Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Fiona McFarlane’s “Art Appreciation” was originally published in the May 13, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Fiona McFarlane makes this remark to interviewer Deborah Treisman about Henry, her main character in “Art Appreciation”:
I had in mind a line from “Brideshead Revisited,” in which Julia Flyte says of Rex Mottram, “He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed.” I wanted to take a man like that — a blank sort of man, living a fairly circumscribed life with quiet arrogance — and see what he would make of something extraordinary.
The question is, does Henry realize what it is that is extraordinary? He thinks it is the little lottery winnings his mother has won and is willing to share with him. What is extraordinary, though, is that any girl would have him. It is possible that by the end of the story his fiancé has wrought some changes in him — but then again, maybe not. The prose is so understated that the reader’s job is sort out McFarlane’s attitude.
Ellie is the girl who is willing to have Henry.
Why would we want to see a girl choose a man who isn’t a complete human being? Perhaps it is because McFarlane means us to see how Ellie is poised at the edge of a cliff — how perhaps she might be able to save herself from Henry, given that she has this lifeboat — her idea of art. Or perhaps Henry is such a nonentity that he will give Ellie plenty of room to maneuver, and she has chosen him somewhat knowingly.
Henry is a dreary kind of man who lives his life with boring regularity: the dog track on Friday nights, respectful time with his mother, and a mistress /easy girl for Sunday nights. He is the kind of man who is defined by his taste in restaurants:
He went to a place near the station where he often liked to eat after work. The whole establishment felt boiled — boiled meat, wet raincoats and the undersides of shoes.
Ellie has chosen a safe man with what looks like safe habits, although the reader is not particularly convinced that he is also not going to be dangerous to Ellie’s health.
Unlike the reckless vision of Lethem’s tale last week, we have in McFarlane’s story limits on tone, limits on access to Ellie’s character, limits to the main character himself, and limits on vision. There’s a complicated novel here for the reader to write about the possibilities for growth in either Henry or Ellie or their marriage. Whether Henry is capable of tolerating Ellie’s growth does not appear actually possible. What is possible, though, is that Ellie might choose to limit her own growth to save her marriage. What will happen after the curtain falls is what’s interesting. Ellie has married a very narrow man, and she has thus put herself in a fair amount of danger. At the same time, I have to wonder if it is Ellie who has made the knowing match, and if it is Henry who is in danger. The severe understatement of this story provides numerous lines of inquiry — if you can stick with a story that starts with a man who isn’t really, in the author’s description, “a complete human being at all.” Finally, the story forces you to ask if Henry, Ellie, or their marriage will have what it will take to survive the sixties.
Thanks, Betsy, for getting your thoughts up here so quickly! I have never heard of Fiona McFarlane before, so I’m excited to get to know her work. Her first novel, The Night Guess, comes out in October, and this is apparently not an excerpt! It’s a relatively long story, but I’ll have my thoughts up soon (I know I said that last week, but after hearing what others thought of “The Gray Goose” I lost steam and haven’t even tried it yet — I will read this one soon).
It’s odd, Trevor, that I felt a link between McFarlane’s Ellie and Lethem’s Miriam: the one a conventional fiance, and the other an outrageous woman-of-the-world-to-be. Regardless of the fact that the stories are antithetical in style and attitude, both of these young women seem to see men as their primary access to power. Isn’t that odd – since the stories are otherwise so opposed? But in both it’s the late fifties. That men are power is the essence of the fifties. .To think about politics, in Miriam’s case, and to think about art, in Ellie’s case, these possibilities are both provided by access to men. But then, in both cases there are also the negotiations that must be made with men in order that politics, art and power might coalesce, those negotiations being, in fact, the story.. In fact, Henry’s former squeeze sees Henry as power also – but in her case, it’s merely money that she wants.
I loved this story. Early on, we get: “She had the quality of a bird among grasses, peering out in nervous excitement, eager for a mate but afraid to abandon her safety.” And the amazing sentences just keep coming, one after the other. I’d never heard of McFarlane before, but based on this story, she seems to be a brilliant stylist. Although it is obvious from the beginning that Henry is going to get what he deserves and that it won’t be pleasant, I enjoyed the suspense of wondering what would happen to him, how his desserts would be meted out – and what words McFarlane would choose along the way. I also loved the way she presented characters with such economical prose. Not just their physical description, but the rest. Arthur is an example – he is said to be the color of a fox and we “hear” his working class speech. We get him in a couple of quick sentences. McFarlane doesn’t just make every word count – often she makes a word do double or triple duty.
She uses a somewhat arch tone, but it is restrained enough so as to allow the story to have an emotional impact. I.e., unlike Lethem last week, McFarlane doesn’t go so far as to ridicule her characters; it’s more like she’s poking fun at them. And she does more than poke fun – she makes Henry and Ellie and others sympathetic, to one degree or another. Sure, Henry is shallow, but he’s not atrocious (just a few instances of insensitivity), and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him if only because he is so pathetic. At the end, what he ends up receiving isn’t something obvious like Arthur swindling Henry’s mother out of the lottery winnings, but rather the unpleasant stirrings of an awakening about how his actions can have consequences. Not quite an epiphany or a learning of a lesson, but just the glimmering of such an experience, a rumbling of the ground under the preordained landscape that he believes orders the world. Which seems exactly right; just as much as someone like him is capable of absorbing in a particular moment, and enough to feel that what has happened matters. Anyway, I hope McFarlane follows her novel (which now sits in my Amazon cart) with a short story collection, because she’s one gifted short story writer.
Hi Roger, I really enjoyed reading your reaction to McFarlane’s story. Your attention to her use of Arthur opened my eyes as to what McFarlane was really doing in this story. Your distinction that what Henry has is not an epiphany but a “glimmering” of himself is really interesting and quite in keeping with McFarlane’s restraint. I see the whole thing differently. I would be curious to know why you think she chose her title.
Hi Betsy. I’m not sure about the title, but am going to take a hunch based in part on what McFarlane said during the interview about how Ellie is a passive participant in her relationship with art: she doesn’t make art but merely appreciates it, and the suggestion is that her appreciation is superficial at best, really at the most shallow cognitive level, not even constituting genuine appreciation. I see Henry’s relationship with the world and with other characters, including especially Kath and Ellie, as similarly shallow. He assigns roles to people and their actions — or assumes that such roles have been prescribed by society and that he is able to discern them, which is pretty much the same thing as doing the assigning himself, though wouldn’t realize this. And he views people he ought to be close to as means to his own ends. His mother’s role is to give him at least half of her lottery winnings. Kath’s role is to be his easy girl, as you well put it, and then go away after he starts seeing Ellie, whose role is to become his wife. He doesn’t appreciate anyone or anything in any meaningful way. In that way, perhaps Ellie and he are well-matched. In addition to her passive relationship with art, she seems to have a shallow relationship with Henry. She can’t really love him (as you suggest, how could she?), in part because she doesn’t really know him. (Maybe he is not even susceptible to being known, because he is so shallow – he doesn’t even know himself or have much of a self to get to know.) Yet she is eager to get involved with him right away. She seems to have joined the insurance firm to find a husband – Henry’s observation to that effect appears accurate. The only time either of them seems to begin potentially feeling more deeply about the other is that moment with the fountain. So, for the most part, these two have a superficial relationship with life and one another, similar to Ellie’s supposed appreciation of art. They observe, at most; they don’t appreciate.
The fountain scene and the ending where Henry is shaken by his experience with Kath at the race track arguably suggest that he and Ellie may eventually develop the ability to truly engage with one another and the world in a meaningful way.
Hi Roger – thanks for this discussion. There is a lot to think about here. Again, I like your choice of words to describe what it is that has happened to Henry when Arthur sees him – he is “shaken”. But I question whether it is enough to shake him loose. There are two sides to the insurance business – calculating the odds on the one hand and providing for the possibility of disaster on the other. Henry, after all, is also a gambler. He likes the dogs and the horses. Will he be able to give up gambling (with women like Kath or on dogs or horses) just because Arthur saw him? Can he calculate the odds so they are more in his favor?
You catch my attention with your discussion of the passive appreciation of art. Here we are, reading McFarlane, appreciating her mysteries, enjoying her work.. If we read her story, if we think about it, is that a also passive appreciation? Should we feel shallow if we are merely reading and not creating the story? Is the only difference between Ellie and us that it is Monday morning when we do our “Art Appreciation” and not Friday?
I think not! For one thing, most writers also read and think about what they read, and some even write about what they read.I would posit that trying to write about the story and exposing that writing to criticism is a kind of art that is active and not passive, that it goes beyond mere appreciation. I have read that Alice Munro remarked in an interview that it sometimes takes her months to write a story, and that she is thinking about it the whole time. She then asked if it might be wise for readers to take the same time to think about a story.
To take considerable time to process a story is more an enactment of art than an appreciation. To a degree, however, I think McFarlane is in fact challenging her reader. What kind of reader will you be? Read it and fall asleep? Read it a couple of times? Read it and talk about it? Read it and write about it? I contend that trying to pin down what you think in writing is different than just reading, and different than just talking.
I thought that Trevor’s remarks about Beauman were very revealing – that he is annoyed by the reviews of ordinary people and enjoys taking his revenge by cataloging just what it is that people don’t like about his writing and doing it again!
Not that McFarlane shares his attitudes. But this story may be poking the bourgeois reader and asking – just how shallow or just how deep is your “appreciation” of any writing? After all, this story appeared the week after Jonathan Lethem’s provocative story, “The Gray Goose” – in which the Gray Goose may well be the reader.
Was what Roger Ebert did an art? Or is what Hazlitt did or what Louis Menand does an art? Helen Vendler is my hands-down Queen of Criticism, and I do believe that what she does is an art. Whether what we do here is art is surely open to a variety of questions, but it is not passive, I think. Perhaps a first step on the ladder.
Anyway, I really enjoyed your remarks. Already looking forward to next week. My concern is usually, regarding Mondays, whether there is enough time to think about a story, especially, if it is a story that requires sleep to process it and what I think about it, and then time to edit. And then, of course, what we do, we all know, with these quick stabs, is create (by writing) a structure in our own brains where the story can live, and where we can think about it, and where what we think about can change, as time goes by, thus satisfying Alice Munro’s idea that nothing is ever really perfect, and that time is required for understanding.
I struggled through this one a little bit, I didn’t like it that much.
While the story itself was constructed quite nicely and kept me intrigued, I found the writing a bit formulaic.
This sentence has been praised by others:
“She had the quality of a bird among grasses, peering out in nervous excitement, eager for a mate but afraid to abandon her safety.”
However, such sentences to me just seem forced in to the story with little or no actual relevance.
In addition, some of the writing didn’t add up to me.
“It didn’t occur to Henry to bet any more recklessly than he normally would have. Still, he had an unusually successful night”
Sentences such as this don’t make sense to me. Surely a more reckless approach would have increased the chances of him having an unsucessful night, so why the word ‘Still’ when he takes his usual pragmatic approach?
If you’re going to write a story about a gambler, then you should understand the basics of gambling…
Hi again Betsy – thanks also for the discussion. Yes, I do think Henry was directly shaken by seeing (and potentially being seen by) Arthur. But then something else happens, admittedly resulting from the Arthur-sighting, but separate from it and even more significant: “another life” occurs to Henry, one in which he’s married to Kath (a wife who would come with him to the dog races etc.) instead of Ellie. When he becomes physical with Kath outside the track, he seems to be doing so with conviction, to be acting on the sensation that he should turn away from Ellie and toward Kath. When Kath rebuffs him by saying she just wants some money, he is forced to realize Kath is no longer available to him. So he is back with Ellie, after having just considered abandoning their engagement. That’s got to be even more unsettling than the sight of Arthur: he has swung from Ellie to Kath and back to Ellie again, and the purity of his supposed love for Ellie has been irrevocably sullied. He has the instability of life and his own emotions, maybe for the first time, which collides with his previous simplistic view of how the world is arranged. The intangible “cloak” that had covered him on his way into the track with Kath has become “heavier” now, weighing him down with guilt and a taste of real knowledge. This suggests to me that there is now the possibility that he will change and grow. But only the possibility. After all, McFarlane writes that “[h]e shook it [the cloak] off and walked home to his mother.” So maybe he will blind himself to the insights that are pressing to manifest themselves to him, and go back to his previous state, that of a selfish child.
On the question of appreciation – I definitely agree with you that critics and scholars are “appreciating” in a meaningful way and didn’t mean to suggest that they (or we!) are shallow. What I meant to say is that Ellie doesn’t seem to appreciate art at even the most minimal level; as the Q&A notes, she claims simply to love every sort of art. I didn’t see her really explaining or interpreting or discussing. That’s one of the several things that seem to make her similar to Henry in a way. With one big difference being that she is only twenty years old, an excuse Henry doesn’t have….
Great stuff, Roger. It’s fun to read.
I liked this too. I was impressed with the seemingly effortless style and the calm, quiet and matter-of-fact tone. All of that, of course, is not easy to do. I don’t think, though, that Henry is as limited or shallow as many think. I feel he is just “normal.” We all think of ourselves as the norm but people like Betsy and Trevor and Roger and I are not. We are exceptionally smart and sensitive people. Henry is not shallow. He is much like “average” people. We don’t usually encounter these in fiction because writers themselves often have little patiencew with or understanding of the quotidian. I’m not saying he’s admirable or a cool dude or anything. He is a bore and his story seems so smoothly, evenly deployed and so successful that at points it resembles a fairy tale or a Dick and Jane reader. First he meets a girl, then he does this, then he does that, blah blah blah. And yet…there’s the underlying tension, insecurity. The sense of the superior in Ellie’s family. Again, superior, not normal unlike him. What I like also is that as “normal” as he is (or I claim he is) he is still insecure, lonely and has this wonderful sensitivity at the fountain with Ellie and that he too is tempted and unsure. If he could abandon more traditional morality, he might be better off with Kath and the great irony is that she is no longer interested. I actually thought this was part of her forthcoming novel because it doesn’t seem this story is quite over yet.
Hi Ken – It’s good to be taken up short by the question of just where one thinks one is standing … I liked that idea that Ellie feels superior to Henry, and that in a way the reader is invited to identify with her. Makes me think back to Sons and Lovers – where his mother invited Paul Morel to look down on his father – and where that doesn’t end very well. Still, I found it hard to “appreciate” Henry. Perhaps, as you point out, that’s the point.
I would argue, in line with my previous argument, that the sort of person who reads stories in the New Yorker is BOUND to identify more with Ellie than Henry. She’s more of “our” kind. Does the writer tip the scales in any other way? Henry, after all, is our focalizer and allowed interiority which makes him more of a figure of idenitfication. His sheer narrative centrality by mere quantitative time spent with him has a certain weight.
I am delighted by the story and by the vigorous discussion it has engendered. I was struck first by the beautifully crafted sentences; unlike Manel, I thought the writing graceful and evocative, and the language wittily accurate: Henry and Ellie “hadn’t slept together yet,” but for Henry’s mother, “There had been no intercourse.” I think McFarlane playful here, paying attention to the “Art Appreciation” of the title by noting the frequent mention and importance of colors in the story – Henry’s “hygenic” blue eyes match Ellie’s hat, Kath’s (fake) copper hides gray, the real color of Ellie’s father’s hair, and of course there’s foxy ARThur, who might even do Henry out of his (unearned?) inheritance. There’s a sense of dishonesty lingering throughout the story: does Henry deserve anything at all from his mother’s luck? Why does Ellie batten on Henry so readily and so seemingly “artlessly”? And why is it the (green) statue of Apollo, ideal of beauty, that calls forth the kind of baptismal imersion that literally seals Henry (in his blue suit) and Ellie together? Grateful for your thoughts, always.
Ken and Judith – so interested, as always, in the inquisitive reader’s eye: Ken’s question about how the writer tips her scales, and Judith’s word-by-word (!) inquisition of McFarlane’s art!