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A painting can be a mirror or a window, the art historical theory goes, but in Debra Spark’s fourth and newest work of fiction, it is more likely to be a puzzle. Art is a product of deception after all, and in this collection, a novella and six stories, the puzzling and the deceptive abound. Illusions, miniatures, stories hidden in pictures, pictures inside stories—these run through the lives of Spark’s characters as mysteries of a familiar nature: hidden family histories, missed opportunities with those who are closest, and the inevitable unknowability of spouses, siblings, parents.
In “A Wedding Story,” a woman cleaning out her grandmother’s apartment unwraps a chocolate egg to find a tiny rabbi (“You want maybe to hear a story?” he asks). A copywriter becomes immersed in the tale of a doomed, schizophrenic graphic novelist (“Lady of the Wild Beasts”). In “I Should Let You Go,” a young catalog photographer, Ginny, rents an apartment with a cousin stricken with breast cancer, an arrangement that produces bouts of friction and a house guest in the form of Vaclav Havel’s press secretary. During a catalog shoot, Ginny observes:
“There were a thousand sensible questions one could ask about the lengths to which they were going to create the illusion of daylight. The first being: why not just go outside?”
Though sensible questions are sometimes not the most useful ones, and in fact, the characters in this collection rarely get much traction from the sensible. In the face of the unpredictable and the baffling, the best strategy is an open mind. “There was no telling what might happen next,” the troubled protagonist of “Chocolate Mice” says. “And for the moment she didn’t care.”
Spark is the author of three novels including Good for the Jews; the essay collection Curious Attractions; and editor of the best-selling anthology Twenty Under Thirty: Best Stories by America’s New Young Writers. Described by Booklist as a writer of “sly, funny and cutting” prose, Spark writes sentences that are a pleasure to read. They move forward in breezy dispatches and scrupulous reflection, whether conveying a momentary thought—“The flat, mournful planes of his cheeks made her think of a Modigliani painting,” or an enduring recognition, like this one from the conclusion of the novella’s Part One—“Andrea supposed she should be shocked or repulsed, that her whole picture of Rose should shatter, and that she should be down on the ground, trying to piece the shards together.” Such observations feel wrung from the characters’ most fundamental convictions, and as happens in “The Pretty Girl,” serve to open the next lock of the mystery.
The novella’s central character is Andrea. She is not the subject of the title, but a plain yet charming art history major: “…it wasn’t so lucky to be born beautiful. It was better to be forced into developing some attractive trait to win people over.” Andrea grows up with particular affection for her Aunt Rose, her grandmother’s unmarried sister, whom she visits regularly in her tiny Manhattan apartment. This is where Andrea first sees the painting that over time she regards “…as if it were no painting at all, but an opening into another world, one that only she, only Andrea, knew about, and one that she could climb into, just by willing herself over the painting’s heavy frame and into the world of The Pretty Girl.”
In the course of the novella Andrea does, in a way, climb into the world of the picture, and in doing so discovers a secret once unimaginable. The story inside the picture reveals facts that might well have gone undiscovered, but which bring Aunt Rose’s life fully to light. For Andrea, this happens in sudden and irreversible terms, but events don’t end there. There is another side to the story, so to speak, and in the course of the novella those unknowns are given their due.
“Why she never married, how she handled her own loneliness. Andrea couldn’t imagine actually asking her to account for her lack of a partner. Andrea’s mother had assured Andrea that Rose had had more than her share of men, that (yes, yes) she had had lovers. But Andrea couldn’t imagine it.”
This smart-yet-questioning quality runs throughout the collection. In “Conservation,” a woman entertains an affair with an eccentric friend of her husband, Jerome. One afternoon, he unexpectedly invites her to the river for a swim: “She disrobed on her side of the car, he on his, emerging in yellow swim trunks to say, ‘This way.’ He started toward the path. Dana took some comfort in the slight cushion of flesh at his abdomen. Some evidence of … what? Excessive desire? Occasional laxness?”
Spark’s fiction comfortably occupies both contemporary and historical settings. “The Revived Art of the Toy Theater” takes place in London, in 1862, and centers on the vandalism of a theatrical print workshop where someone, it seems, is drawing pornographic images on the toy theaters. Spark layers the mystery with multiple points of view and a Lovecraftian mood, as here, when the shop owner Sherson pays a visit to the prime suspect, an engraver and former employee, the austere loner Harper Donovan:
“Cold ashes from the hearth skittered about the floor like ethereal mice; even the vermin at Harper’s seemed bound for the next world. Rather than bend for the labour of a fire, Harper was warming himself by wearing two coats and a pilling winter scarf around the neck that (in warmer weather) was always full of razor nicks.”
The Victorian setting and nineteenth century diction dovetail nicely with Spark’s fluid style, yet the crux is unmistakably contemporary. “You couldn’t be ruined by what you loved,” one of the players says, “only by what kept you from what you loved.” For the characters in “Toy Theater,” the most desired things are just out of reach; it’s the unexplainable they are more likely to encounter. The unexpected is everywhere, and like the surprise of a mirror in a dark room, is both familiar and strange (and in fact, my favorite sentence in the entire collection might be “When Sharon opens the refrigerator, it barks.”).
In a recent essay, Spark described the challenges of writing “Toy Theater” and the artistic choices involved: “To write about something, you need to know about the things that are knowable. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknowable. You just need to be present to it.” Like each of the stories in this collection, “Toy Theater” presents the facts in a careful and curious light and gives its characters the chance to be present to what they can never really know.