Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Dani Shapiro's Black and White

The bad book mentioned in Friday's post.

Black and White opens with thirty-two year old Clara Dunne receiving a phone call from her sister, Robin, summoning her home to New York, where their mother Ruth, a famous photographer, is dying from lung cancer.

Clara has spent the last fourteen years in Maine, married to jeweler Jonathan Brodeur. The couple have a daughter, nine-year-old Samantha. Domestic life is uneventful, if fraught, for Clara is a disaster area. She is a woman constantly battling back tears, clenching her hands into fists, experiencing so many episodes of pounding heart and thrumming blood that you expect her to have a heart attack at any moment. She is "foggy," the memories placed "on the high shelf of her mind" falling into her consciousness. Throughout the text Clara "really needs to focus." Until the entirely predictable, earthbound ending, she spends much time "floating". You get the picture.

And pictures are indeed the trouble. For glamorous, selfish Ruth settled on Clara as her sole subject, creating a series of technically gorgeous shots whose content is disturbingly intrusive. Clara is three when the photos begin, fourteen when they end. The photos bring Ruth fame and fortune. They also wreak havoc within the family: husband and father Nathan is enraged by his wife's work, and his failed attempts to halt it, while Clara's older sister, Robin, ignored by Ruth, is deeply resentful. At eighteen Clara leaves home, hiding out in a Yale dorm room with a former Brearly classmate. Not that Clara is a student. She is too damaged and adrift to do more than hang out in the library, where Jonathan finds her and strikes up a conversation.

The plot--daughter suffers at the hands of a greedy mother--is nothing new. Were Shapiro a better writer, this wouldn't matter. But Shapiro's characters have all the depth of an Ann Geddes card, minus the cute factor. Ruth is talented, gorgeous, and imperious. Art dealer Kubovy Weiss is a caricature of the smooth European businessman, delighted to be avant garde while raking it in. Nathan, the book's honorary Jew (how a Jew ever got the name Dunne is beyond me), is a hard-working lawyer and loving father who dies at his desk (thus neatly excised from the proceedings). Robin, the brainy older sister, emulates Nathan, becoming a high-powered lawyer whose life is lifted straight from a New York magazine article: three children (Harrison, Tucker, and Elliott, a girl), a pristine apartment filled with Murano glass, a nanny/housekeeper, personal trainers who keep her whittled into size two Prada dresses. Clara's husband Jonathan is handsome in a craggy, L. L. Beanish way, and adores Clara, though it's hard to understand why. Her refusal to discuss her past upsets him, but not enough to take action. Samantha, who knows nothing of her mother's past or the existence of an extended family, becomes sullen and anorexic until Clara takes her to New York. And though the visits with the obviously dying Ruth and the tremedous family stresses might upset another child, Samantha is enthralled by this shriveled, witchlike granny.

How long does Clara plan to keep her past secret from her child? We don't know, because Clara doesn't know. Clara spends her waking hours willing away her past, stupidly hoping it will stay on that high shelf forever. Early in the novel, you want to shake her, hard. You have a nice husband, a sweet daughter, a Victorian home in Maine with a kitchen straight out of Good Housekeeping. Get over yourself!

In lieu of depth we have brand names: Duane Reade, Essentials Plus, Prada, Costume National, Rick Owens. We also get name names: Timothy Greenfield-Saunders, Ingrid Sischy, Gary Indiana, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman. This facilitates envisioning a certain echt New York without adding much to Clara's personality. We also get pat metaphors: Nathan managed to stop Ruth's work for one year, when Clara was nine. Now Samantha is nine and bears a strong resemblance to her mother at the same age. Yet when Clara takes the child to MOMA to see the infamous Ruth Dunne photographs, Samantha is unfazed. She thinks it's "cool" to see her mother in a museum and asks, in an unwitting Tarantino moment, if they can get something to eat.

Therapyspeak, that insidious replacement for genuine communication, is everywhere:

"He's quiet on the other end. Waiting. Giving her the space to say whatever it is she wants to say." (39)

"'I can't accept it,' Clara fills the silence. 'It's too much.'
'What are you saying?' Kubovy asks." (80)

"'I know what you meant,' Robin says. 'It's all about you, Clara. It's always been all about you.'" (90)

"Ruth and Nathan Dunne did most of their fighting outside of the house...their arguments, which, though rare, could spiral into a place full of scalding rage." (196)

Worse are the clunky sentences, inexcusable from Knopf Books:

"If only she had a mantra, something she could repeat to herself right now, over and over and over, a calming phrase to hold on to if all else fails." (11)

"A huge, hardy rubber plant spills out from behind a bald girl in her twenties." (56)

"She is living on Tamara Stein's floor. Tamara had been a year ahead of Clara at Brearly, and honestly they hardly knew each other." (108)

"Nathan had to go away on a business trip, is all." (165)

Lest you still want to read this book, I'll spare you the treacly ending. Suffice to say Clara's sudden recovery into a whole, happy person (wearing a little black dress, natch) is unearned.


Shallow storyline and bad writing aside, somebody else already wrote this book, and did a better job of it.

Kathyrn Harrison's 1993 Exposure is about Ann Rogers, daughter and subject of famed photographer Edgar Rogers. Like Black and White, Exposure deals with the death of a photogpraher parent, moving betweeen past and present. Both Ann and Clara are damaged, poorly functioning women married to kind men who work in the arts--Ann's Cal restores houses. Both are dealing with uwanted legacies in the public eye. Both endure protest movements: Clara's Angels deface Ruth's photographs; a young woman sets herself afire outside an Edgar Rogers exhibit.

Is Black and White a ripoff? Yes and no. Harrison got there first, but there are significant differences: Clara has a child, Ann is a diabetec drug user. None of Harrison's pristine sentences appear anywhere in Shapiro's clumsier attempt. Cal and Jonathan are similar--handsome, kindly, artistic--but where Jonathan caves to Clara's feeble excuses, Cal threatens divorce. And he means it.

It is also notable that while Shapiro's book is inspired by Sally Mann's photographs, Harrison's work appeared well before Jessie Mann, now an adult and "professional muse," began her collaboration with photographer Len Price. Further, Harrison's obsession with absent parents and painfully documented incestuous experience with her father lead naturally to a book examining photographic exploitation. Shapiro, by contrast, takes an obvious question about an artist's child to a predictable, sanitized conclusion.

Read the Harrison.

Examples of the Prince/Mann Collaborations may be seen here.

Kathryn Harrison: Exposure. New York: Random House, 1993.

Dani Shapiro: Black & White. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments about Dani Shapiro's BLACK AND WHITE. What a disappointing book. I wasn't aware of the Harrison book you mention, which takes a little more away from B&W for me, because I thought the best thing about the novel was the subject matter. To discover it was done, better, elsewhere takes me farther away from the book.

The writing is by far the biggest disappointment for me. Perhaps it's echoes of my English undergrad self whispering disdainful criticism, but how does one get a book like this published? And by Knopf? Which is not to say even the biggest of New York publishing houses don't churn out their share of underwhelming material, but I had a hard time understanding how an editor could let so many 'questionable' choices remain in a book. How many times can one break up a sentence with a dash to get one's point across-this reader wonders? I counted seven on one page. And, is it just me or is this story begging to be written in the first, rather than third, person? It seems to me, Shapiro goes about her writing in every way as if she is telling a first person narrative, except in the all-important technical application.

I so wanted to like this book. The bad writing just got in my far too much for me to take any real enjoyment from reading it.

July 09, 2007 4:54 PM  
Blogger Barking Kitten said...

Hi Anonymous-

I couldn't agree with you more. I am never thrilled about writing truly nasty reviews, but like you, I so wanted to like this book and was terribly disappointed. I also wondered what Knopf editors were thinking.

You're right about first person--it would've helped immensely, and perhaps rid the narrative of all that jargon.

Do try the Harrison, which is beautifully written.


July 09, 2007 6:10 PM  

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