the pain of what is missing, to have something to lean against when the world starts to crumble.
The narrator makes art to save herself, to keep herself afloat in the midst of unimaginable sadness and pain. She gathers art. She writes art. She thinks, at times, in a language apart from alphabet: in colors and sculptures and paintings. It doesn’t save her from the pain, but it does hold her up, however slightly, enough to survive. In the midst of sickness, she finds a way to make beauty. It doesn’t stop the pain. It doesn’t stop the death. But it does something when nothing is too much to bear.
Maso’s book cuts right to the center of loss and love and the way they braid together in the harshest of times. And when words fail, there is something to connect them – an image to make words where words can not be made, to hold time until the words come back. The Art Lover is one of those books that brings me back to myself, in a deeply visceral and emotional way. It gets down those things that are hardest to say. It gets them down. By whatever means necessary.
“Anything you do with your heart is dangerous,” you said. “It comes with the territory.”
And there it was, crystalline and full of weight, again, like always: making art will save you. It will not save your life. But it will save you.
I am a lover of detail, a marker — it’s a way of keeping the world in place. One documents, makes lists to avoid becoming simply petals.
And it seems simple to say now, for me, that writing and making and crafting something from nothing will keep you alive. Simple for me to say now. As I read this book for the first time, I could hear the wind through my skull, a cold breeze telling me to stop running from it. Make. Write. Live.
And that wind is there every time, howling and whistling and dizzying.
*All photos and quotes are from The Art Lover by Carole Maso, 1990, The Ecco Press.