The challenge of making art in a culture that depreciates it

In the background of this slow surrender looms the election of Donald Trump – “our mad leader,” Fields calls him. Maksik convincingly captures New York’s posthumous sentiment after the 2016 election, at least among many in the media class; he opens the book in “this dark season, in this terrible year, in our sad city”. It is an era of meditation apps and pervasive moralism, of a dissolution of distinctions between art, advertising and activism. Into this swamp comes an invitation for Fields to observe and write about an enigmatic, perhaps sinister artists’ colony called the Coded Garden, a place, his patron repeatedly insists, “for beauty.” Its location is deliberately obscured for the reader (although it should be noted that Maksik is co-director of a leafy literary residence in Catalonia).

In one of his own profiles, by novelist James Salter, Maksik wrote that he joked with a friend about starting a movement called “the sensualist school” following Salter’s influence, in response to these “glib, self-referential writers who seemed happily disconnected from bodily experience, guided by the idea that thought, not feeling, was the path to art. His two previous novels, “A Marker to Measure Drift” and the premonitory title “Shelter in Place”, seemed to live up to this ambition, featuring protagonists for whom experience was a hazy and relentless thing; they were people lost, haunted by memory, adrift in their mental states shattered, and Maksik’s prose was at all times appropriately adapted to the phenomenological.

In this respect, “The Long Corner” marks a turning point. The novel is more about storytelling than “body experience” as such, and the story it tells revolves around issues of creativity, heartbreak, and tearing down Trump-era platitudes. and ever-increasing implausibility and absurdism. Maksik fortunately avoids the polemical fable which one fears that he writes in favor of a much more convincing project. “You must never fall into the absolute villain mythos,” Fields’ grandmother warned him. And even if the colony’s shadowy visionary Sebastian Light (sometimes reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s Dr. Moreau) takes on certain Trumpian qualities – his resentment of the “elites”, his allegiance to kitsch, his willingness to burn it all down control the narrative – Maksik never allows the novel to seem too programmatic. Finally, it is an argument for the necessity of irony, risk and integrity in the production of art as in life.

Given his complicity in a culture he finds demeaning, Fields admits he fears he’s “one of those brave people only in youth.” Over the course of the novel’s tropical plot, sexual rituals in sweat lodges, betrayals and pyrotechnics, he comes to realize that he can always aspire to art, that his writing can be deepened by experience, rather than belittled by it. He just has to decide. In Maksik’s profile, Salter tells him, “If I’m making an argument, which is only implied anyway, it’s: try to be a man.” It’s enough, he seems to say, just to try.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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