“And maybe this was art, she thought, having spent years trying to define it and pin it to the line like a shirt on a windy day. There you are, art! You capture moments at the heart of life.” Sometimes the things that move you the most are the ones that are hardest to talk about. There are things which can affect you so profoundly that when you search for the words to describe their significance the words simply escape you. In the quiet moments of reflection after finishing the Stella Prize winning novel for 2017, Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, I found myself hit with an array of emotions, joy, sorrow, inspiration and hope. This books does what all books strive to do, and achieved that which so many others have failed to grasp. Heather Rose created a novel that was compelling and magical, while at the same time remaining so very real and relatable.
The performance artist, Marina Abramović sits at the centre of the story like the sun at the centre of the solar system, the characters orbiting around her. Her art, life and sacrifice formsthe catalyst for their own internal reflection and contemplation of their varied experiences of love, loss and the bittersweet pain of longing. Based on Marina’s true performance The Artist is Present, Rose recreates the 736 hour and 10 minute long silent piece in which Marina sat immobile in the atrium of the MOMA while spectators took turns sitting opposite her. With art as their shared interest, the fictionalised characters of The Museum of Modern Love are drawn together by the perplexing gravity of Marina’s work.
Rose has done such a superb job of creating beautifully life-like characters, which are endearing, broken and perfectly flawed. In many of the novels I have read of late, I have felt that the authors have fallen into traps of creating characters who seem to be over-inflated caricatures of the generic – there’s a sense of the artificial in these characters who are either far too perfect to even be considered real, or so detrimentally flawed that the reader struggles to make a real connection with them. The trope of characters in The Museum of Modern Love completely subverted my expectations. These characters were real, moving and breathing beneath the pages, their joys and sorrows spread across the 286 pages of this phenomenal work of fiction, connecting with me in a very real and deep way that I hadn’t experienced from a novel in some time.
These days, my main time for reading is on my daily commute. The 45 minute train ride that bookends my days provides the perfect setting to fall into whatever I’m reading. It wasn’t until it was too late that I realised The Museum of Modern Love is not the type of novel that I should read in public. I had made it no further than 29 pages when I began to be overcome with emotion. Like so many of those who sat across from Abramović through the period of The Artist is Present, I was shocked to discover myself weeping at the beauty of the art before me. The particular passage that broke the floodgates came from the story of my favourite character, Jane, a widower whose husband has passed away from cancer. In an attempt to deal with her grief, Jane travels to New York and becomes enthralled with The Artist is Present. The passage in question is one too beautiful not to share:
"He worried a lot about Heaven in those last days. He wanted to know, before the morphine shunt took him from her, where she would meet him. If there were steps, he'd be there. He'd be waiting. But where? If there was a cottonwood tree... an olive grove?... 'What will you miss Janey?' he asked her. 'Tell me what you'll miss.' Your whistle when you come in the door, she had told him. Your shirts on the clothesline. The evenings when we watch the fireflies dance under the harvest spotlights. Your heart. The things only you and I remember about the children. The way your skin is always warm. Your coffee mug half empty on the veranda railing at 7am. She could have gone on but he was tired and it had been enough. The real answer to his question was everything. She would miss everything. What she didn't know, what she took for granted about living with Karl and being a wife, was far larger than the things she could name."
This story that circulates around one extraordinary artist and her 75 day performance piece dives into the lives of characters that are incredibly varied. In a broad sense, these characters are really only connected by their fascination of Marina’s work. Yet upon closer inspection, it’s clear that what binds them is deep love. Love of art, of people, of routine. The intensity of Marina’s dedication forms an emotional thread that traverses the entirety of the story, appearing through the lives of each of the characters. As I’ve probably made abundantly clear, for me, this book was all about the characters. So tangible and deep, these beautifully flawed people conveyed a deep sense of connection. I finished this novel with a deep appreciation of the sentiment that we are all one, connected through our physical experiences in ways we cannot possibly imagine.
“She loved him. She loved everyone in the room. She loved everyone alive and everyone who had ever lived to bring them all to this time, all of the millennia that had gone and the millennia of people yet to come.”
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