Everything and Nothing

Molly Prentiss, Tuesday Nights in 1980

Hamish Hamilton, 336pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780241235560

reviewed by Mark West

There is a great joy in reading about people falling in love with art. Such is this joy's power that a writer need only offer the barest narrative outline – discovery, infatuation, transformation – and the reader will fill in the gaps with their own histories. Novels like Molly Prentiss' Tuesday Nights in 1980 summon those romantic fixtures of artistic life – glamorous poverty, bands of outsiders, troubled geniuses – and these familiar tropes, like Roland Barthes' ‘readerly texts,’ reassure us and reinforce our intuitions about the world. These are comforting narratives, and they sustain our love of art and of stories. Enjoyment, though, can be tricky for critics. Is an enjoyable novel necessarily a good or well-written one?

Tuesday Nights in 1980 covers the titular year in the lives of an interconnected group of characters – Raul Engales, an artist newly arrived in New York from Argentina; James, a synesthetic art critic; his wife Marge; and Lucy, the rural ingenue who, infatuated with the artistic life, becomes Raul's lover. The novel is incredibly pleasurable, but this can obscure some of its problems, most of which are stylistic.

Some of them are relatively tiny, like Prentiss' tendency to over-use italics or exotic punctuation (‘?!’) for emphasis, but others are more fundamental. The opening passages of the novel take place at a New Year's Eve party attended by New York's art world glitterati, and there is a very clear sense here of Prentiss setting out the elements of her story – we see the party from a number of different perspectives, and certain moments are described in such tones as to appear unmissably significant. To a certain extent this is a welcome orientation, but it also establishes a trend present throughout the book: it often prefers to tell rather than to show. This criticism is a cliché of writing workshops, and there are many reasons to be suspicious of it (we ‘tell’ a story, after all), but it is nonetheless a problem here because it smothers the life of the novel, with the result that characters more illustrate certain phenomena rather than embody them.

So, for instance, James' concerns about commercialisation are glossed as follows: ‘The world, especially the art world, was changing; he could feel it. The city was handing out promises, dangling fame in front of even the most radical artists' noses; in turn, a sharpness was being dulled.’ This process of change would be much better revealed through the action and movement of the novel, not simply stated like this. Rather than dispensing key information about James' character important for the plot, the passage risks appearing redundant, especially as Prentiss doesn't particularly dwell on the subject; we never see what a ‘sharpness being dulled’ looks like.

This leads to another problem with the novel: the telling does not in fact tell us very much. Descriptions are often casually imprecise, rather than renderings of specificity. So, for instance, grief is ‘a blob of anger and pain,’ the anarchy of a New Year's Eve party is simply ‘post-midnight hoopla,’ and James' infatuation with Lucy is indicated by him noticing that ‘Her eyes were doing a thing!’ All of these are representations of the blurry and the chaotic, but that doesn't excuse a writer from describing that uncertainty with precision; if anything, it demands more accuracy. There are also some rather cringe-worthy lines, like the normative cliché of ‘the sigh, the official sound of spousal judgment,’ the irritatingly ironic ‘a very tragic reaction to tragedy,’ and this description of underwhelming sex: ‘It was as if Marge's eggs could sense in James' sperm the just-not-himself-ness of their creator.’ The awkwardness of that string of hyphens, followed by the wafty ‘ness,’ is hard to ignore.

This is frustrating, because there are some genuinely good lines, too. The stump of an amputated arm is ‘a torch of pain and uselessness,’ while a shared cigarette is a ‘tiny, precious scroll.’ At points there are lines that are simultaneously acute and universal: ‘everyone knew there was nowhere to cry in New York’ is a fantastically allusive line, while Prentiss' description of ‘trauma in a city’ as ‘a layering of one tragic space onto another’ deftly takes on the spatial language of New York's emotional geographies; ‘She loves nothing more on this earth than fleeting beauty’ is a wonderfully wry verdict on a capitalistic gallerist.

The sense of vague or imprecise language is important, though, because it affects how the novel depicts time and place. The title is a good example. If the reader is initially struck by its calendrical precision, any sense of particularity soon dissolves in the title's useless specificity. This is a question of a revealing versus a redundant particularity; the title tells us nothing about the book, because it doesn't explain why isolating this day of the week and this year is necessary. What is it – in particular – about Tuesday nights, and 1980, that is significant? And for whom? The novel itself provides few answers. Every now and again it makes a point of mentioning a Tuesday art opening, and towards the end of the book there are some contrived references to characters disliking Tuesdays, but as a structuring device aimed at gathering the narrative threads together, they appear relatively arbitrary and not particularly successful. 1980 is occasionally pinpointed as a transformative year for the art world, but as mentioned above, art's commercialisation never breaks out to become a main strand of the book.

Ultimately, the loose language means that reading Tuesday Nights in 1980 doesn't feel like we are reading a book set in 1980. Feeling is difficult to achieve, and capturing the essence of the past is a mysterious process. Nevertheless, compared to other novels set in a similar milieu – Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers (2013), Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (2003) – Prentiss' novel doesn't find a technique which gathers the cultural atmosphere of the time and distills it into language. It doesn't have the impersonal eeriness of Kushner's narrative voice, the way that voice approximates the games the art world plays with appearance and reality, the way the central protagonist is a void, a cipher. And it doesn't have Lethem's thoroughness, the way his novel buzzes with the linguistic grain and quotidian details which build up the period's texture. The Fortress of Solitude sings with the refrains of its characters' childhoods – the playground insults, the claims of street wisdom, snatches of period TV, soul and rap lyrics. Instead, Tuesday Nights in 1980 ruminates lazily on the city: ‘New York was being New York. The hot asphalt was steaming, the little dogs were being toted or followed by their eccentrically dressed masters, the clothes were bright and skimpy, the smell was sewer and candied nuts, the newspapers were cracking open at the cafe tables, the sunglasses were enormous, the scrawls on the walls seemed to vibrate. Lucy wandered down the avenue, in search of nothing and everything.’

That one of the protagonists is a critic seems an interesting choice on Prentiss' part, and suggests that how we talk about art is one of the novel's key concerns. In the sections that feature James prominently, Prentiss' emphasis is always on his process of transferring into words the sensations he feels when he looks at a painting. For Prentiss – and for James too – art has agency: ‘This painting would be a key, he knew. They key back into the house of his mind.’ Art compels James to act against his own interests, it rehabilitates Raul after he loses a hand in a freak studio accident, and it literally, in the form of a postcard found on an Idahoan street, draws Lucy to New York.

The question of art's power might also help explain why James has synesthesia. Prentiss spends a great deal of time describing how it affects him, and while his desire to keep seeing ‘his colours’ influences his behaviour, it would be a stretch to suggest that it fulfils a fundamental function in the narrative. At times it seems as if it is a rather imaginative escape from the notoriously difficult problem of ekphrasis; among contemporary writers, I can only think of Siri Hustvedt – especially in What I Loved (2003) – who actively excels at it. Making the art critic a synesthetic allows Prentiss to create the illusion that she is describing what the art looks like by using a language of colour to describe what James feels like when he looks at art. Rather than describing the brushstrokes, the composition, and the materials, as Hustvedt does, Prentiss describes what James senses in the world around the painting. We come to know the art from its effects.

This is perhaps Prentiss' more profound reasoning. In James' case, these effects provide her with a kind of metaphorical language with which to describe art's power; she finds a way to make the abstract more material. This seems apt for a novel that ends with this depiction of paintings as material registers of love: ‘it is only now – when he imagines someone he loves loving it, seeing in it what he sees – that this room full of paintings can become beautiful, or valid, or real.’