The world described in Paint it Black the latest from White Oleander’s Janet Fitch, is a bleak place filled with misery and suffering. It is a world where people are not always what they seem, where happiness, if possible, is fleeting, and where love, that oft touted panacea for all the assorted ills that afflict humanity, does not necessarily cure all that might ail you.
We see this world through the eyes of Josie Tyrell a punk rocking artist’s model who favors torn leggings, brightly dyed hair and red rubber cowboy boots. Not yet old enough to drink–although her beverage of choice is what she likes to call “voddy,” which no doubt is meant to tell us something about her level of sophistication, she has run away from an abusive, white trashy family in Bakersfield, and attached herself to the Los Angeles “sex, drugs and rock and roll” scene. She meets art student, Michael Farady, a Harvard dropout who seems estranged from a family straight out of lives of the rich and famous. His mother is a renowned concert pianist, his father, a globe trotting novelist. They are, of course, divorced. Michael, it seems, finds the life of privilege–trips abroad, apartment in Paris, celebrity soirees–empty and unrewarding. He looks for something more real, more honest slumming among the great unwashed. Presumably, there is nothing like poverty to cut through the shallow pretentiousness of the idle rich.
Josie and Michael fall in love. After all what could be more attractive than a gamin in tattered tights who favors pints of “voddy” and packs of “ciggies.” Before Michael, and even after, her musical taste runs to Iggy Popp, The Clash and Patty Smith. She has little understanding of the art for which she poses, and none at all of the modernists. He introduces her to the better things of life: poetry, Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine; classical music, Bach, Brahms; jazz, Louis Armstrong; painting, Bosch and Egon Schiele; pastel French ciggies; Montmartre scenes. But after awhile he finds no more happiness in her world than he did in his own. He dislikes her friends. He gets a job playing the piano for children, but gives it up in disgust. He becomes jealous and finds no comfort in their relationship.
Most of this is back story, revealed slowly as the novel progresses. The story itself begins in media res when Josie learns that Michael who she thinks has gone to his mother’s to work on a project has in fact committed suicide in a seedy motel in 29 Palms. Grief stricken, riddled with guilt, she is consumed with trying to understand what kind of demons could have made his life, a life she found so idyllic, so unbearable.
Coming to terms with the death of a loved one has long been one of the central themes of literature. One thinks of the classic elegiac movement from grief to acceptance and understanding, of tears giving way to resignations and ultimately the recognition that life goes on and that joy is still possible. In some sense this is the movement of Paint it Black but not quite. In the usual elegiac pattern there is some balance between the sorrow and the healing. Not so in “Paint It Black.” Here the suffering and sorrow are overwhelming. The healing, if one can call it that, is limited to a promise of something that might come. Misery is dominant from the book’s beginning almost to its end.
The world Josie sees after Michael’s death is much the same as the world Michael saw, the world that induced him to put a gun to his head, it is the world represented in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch: “. . . it was Bosch in all directions.” Before his death, there was beauty and happiness even in the cheap tawdriness in which she lived. She’d look out the window of their apartment and tell Michael how beautiful the world was. “‘It’s like something from Bosch,’ he’d say.” “Now she couldn’t help but see. Bosch was everywhere.” Bosch, of course, paints a nightmare vision of the world. His work illustrates, according to one critic, “the torments of hell.” It presents a “tragic view of human existence.” His work is “remarkable for its depiction of fantastic, often diabolic, creatures, generally moralizing representations of the consequences of sin and folly.” This is the world Michael sees and for the majority of the novel, it is the world Josie sees as well.
Misery and suffering are everywhere. Josie visits Michael’s grave and meets an elderly man at the grave of his wife. He is miserable at her loss. He can’t sleep at night. He stays up all hours trying to escape in joyless card games. And they have had a long life together. She was not, like Michael, plucked untimely. Still the grief is immeasurable. In the supposed wisdom of age, the old man tells the young girl what life is all about. The house, he tells her, always wins. The house always wins: to be human is to lose.
There is something daunting about so much unadulterated misery. How does one go on living if the world is such a vicious place? Back in the 19th century the English Poet Matthew Arnold wrote a poem about a man who had lived so far beyond his own time that he felt completely alien from the world in which he found himself. All of his friends, all his loved ones had passed on and he was isolated and miserable. In the end, unable to handle it any longer, he throws himself into a volcano looking for salvation in death. The poem, “Empedocles on Etna,” was published in 1852 as the title poem of a collection. When a year later a second edition was called for, Arnold decided to cut out this title poem, a poem moreover that had been the longest in the volume and he wrote a famous preface in which among other things he explains his decision. He says that the problem is not the portrayal of suffering: suffering presented properly is the essence of tragedy. There are situations, however, from which no poetical enjoyment may flow. “They are those in which suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistence; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous.”
Unfortunately for too much of the novel, this seems to me an apt description of “Paint It Black.” Although one can well argue that at the very end, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel, that light is but a faint flicker in a vast darkness. If you want depression sliced, diced and analyzed, this is the book for you. If you want a rosier vision of the world, you had best look elsewhere.
On the other hand, if there are no beauties in Josie’s world, there are certainly a good many in Fitch’s prose. The irony inherent in the eloquence of her imagery and the horror of the world she describes is startling. There are the aphoristic bon mots: “Even lies could be true, if you knew how to listen.” There are the ingenuous similes: “She could lick him like candy.” A waterbed is “plump as a fat bride.” She describes Hebrew songs at a funeral as “so old they scraped the bottom of your heart like a burned pan.”
Of course there are the fucks and shits–how else could you describe the punk world that Josie inhabits, but even in the midst of the ugliness described there is a beauty in the description. Josie ruminates on the body of one of the older models: “She liked Callie, though, the way her body challenged the student’s ideal of beauty, its elongated breasts and the weals of multiple pregnancies. Josie appreciated that courage. At first she’d thought, if she ever looked like that she would disappear into the house and never come out, make love with the lights off. How had she ever been so ignorant? How right that the body changes over time, became a gallery of scars, a canvas of experience, a testament to life and one’s capacity to endure it.” In some ways this may pass for an aesthetic credo, one that for Fitch would be the argument to Arnold, an aesthetic credo works for the a world that is Bosch everywhere.
Josie thinks in kinds of extended comparisons that run throughout the novel. For example, looking at the orchestral score of the Schubert “Unfinished Symphony,” “She like the look of the sweep of the notes, their shapes on the pages, trying to imagine how it would sound all together.
“At every moment, each instrument knew what to play. Its little bit. But none could see the whole thing like this, all at once, only its own part. Just like life. Each person was like one line of music, but nobody know what the symphony sounded like. Only the conductor had the whole score.”
The little bits all by themselves may well not be beautiful. The little bits may be discordant and ugly. But the artist, a Schubert, a Bosch, a Matthew Arnold may be able to take all these little pieces, the repulsive as well as the beautiful, and create something in the whole that transcends the parts: the work of art. Paint it Black for the reader who can get beyond the suffering is in itself the antidote for the poison it describes.