Color Plates
 by Adam Golaski

Rose Metal Press
2010
Second Collection







"Apparently late again, a hurried gait and a hurried expression on his face, the young man approaches the turnstiles, only a short distance from the au pair and her charge. The au pair makes an expression she imagines is both inviting and expressive (though she is not sure she is succeeding). The little girl, head still angled so that the trains seem to stand on end, says,
‘They’re rocket ships! They’re rocket ships!’
"


Reviewed by Amy Charles

It’s a tricky thing for writers, name-dropping great works of art. Namedrop great works in your play, and your audience might start wishing they’d gone to the museum. In your novel, its themes breathlessly symbolized by a 17th-century Flemish painting, there’s that miserable, itchy feeling of a 400-page conceit. So when I see a book based on a whole raft of masterpieces of Impressionist painting, I say to myself, Well: that’s quite a job; let’s have a look. That’s because I’m unreasonably hopeful.

Adam Golaski’s Color Plates is a small, nicely-produced book of poetic "little stories" related loosely to these paintings, and their abstracted, feathery prose has them ranging close to prose poetry. I like prose poetry. Not too long ago I introduced my seven-year-old to W.S. Merwin’s work by way of his beautiful The Miner’s Pale Children; my favorite in there is a two-pager called Tergvinder’s Stone, about a man with a big rock in his living room, and it is, I think, what prose poetry means to be. Although it’s told in narrative form, with narrative rhythms, its resolution is irrational, mythic in depth, and emotionally overwhelming. Indeed Merwin only borrows narrative’s plod through cause and effect; there’s a light, abstracted, and not entirely sane quality to this voice in its narrative oxford shirt. Which is fine, because it isn’t a story: it’s a poem. A similarly overwhelming poetic irrationality is achieved at the end of some of the best short stories: Cheever’s The Swimmer, Malamud’s The Angel Levine, Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues.

Golaski’s not a poet, though; he’s an earnest fellow and a careful student, but the poet’s spring, reach, trajectory, fluidity, verbal alacrity aren’t there; the images don’t shock, the language lacks power. And, to be fair, he doesn’t advertise himself as a poet. That means, though, that the fictions should at least work as stories, and I cannot say, by and large, that they do.

I’ve opened the book at random to a passage from a strained little romance that’s a riff on Manet’s The Railway, from 1873. This a seminal painting of the Industrial Revolution in which a harassed young woman and a little girl hang around behind a train platform’s iron railing: the woman sits facing the viewer with a dog and a book in her lap, lozenge-eyed and unreadable, and the stiff little girl in her fancy dress, back to us, stands at the railing and watches the train, which sits hidden in its own cloud of steam. The disconnect between the girl and woman unsettles, and the train is not so much spectacle as an agent of calm alienation.

Golaski ignores revolution and historical shocks, and reads a little romance into this deliberately unreadable scene: his pretty au pair takes the child to watch commuters board their morning train; she wants to flirt with a young briefcase-carrying slob with whom she’s locked eyes before:
"Apparently late again, a hurried gait and a hurried expression on his face, the young man approaches the turnstiles, only a short distance from the au pair and her charge. The au pair makes an expression she imagines is both inviting and expressive (though she is not sure she is succeeding). The little girl, head still angled so that the trains seem to stand on end, says, ‘They’re rocket ships! They’re rocket ships!’"
He spills his papers, the au pair helps him pick them up, and the girl, literal as any daddy playing pretend in the living room, declares him an astronaut. (He’s getting on board a rocket ship, you see.*) Our tubby John Glenn is easily stunned, and stands there wondering whether or not she’s right.

This is whimsy, though, the sort of thing you get in that depressing spectacle of children’s-theatre actors – you just know they’re going home to desperate little apartments at the age of 48 -- telling you to close your eyes and believe you can fly. The little Manet story lacks both an anchor in sense and mythic charge. (What kind of au pair is hanging around with the kid and a lapdog in the 7:53 crowd? Ship her back to Trondheim.) Which means it wasn’t worth ignoring the shocking unreadability of the painting Manet made. The language won’t suffice, either. I see no reason here for the comma-driven braking, braking, braking, for the ugliness of "the little girl, head still angled", for the imprecision of "a hurried expression on his face", or for the rhythmic emptiness of "an expression she imagines is both inviting and expressive".

The real problem – apart from the weaknesses in the language and the fiction – is that Golaski’s sensibility is not a good match for Manet or Degas, both of whom meant revolutionary business, and it’s a disaster against Toulouse-Lautrec, who had a sense of humor, a warm brush, and a great deal of precision. But Golaski turns out to be a felicitous match for Mary Cassatt, and I’d recommend skipping to that section of the book.

Cassatt specialized in domestic scenes: mother and child, children alone, everyone bathed in white light. There’s an important sentimentality to her work, as there is in childrearing, and it turns out that Golaski is a sentimentalist: young wives disrobe like living statues, their breasts romanticized; women’s laughter is romanticized, domestic spats rarefied and suspended in a charged atmosphere. There are soldiers, moustaches, physical dangers, all with a Robert Louis Stevenson quality: lead soldiers on a counterpane. He’s palpably a polite and domestic writer; even his existential violence is safe. His fathers might fall off ladders and electrocute themselves in fraught and dreamlike passages, but they’re never at risk of escaping a middle class dream of youth, marriage, old age, all to be delivered in good time. The fussiness of the writing not only suits Cassatt’s world but shows up against it as mild, earnestly thoughtful, even tender. And in Cassatt, as in Golaski’s matching storylets, that’s fine. You can tear up Paris all you want, but someone has to hold the naked baby and declare the utter goodness of the child.



*See Wm Trevor, Access to the Children, for an acute treatment of little girls.


Read a story from this collection in Smokelong Quarterly


Amy Charles is genteel only under duress. She lives in Iowa City and is working on two books which may be done before she’s dead. One is a story collection called It’ll Be Nice; the other, Mr. Photosynthesis, is a history of the Calvin photosynthesis lab at Berkeley.

Amy's other Short Reviews: Richard Yates "The Collected Stories of Richard Yates"

Nolde Alexius and Judy Kahn (eds) Best of LSU Fiction
                     
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Adam Golaski is the author of Color Plates and Worse Than Myself, the editor of New Genre and an editor for Flim Forum Press

Read an interview with Adam Golaski