Review: An Appreciation of What May Have Been

The Reviewed: What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G by Susan Tepper and Gary Percesepe
The Reviewer: James Robison

***

The task for Susan:

1. Write as a man and

2. a  man writing in the early 1950s, but don’t lay too heavily into the be-woppa-pow, wild sad angel cats idiom of the Beats because

3. you are also writing as if you are a man without honed literary skills but who is

4. the painter Jackson Pollock. Do not imitate the historical utterance, verbal or epistolary or otherwise, of Pollock but

5. find a method of expression which mimics somehow the sublime car-wreck violence of his painting surfaces; he was called an action painter, after all. He was called an action painter because what he left on a canvas were so clearly the scars and records of his boxer-like swooping jabbing dancing dribbling, stabbing uppercut painting gestures so

6. conjure a manner of address that is in the same way shocking, assaultive, seductive, raw, (Pollock did not size his canvasses nor always use artists’ approved pigments, but aluminum furnace paint and barn paint and whatever was at hand), and yet, achieve, as did Pollock, something elegant, sophisticated and derived equally from ego and id. All the while

7. keeping your reader involved in the doings of the novel, in the job of making the reader turn pages, all about the fictive affair of this painter with an eighteen-year-old girl and

8. never, not once, slip into stereotypes about males, painters, adultery, sex, male lust, brute selfishness, male greed, rather

9. keep Pollock a romantic figure. Heroic like Hector in the Iliad, not afraid to admit fear, doomed from line one, but not condemned for his fear, or pessimism, ennobled by them and living in hope and in his visceral, touching, dangerous gut-need for this girl while

The task for Gary:

1. Write as a female, an

2. eighteen-year-old female in

3. the 1950s. As above, stay within the decade, (did teen girls really say “Dreamy” as in Tammy and Gidget films? No, but they didn’t say “hot” either) without falling into the extraordinarily seductive trap of faux teen 40s idiom and vernacular.  Avoid temptations of reading period fictions to get the flavors mixed correctly-just invent, avoiding Dolores Haze or

4. even a Salinger-ishy syntax but

5. keep your character eighteen, a Vassar drop-out, superficially vapid, but somehow, some way

6. convincingly in the thrall of a much older, bald, married, bestial probably alcoholic madman whose paintings you don’t understand  and

7. as above, keep the pages turning, the events within the narrative compelling while sustaining veracity, which

8. is tougher than it sounds. Why is your Dori alert and responsive to Pollock’s magnetic, inevitable, abrasive, magic? Why was the country? Why was Pollock, (despised, mocked), featured in Life Magazine? Why was a radical outsider of a painter as well known as Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio? You must

9. channel that appeal, of man and his art, while channeling a confused and diffused teenager who gives as good as she takes and comes

10. into focus at the same time she deepens, gains dimension, self definition, as a character and

11. as with Susan’s male painter, your character must never, not once in this sustained and involving text slip into stereotype.

Do these things with conviction and with poetic invention and initiate a dialogue that penetrates and illuminates what it is to be male, female, artist, teen, husband, daughter, muse, and most importantly, stand each and all those roles on their heads, turn them inside out, so that the nature of being a human in need, blessed or cursed, is your actual subject, your gift to your readers.

***

James Robison has published many stories in The New Yorker, won a Whiting Grant for his short fiction and a Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his first novel, The Illustrator, brought out by Bloomsbury in the U.K. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and Grand Street. The Mississippi Review devoted an entire issue to seven of his short stories. He co-wrote the 2008 film, New Orleans Mon Amour, and has poetry and prose forthcoming or appearing now in The Manchester Review, Story QuarterlySmokelong Quarterly and elsewhere. He taught for eight years at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, was Visiting Writer at Loyola College of Maryland, and was Fiction Editor of The North Dakota Quarterly.

More reviews at Used Furniture.

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Comments

  1. estelle bruno says:

    you gave each of these talented writers, such great sound advise.

    • fran metzman says:

      I thoroughly enjoyed the format of this review — all of which the authors succeeded in doing. This book is spellbinding!!! fran

  2. what a wonderful review of an amazing novel. superlatives are in order here: i love the form of this review from one of my favorite writers, subtly praising the work of two of my favorite writers, and more: by writing it this way, robison has also laid bare the structural and politico-philosophical difficulties faced and mastered by tepper and percesepe. a high achievement all around. i’ve already read this short novel and there’s nothing to add here. classic.

    • Marcus, hasn’t James used the most intriguing form! I just adore what he did, his way of analyzing the plot, characters, structure, etc, mirrors the abstraction of Pollock’s paintings which were so integral to writing the Pollock character. I so much appreciate YOUR lovely review of James’s review! It was a blast writing Pollock.

  3. Spot on review of an extraordinary book by two gifted writers.

  4. Awesome review. Can’t wait to read the book!

    • Jules, isn’t it awesome! I couldn’t believe it when I first read what James wrote for me and Gary. He’s a true gem. I’m so glad you plan on getting the book! Thank you Jules.

  5. An excellent review of an excellent book.

  6. Estelle, so kind of you to read the review and comment here. You were one of the early readers of our book-in-previews! Thank you!

  7. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

  8. Wow! i want to read both THIS book and everything written by James Robinson.

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