May 13, 2013

"Art Appreciation"

By Fiona McFarlane
~8200 words

A young man whose mother has just won the lottery begins courting a woman he hopes to marry.

Henry works at an insurance firm, where Ellie is his coworker. When his mother wins the lottery (ten thousand Australian dollars, a hefty sum in 1961), it gives him the confidence to begin dating her. But there are complications: Henry doesn't like art whereas Ellie does; his mother is flighty and overbearing; and he can't seem to get over his girlfriend Kath even after proposing to Ellie.

The story presents a conundrum: can a character be interesting by virtue of being boring? If ever there were one to test this hypothesis, it's Henry, about as bland a fellow as ever walked the planet. But there is something of an evolution toward the end, when Henry's complacent and uncritical demeanor finally gives way to a bit of self-awareness:
Henry's chest shook. He saw the future and Arthur in it, steering his mother by her happy elbow, smirking above the Sunday table, and always giving Henry quiet, confidential looks. And in this future Henry saw himself in his mother's house, always and only the lucky son of a lucky mother. An inheritor before she was even dead. There was something indecent about it.
As far as epiphanies go, it's not much, but it's probably about as much as one can expect from a character such as this.

If that were the only problem, the story might be justifiable on the basis of realism. Alas, however, it's also far too long, weighed down by a plot as tedious as Henry's character. The detail of the lottery seems to have little bearing on most of the story, except maybe insofar as it prompts Henry to begin dating Ellie. Likewise, the title is a bit of a red herring: though Henry's lack of enthusiasm for art reveals something of his character and provides for tension with Ellie, it never becomes a major focus. And then there's Arthur—the mother's new boyfriend—a major character introduced over halfway through the story.

Finally, the language does far too much telling in place of showing: Henry is pleased, Henry is satisfied, Henry is covetous, Henry is proud, Henry is expansive and proud, Henry is concerned, Henry is reluctant, Henry is surprised. If you insist on such a conventional character, at least give us an interesting way to think about him. There are a few places where the language is good, as in the description of Henry trying to eat a hamburger in Kath's presence ("The thick slice of beetroot threatened to slide onto his plate—it purpled his bread and his tongue—and juice of some kind, silky with fat, ran over his fingers"), but McFarlane's diction is just as often ham-fisted: Henry's mental clarity is described as a "frost" upon his brain, Kath shakes "like an arrow," etc.

I'm always happy to see new authors in TNY's pages, but the slow pace and insipid characters of "Art Appreciation" make this story a tedious proposition. If I hadn't been reading it for the blog, I might never have finished.


1 comment:

  1. "Finally, the language does far too much telling in place of showing"

    Dear God, it's like I'm in grad school all over again.

    Maybe this writer was trying to pull a Hemingway?

    I don't know; I forgot to finish this one, heh.