“I want a surface that resists, like a wall, not opens, like a gate,” wrote the painter Grace Hartigan in 1956. Associated for a time with the abstract expressionist movement, she depicted the bridal shop windows of Manhattan with roughened gestures and vivid hues. In Anna Kate Blair’s debut novel, The Modern, Hartigan is something of a muse for the narrator, Sophia, who is completing her dissertation on the artist while she works at MoMA.
An Australian in New York, Sophia is engaged to her wealthy boyfriend, Robert. She seems to bask in the glow of good fortune, but we learn that her role at the museum and her visa are coming to an end. When Robert embarks on a months-long hike along the Appalachian Trail, Sophie becomes infatuated with a bridal-store assistant, Cara. Exposed to both the crudity of precarity and the deranging effects of a crush, Sophia attempts to square her queer identity with the logistical opportunities of marriage.
Sophia opens the novel with evaluative discourses on art, photography, bisexuality, capitalism and the internet. Her neatly burnished meditations give Blair the opportunity to demonstrate a pleasing eye for detail, her sensibility a bright contrast to the sludgy undertow of narrative. This soon begins to buckle as the novel strains to fulfil the promise of its subverted marriage plot, yielding to indecisive digressions on love and desire.
“Was I modern?” Sophia frequently asks, without a trace of irony. Was she happy, was she miserable, invisible or seen? Rarely answered, these questions are unwieldy in the hands of a credulous and opaque narrator.
Blair is an art historian whose essays have forayed into similar territory – the way a well-lighted space affects mood, the sharp prickle of a lost relationship, the ambivalent feeling of inhabiting a female body – and are tense, personal and supple. Yet in The Modern, her prose can move with a protracted gracelessness, scattering trifling plot points.
Sophia scrolls her phone, writes emails, attends work drinks, ponders her future, and waits. And perhaps this is the bind. In writing a book about these in-between stages – an uncertain engagement, a will-they-won’t-they flirtation, the punishing limbo of an expiring visa – Blair tethers her narrator to airlessness and immobility. Within these constraints, the plot is insular and the prose lacks bounce, the “surface that resists”. Sophia, who turns to Hartigan’s diaries for relationship advice, should heed instead the artist’s injunction: “revolt against deadness”.
Scribner, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "The Modern".
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