Monday, June 9, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Kenneth Schneyer's "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer"

The story presents itself as exactly what the title says: a major artist, dead at least thirteen years (probably more, but probably not all that much more), is having a career-spanning exhibition, and these are some of the notes from the accompanying program. Through these notes we learn the broad outlines of her life, seen, necessarily, from the outside and in retrospect, and of her art, seen from the same perspective. She was born in the late 1950s and died in 2025; she painted (seemingly her only medium, or at least the only one mentioned here) in a microscopically hyperrealist style that nevertheless left room for what might broadly be called the nonrepresentationally metaphorical, particularly in the shape of the brushwork; she was a lesbian; her life, as most lives do, contained both happiness and a great deal of pain. She also, though the possibility does not seem to occur to the writer of the notes, may have been able to see (or perhaps was unable not to see) the souls of the dead.

I should say in the interest of full disclosure that I have a fondness for this story independent of its virtues as a story. I first encountered it, or at least the first half of it, read aloud in Schneyer's own impressively theatrical voice, during an evening which also included a great deal both of excellent food and of people telling me how smart and interesting I am. Given these associations it is difficult for me to bring to this story anything even approximating that mythical beast, objectivity; and it is very likely that I come to it with a much greater willingness to be impressed than I typically would.

That said, I was surprised to see Martin Petto, in discussing the Nebula shortlist (on which this story also appears), assign "Selected Program Notes" to the category of "RUMIR* [stories] that awards should weed out but instead tend to elevate." He is absolutely correct about this tendency (and this year's Nebula slate in general was a prime example, as is the case most every year), but I cannot agree with his assessment of this particular story. After RUMIRing it, he describes it as "a slipstream story told through... a frame that exists solely to conceal the fact [that it] doesn’t get any further than feeling very slightly strange." Leaving aside that I don't think I ever understood what "slipstream" was meant to mean (did anyone?), and leaving aside also that I agree, as description if not as evaluation, that the story does not "get any further than feeling very slightly strange" (I don't think it wants to), I think Petto has wholly misjudged the role of the frame.

*A very useful acronym from Joanna Russ: "routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable".

Before I explore the question "what is the frame doing?" directly, I'd like to address the science-fictionality of the story. It has chosen for itself the fairly uncommon, but far from unheard of, strategy of beginning in the recent past and progressing to the near future. But while its use of the conceptual construct of "the future" makes it by some lights ipso facto sf, there is very little in these future sections that we normally associate with sf: no significant technological change is mentioned, the way life is lived goes on largely as it does today*, and so forth. Given that the story is already "speculative" — enough so for today's sf publications, at any rate — by virtue of Latimer's possible relationship with the dead, and given that the technically sfnal element adds very little in the way of the actually sfnal — why does the story bother to extend into the future?

*Latimer is able to marry her partner in Rhode Island, but when Schneyer was writing that by now already-accomplished legal change was so obviously imminent — I would imagine that many same sex couples were already reserving facilities for their ceremonies — that including it is hardly speculative.

The mere fact of publication in a venue specializing in sf cues the reader to look for ways in which the story at hand "is" sf. With this story in particular, the reader quickly realizes that though the earliest "events" (i.e., dates of paintings) are in the past — 1978, 1984... — things are going to continue through to the future; the first clear sign of this is the date of death, 2023, given for Latimer's wife on her first mention in the third note. Seizing on this, the reader begins to look for ways in which these past events might influence future ones, and, once the future arrives, to look for the ways in which the future is different from the past because of that past. These, at least, are the traditionally sfnal elements I would imagine most seasoned sf readers would look for on a first reading.

They will find none. And while looking for the the hints of science fiction the reader has been cued to look for, the more fantastical elements can easily slip by on a first reading (I know I at least did not notice them at all until I re-read). This sort of sleight of hand could easily be dismissed as empty trickery, but for me it is a way structurally to enforce a first reading experience that approximates the "in-world" feeling a reader (or indeed the writer) of the actual notes might have. These people, living in a real world into which the paranormal does not, for them, routinely impinge, would be, as we just were, looking for entirely other information in these notes than clues that Latimer has some sort of communion with the dead.

And after all there is no way to know if she "really" does — we could just as easily ascribe it, as the writer of the notes does, to her combination of attention to detail (from which it is easy to assume that her accurate depictions of people long dead is a result of scrupulous research) and "such obvious imagination" (from which we could interpret, for example, her saying "You have to paint what you see, not what you think you're supposed to see" metaphorically and routinely). And here we begin to see some of what the frame is doing: we, as readers, are not inside Latimer's head, and as such we can never know what she knew, what she saw, what she felt; placing layer upon layer of mediation* and indirection (and indeed misdirection) between her experience and our own is one way to attempt to be true to this unknowingness.

*Another layer, which I won't have occasion in this essay to delve into deeply, is that since these are "selected" program notes, there is presumably, somewhere, a selector — and who is to say why this person has selected what they have selected, that they have not singled out notes that provide an even more distorted portrait?

This method of "representing" Latimer, too, makes for an interesting comparison with her own representational methods. Where her painting is hyperrealist — several times the notes suggest looking at details through a magnifying glass — the story sketches in her life with broad gestures. As such it is almost as if the story of Latimer were, much as one of the paintings discussed does (though along a different axis), criticizing her own artistic methods — as if to say, on the one hand, that there is no need for such detail, and on the other, that it is irresponsible to presume to be able to give so much detail about one's subject.

But there is another sense in which Latimer's enterprise and Schneyer's here are much alike. Repeatedly the notes point out that Latimer's composition and brushstrokes tend to push the viewer's gaze away from the putative subject of the painting, or from subject to subject. "It is as if the viewer is being pushed away from people and towards nature," says the description of the earliest painting; in another we read that Latimer "employs radiating brushstrokes which emanate from the model"; in yet another, "The composition pushes the eye of the viewer back and forth between the different groups in a sort of tennis match." And so it is with the story, in which the reader is constantly pushed away from one potential "plot" or "protagonist" or "central concept" in favor of another (or in favor of nothing, of an absence), in which the written equivalent of brushstrokes emanate from one area only to illuminate another.

The story's ironies reach probably their height in the one note not detailing a painting: the one on a video clip taken from a "documentary concerning contemporary artists" in which Latimer was featured. It is here that Latimer says "You have to paint what you see, not what you think you're supposed to see" as she sketches out a precise portrait of a long-dead young girl who is of course absent. And it is here that the notes give us, as a "discussion question" (at least one of which follows each of the notes):

Now that you see Latimer's manner of speaking and moving, are you surprised? Does she seem like the sort of person who would produce this sort of work?
Aside from being a parody of the kind of superficial discussion prompts common to the form Schneyer is mimicking, the questions are almost teasing the reader — who has of course not seen Latimer at all, as she is simultaneously long dead, in the future, and not real. She is actually absent to us as the dead girl is supposed to be to her.

As a whole the story raises and plays with (in the sense that play can also be serious) questions of its own appropriateness, indeed of the appropriateness of storytelling in general. In what sense can an absent person be "represented"? What does it mean that we are watching a "story" unfold? In the note on "The first of Latimer's paintings to draw critical attention" (and the one which is later criticized in another of her paintings), a Self-Portrait with Surrogates which portrays the "notorious child abuse and murder case" in which the aforementioned girl was the victim, we read that "None of the figures [the girl, her mother, and her father] displays any emotion; it is as if they are spectators at the event." Not only is this a reminder of our own spectatorship at an event — Latimer's life — which includes much pain, loss, and death, it also calls into question our reasons for spectating, and the involvement we feel in the event: what are these "emotions" we tell ourselves we feel when we say that a story is moving, or affecting, or sad or even happy?

The story ends, after a discussion of Latimer's final completed painting, with a last discussion question:

The title Comfort was suggested by Paula Tarso, executrix of Latimer's artistic estate; we do not know what Latimer herself planned to call it. Do you think the name fits?
Far more than simply raising once again the matter of Latimer's absence and unknowability, more even than raising again the questions about appropriateness that the story has been dealing with, this ending places the reader in the uncomfortable position of being implicitly given the authority — which the reader cannot actually possess — to determine appropriateness (i.e., by asking us if we think the name fits, the question implies that we are in a position to make such a judgment), while simultaneously having that authority relegated to the realm of mere opinion, in which everything is valid to the point that nothing is. Is this assignment of meaning to an absent woman's life and work appropriate? You decide!


Erin Horakova said...

Without having read the story, this feels to me like both an interesting piece and an interesting, artistic work of reading on your part (not as in 'unfaithful' or 'projective' but in the positive, interpretive, adding-meaning sense).

Ethan Robinson said...

Thank you! I hope that's what I've done...

Ken Schneyer said...

Thank you, Ethan! As ever, your analysis adds to the work. There are aspects of the story you have found which truthfully did not occur to me at the time, but which I now agree are there and important. The artist is not the art, and her intentions are only one dimension of the piece.

FWIW, I originally conceived of the story as fantasy rather than science fiction. The dates are a consequence of certain built-in constraints: I needed the "highlight period" to start after the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, and I needed it to be early in her career. Consequently it was inevitable that she was going to keep painting into (our) future. I did play a little bit with what that future would entail, but not nearly as much as I would in a full-blown SF story. As pointed out, same-sex marriage was clearly on the horizon while I was writing this story -- indeed, the Rhode Island statute authorized it just before the story was published. But as you say, the future itself is always speculative.

Ethan Robinson said...

Thanks Ken!

Interesting note on the necessity of going into the future, given the Sistine Chapel connection. Too, the contour of Latimer's life (in general and as a lesbian specifically) would have been quite different had it been placed any time other than when it was.

One of the most sfnal uses of the future in the story for me, that I didn't get a chance to discuss in this post, is when the writer of the notes describes "Performance" as "one of the outstanding memorial portraits of the 20th century" -- which gets you thinking about how different such a claim made now is from one made even only about twenty years from now.

Jeff said...

On the one hand, the story works hard to open up ambiguities and problematize acts of interpretation. On the other hand, it affords a reading that very neatly collapses all those problems and ambiguities back into a tidy, coherent narrative; it's hard to resist a reading that so perfectly "solves" the story. I feel like the neatness of that reading undermines (if only a little bit) the story's formal and thematic resistance to the idea of a definitive solution.

Regardless, it's an interesting and well-crafted story, and another very illuminating and insightful post -- thanks!

Ethan Robinson said...

Aw, damn--you know, I actually had meant to say something sort of similar (though I think you put it better than I would have) in the bit where I said I might be biased toward too much sympathy...

Yes, the story can be read as "solvable". My prejudices toward ambiguity in general and this story in particular combined to create a reading where it's not, but that's just me...

(Also, thanks very much for commenting and for the kind words!)