Saturday, January 11, 2014

I'm Talking About How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

About a paragraph into this novel I said to myself, "This is gonna be good."  Thirty pages later I was thinking, "This is gonna be the best book I read this year."  And then I kept reading… and things changed.

What is striking at the start is that the narrative (at least one of the four) is in second person, and doesn't come across as obnoxious.  The next striking thing is how beautiful Hall's prose can be.  Reading her fiction feels good.  If you read it out loud (I'm opening myself up to unheard of realms of dorkiness by saying this) it sounds good.

There are four narratives, chronologically out of order but interwoven and each easy to interpret.  An English landscape artist recalls his life while struggling with his own life threatening situation; an Italian still life painter reflects while cancer has its way with him; a blind girl shows us how she sees the world; and a curator self destructs after an accident takes the life or her twin brother.  Everything matches up and makes sense, initially it felt like Nicole Krauss, (what higher compliment can I give?), but nothing actually happens.

It's difficult to see that nothing happens because Hall's writing is so pleasing, but the pages wear on and to me it became clear that a beautiful writer didn't have a real story to tell.  Musings, pretty prose but no story.

Susan dealing with the death of her brother was the only element that was strong enough for a novel.  We find that Danny died on page one so I'm not giving anything away.  It was amazing to see an event that usually functions as a story's climax (death of a primary character) function as the starting point.  Watching her struggle to deal with the loss and complete lack of him would have worked nicely for an entire novel.  It was visceral and scary.  (And does not end well… )  The other three stories were brilliant and beautiful and work very well too.  But a novel needs conflict, tension, on every page.  Pretty words alone don't get it done.

I'm gonna check out Hall's sic-fi, she's won every award there is, at some time.  Honestly, I'll probably check out everything she's written because she's kinda amazing.  I'll hope to encounter the same prose with much more story.      


Marion said...

Well, I like this style of commentary a lot, Chad.

It sounds like she might have done better to hold herself to one novella, about the dead brother.

Chad Hull said...

Thanks Marion!