And so once again, we return to one of my preferred subjects for fiction: the making of art. Three of the four central characters in Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man are artists; the two focal characters of A.G. Porta’s The No World Concerto are writers; and Ali Smith’s Artful is constructed around a series of lectures given on the subjects of art and aesthetics. None of these are traditionally structured, and that’s one of the pleasures of reading them: how their respective authors create their own rhythms in depicting characters with their own distinct styles.
I’ve been on a bit of a Sarah Hall kick lately, and I don’t see that stopping any time soon. (If you’re betting on the contents of this column — not that I know why you would do such a thing — you would probably do all right if you anticipated that her The Electric Michelangelo would show up here before too long.) This novel follows four linked characters across several decades; the connections aren’t always apparent, and sometimes the tissue that connects them is more tenuous than in others instances. There are huge, wracking concerns here: slow slides into mortality, infidelity, debilitating illnesses, and depression. But in the end, Hall’s work is an ultimately optimistic one — and it’s one that earns every bit of its conclusion.
In describing Hall’s novel to someone who’d never encountered her work before, I referred to its structure as “half David Mitchell, half Ali Smith.” And in doing so, I was reminded that I needed to read Smith’s Artful, which had been on my to-read shelf for a bit too long. It’s based on a series of lectures Smith herself gave, but here those lectures are the work of a fictional character, deceased as the novel opens, whose partner goes through them. Structurally, this is a strange work: there are elements of a ghost story in it, as well as more metafictional trappings (and at least one section that will likely prompt the reader to pause in their reading and visit YouTube.) But, as with Hall’s book, the denouement felt incredibly moving to me.
A.G. Porta’s The No World Concerto similarly plays with narrative decices: its two central characters, an aging screenwriter and a young piano prodigy, are both writers, and each is writing about a version of the other in their work in progress. The whole thing is dizzying in places, and that mood isn’t helped by Porta’s fondness for referring to his central characters — and virtually everyone else — by descriptions rather than names. (This is a work that calls out for an informal online annotation; by my reckoning, I caught oblique references to everyone from James Joyce to Carlos Ramirez over the course of reading the novel.) At times, though, Porta’s approach left me more impressed than moved, even as it moves towards a surreal, dreamlike resolution. On the other hand, it may be that its strange structure and spiraling narrative will exert a lasting pull on me; only time will tell.