Sunday, May 26, 2013

Art on Fire by Hilary Sloin

Publisher:                   Bywater Books

What should be said about a book that is supposed to be a satire on pretentiousness and becomes pretentious itself?  Either it’s a great success or a colossal failure.

First, it must be pointed out that this is a work of fiction.  Sloin does such an excellent job of creating the sense that this is a biography that readers and others are constantly confused as to what it is. The book succeeded at winning an award for nonfiction until it was pointed out that the story is pure fiction.

Francesca deSilva is the product of a dysfunctional family.  Her mother dotes on Francesca’s older sister Isabella who is supposed to be a genius and her father is at a complete loss as to what to do with this family.  Francesca retreats to a bedroom in the attic where she lives a solitary existence, only occasionally intruded upon by family obligations.  She falls in love with Chinese chess champion Lisa Sinsong, a product herself of a skewed family life and when they are discovered in bed together, Francesca flees.  She begins a bohemian existence drifting until she comes to live in a barely rustic cabin in the woods.  Francesca turns to painting to express her perspective on things and finds herself acclaimed as the creator of a new style.  Ten years later she returns home to visit her family for the first time and takes all of her artwork with her.  A fire kills her and destroys most of her work, returning her life to the tragedy that had always shadowed it. 

This is not a book for someone who wants a leisurely entertaining reading experience.  It takes effort to get through this book.  The story can’t be consumed by itself because the reader is distracted by the footnotes and commentary that are sprinkled through it.  Even while you tell yourself that these items are manufactured by Sloin, they seem realistic and beg to be read.  Often the real points of the book are expressed in these notes and not in the story.  Francesca’s story is second place to the observations that are made in the notes.  Sometimes that’s a blessing because Francesca is the type of character a reader wants to shake and tell to wake up to real life.  Then again her whole family is composed that way.  In the end Francesca deSilva is a pathetic character.  What makes her life noteworthy is her paintings and they don’t survive her, so there is a feeling of a waste of a life and a waste of effort to tell about that life.

Sloin uses the book to make some strong statements.  In the footnotes she takes jabs at the art community as she manufactures experts to give manufactured opinions.  It becomes clear that she has little respect for “experts.”  She also attacks segments of the gay and lesbian community.  There is a protracted discussion of dykes (are you or aren’t you?) and a dismissal of the lesbian mafia that is too concerned with determining if something is lesbian enough or not.  Then there is a passing swipe at the transgender community.  It almost seems that Sloin wanted to write a commentary about the gay/lesbian and art communities, but thought that would be ignored, so she decided that the way to get attention was to write them into a story.  The result of that is a disjointed reading experience as the reader is tossed from the story to the footnotes and back again.

Art on Fire has drawn attention and won some awards.  Other reviews range all over trying to decide if its mastery is as a quasi-biography (although fictional), a satire on the artistic community or a complex, intricate novel.  Sometimes a book, play or movie is written that people can’t really comprehend, but the feeling is that it’s because you’re just not smart enough.  If you just had a little more insight, you would see the “beauty” of the work yourself.  If that isn’t the epitome of pretentiousness, what is?  Sometimes the emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes.

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