New York, NY: Random House, 2015. 256 pages. $25.00.
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The life of the artist depicted in Robin Black’s debut novel, Life Drawing, is one punctuated by silence and isolation. When we first meet them, it’s been three years since Gus (short for Augusta), a painter, and Owen, a writer, left Philadelphia and bought a 1918 farmhouse to escape the distractions of the city—and, as we learn, to repair their foundering relationship, the result of Gus’s former affair and Owen’s discovery that he is unable to produce children. The same air of solitude that suffuses their artistic pursuits—Owen locks himself away in the barn where he works, unable to surmount the writer’s block that has made him unbearable to Gus, who struggles to ignite her own new project—pervades their identity as a married couple. As Gus describes it, “[Ours] is a kind of solitude that continues even when Owen is standing beside me. It is a solitude that includes him. We are apart from the rest of the world. We are invisible to it.”
The mounting tensions between Gus and Owen are exacerbated by the arrival of Alison Hemmings, a British teacher and painter who rents the house across the road to elude her abusive ex-husband, Paul. At first wary of befriending Alison, whom Gus and Owen regard as an interloper in their Eden, Gus eventually confides in her about her affair with Bill, the father of her former student, and about the pain of learning that Bill is remarrying. Gus and Alison’s budding friendship erodes, however, when Alison’s daughter, Nora, decides to stay with Alison for the summer. A young writer, Nora develops an infatuation with Owen, courting him as a sort of mentor. In a move that symbolically tips the scales of Owen and Gus’s relationship, Owen reveals that Nora has fallen in love with him. Although he promises never to consummate their relationship, itself a sort of emotional affair, he begs Gus to let Nora work with him—as he confesses, she has become the reason (in Gus’s word, his “muse”) for the sudden resurgence of his writing.
The arc of the plot of Life Drawing is the convergence of these shifting relationships, the fluctuating allegiances whose formation and dissolution Gus likens to cycles of life and death. Relationships in the novel almost seem destined to fail: as two characters become close, a third eventually becomes alienated. The novel’s climax, already known to us from the opening pages when Alison reveals that Owen is dead, would seem to be the point at which the plot can no longer house the characters’ competing attachments. Owen confronts Gus for betraying him by speaking to Bill, and Gus, in turn, banishes Nora and Alison from her and Owen’s lives. After learning about Nora’s attachment to Owen, Nora’s father, Paul, unexpectedly confronts Owen, violently beating him to the point of death.
While on the surface the plot of Life Drawing makes it seem like so much actually happens between its characters, it’s more what doesn’t happen between them—what Gus describes as the silence between them—that drives the novel. If marriages are like selves for Black, it is because they are ultimately unknowable and subject to the inaccessibility of the unconscious—“paltry, skeletal thing[s] when both members are present, talking to someone whom neither knows well.” In reflecting on the incidents leading to Owen’s death, Gus recalls the words of a former teacher: “You cannot see a landscape you are in.” Black suggests that the view we have of our own psychic landscape will never be fully available to consciousness. Relationships will never be fully within our grasp. In seeming recognition of the limit point of consciousness, Gus declares, “There are often two conversations going on in marriage. The one that you’re having and the one that you’re not. Sometimes you don’t know when that second, silent one has begun.” Here and elsewhere their marriage is represented as a sort of canvas, where their identities, themselves not fully traceable, bleed into each other, making it impossible for Gus to see where “[she] left off and he began.”
If there is a narrative unconscious to Life Drawing, a novel that self-reflexively works its way through the creative process, it is the evolution of Gus’s own project. Having found old newspapers containing obituaries of soldiers from World War I stuffed behind a wall during a remodel, Gus begins to draw them in different contexts, focusing on a soldier named Jackie Mayhew. Frustrated by her inability to break through the silence imposed by the images, she returns to her realization that her own identity is a “palimpsest,” “Gussies layered on top of one another, some faded, others all too visible.” Recognizing the similarities between her own identity, the “identity” of her marriage to Owen, and the lost identity of Jackie, she asks, “How do any of us walk across a room without tripping over our own multitudes?” The only way to capture Jackie and the other soldiers, she realizes, is by embracing multiple selves: “The boys themselves deserved better than simplicity. They needed to be, as they were, as we all are, layers and layers of selves.” For Robin Black, a life drawing is a beautiful mess, a life’s work that is, in Owen’s words, beyond the realm of the explicable: “We are a life’s work, aren’t we? We are, like you said, we are a universe. You and me. Our own fucked-up, beautiful, inexplicable universe.”