Review: The Electric Michelangelo (2004) by Sarah Hall   Leave a comment

There is a longstanding view that literary fiction is too mannered, too stylized, overly complicated in a way that is uselessly ornamental rather than essential. As a critic and teacher, I often find that such accusations come from people who lack the essential tools to grasp the strategies and purposes of the genre, reflecting that lamentable human tendency to conflate what we don’t like with what we don’t understand. Reading Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, however, was an experience that caused me to rethink this question.

Hall’s novel tells the story of Cyril “Cy” Parks, a young man from the northern English resort town of Morecambe. Starting in the early twentieth century, the plot, such as it is, follows Cy’s life from youth to old age. His early life is dominated by his mother, Reeda, punctuated by boyhood adventures that come to an abrupt end when he is apprenticed to Eliot Riley, the town’s tattoo artist. After the passing of these two role models, Cy heads across the Atlantic to Coney Island, where he falls in love with Grace, a woman who asks him to tattoo eyes over her whole body. When things turn out tragically with Grace, Cy drifts around the world, eventually returning to Morecambe as an old man, taking on a young woman, Nina Shearer, as his own apprentice.

The plot itself is linear and curiously pedestrian – even Cy regularly thinks of his life as being “fated,” to such an extent that it often feels as though the story only shifts in any meaningful way when it receives various nudges from Hall. The complaint that “nothing happens” is a common element of the aforementioned criticisms of literary fiction, but that leads me to wonder: is the laborious plot of The Electric Michelangelo inherent to the genre, or is it simply poor craftsmanship on Hall’s part?

The issue of narrative drive is a complicated one, bound up as it is in this question of the purpose of literary fiction. The complaint that “nothing happens” has its mirror image, after all, in the counter-criticism made against popular fiction that, for all its thrills, twists, and romance, one is left with a certain feeling of hollowness, a sense that the narrative energy on the page of a popular work in the end amounts to very little. What is supposed to distinguish literary fiction from its popular counterpart, from this perspective, is the idea that the literary fiction has a sense of meaning and profundity. It gets us to think and question, rather than merely providing entertainment.

In The Electric Michelangelo, Hall’s words seem to be made of concrete. Decorative, poetic, but heavy and inert, the novel moves from the sheer force of her authorial determination rather than any sense of inner momentum. The lack of narrative energy in Hall’s novel is an affirmation of the great secret of authentic storytelling, that a plot contains the greatest amount of life when the author is forced to cede some control over the artistic process – the ancient Greeks, with their Muses, knew about this principle, and one might say that this idea has been confirmed for today’s audience, for instance, by John Fowles in The French Lieutentant’s Woman.

Now, it is true that one of the qualities of literary fiction is that plot may be sacrificed to meaning: think, for instance, of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, a work that is full of meaning but short on action. I know from my own experience of encountering Dostoevksy’s novel as a young, inexperienced reader and then returning to it, with somewhat wiser eyes, how a better understanding of the world of literary fiction can enrich and deepen one’s perspective on a work. But what makes Dostoevsky a successful writer of ideas is his willingness to allow ideas to enter the world of his story that challenge, in an authentic way, his own. The nihilists that appear in Dostoevsky’s novels are a magnificent example of this engagement: Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, and Ivan Karamazov are complex figures, never simply straw men to be knocked over by Dostoevsky’s own opinions. It is from this genuine clash of ideas that Dostoevsky’s novels generate their intellectual energy.

Hall, by contrast, is monotone in her heavy-handed attempt to generate meaning in her novel. Her metaphors are clumsy and unsophisticated, including the death of Cy’s father on the same day as the protagonist’s birth, the experimental sinking of Cy in quicksand, and disparate natures of the Siamese twins who run the Varga, Cy’s favorite bar in Coney Island. Hall seems desperate to saturate everything in her novel with meaning, but ends up instead with a cacophony of confused, forced metaphors.

Even more questionable is Hall’s decision to engage with history in her novel. The vague references to the Renaissance, especially to Michelangelo, are so shallow as to be laughable. The Renaissance, after all, was motivated intellectually by a rediscovery of classical ideas, whereas the ephemeral, visceral nature of tattoo art suggests instead a relationship to the Gothic that, if Hall had invoked it, might have allowed for a similar intellectual dynamism as runs through Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.

Hall also imposes her own contemporary views back onto the early twentieth-century world that Cy inhabits in a way that provides a very one-sided perspective on culture has changed during this time. His mother Reeda, for instance, is a feminist before her time, an advocate for women’s rights who performs secret abortions in her hostel, and far too saintly to be believable. Despite the historical realities of the world in which he lives, therefore, Cy lives in an unrealistic bubble that is unconvincingly welcoming and tolerant toward women and minorities. Hall is so insistent on preaching to the reader that, toward the end of the novel, Cy even delivers a diatribe to his young apprentice on the importance of young people voting.

The problem with The Electric Michelangelo, in the end, is the ubiquity of Hall’s fingerprints over every last inch of her creation. The novel suffers, not because “nothing happens,” but because Hall is unable or unwilling to open up her story to the contingencies of the artistic process. It was the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin who identified the “polyphonic,” many-voiced nature of Dostoevksy’s work, and it is precisely this element that is missing from The Electric Michelangelo. The crucial element that defines literary fiction, therefore, is the willingness of the author to write against herself, to allow ideas and prejudices to be weighed without the sense, from the reader, that the measure has been fixed (even if, in reality, they have).

Rating: 2/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.


Posted January 20, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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