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The Narcissist's Edge

(Photo by Claudia Kunin)

“Forget how famous you’re going to be as a writer — are your verbs flabby?” In a world where even unknown artists talk like businesspeople and PR apparatus, speaking to novelist Janet Fitch is a bit like getting a bracing, old-fashioned tutorial on the Artist’s Way. For a few years, feeling she needed to outdo the scope and unexpected success of her first book, White Oleander, whose Cinderella story is now legendary, Fitch floundered, writing and discarding a historical novel, renting a studio in the Brewery and “just lying on the couch sleeping a lot.” Having to invent is always being on edge, she says ruefully.

Fitch’s new, acclaimed novel Paint It Black is set in the alternative 1980s punk scene of Los Angeles. The story details the triangulated relationship between brilliant, famous pianist Meredith Loewy, her talented, wounded son Michael and her son’s punk-rock girlfriend Josie Tyrell. When Michael commits suicide, Meredith and Josie — two very different women — square off and then warily, messily come together. Like White Oleander, Paint It Black concerns itself with the desire to live by one’s own ideals and sense of beauty — and the unforeseen effects of this desire. The effects, Fitch says, are both good and bad. Meredith, the concert pianist/mother-from-hell, is hugely successful, self-obsessed, snobby, and yet is living life fully on her terms. On the other hand, her son’s girlfriend Josie, a working-class, free-spirited fringe dweller, is self-doubting, more sympathetic, but not necessarily happier. Shallowness has its rewards.

“Narcissists have incredible charm and ability to focus on projects,” Fitch says. “You get a contact high from being around them. They’re fascinating. They do what they want. Intensely spiritual people might not make the best artists. They don’t like the things of this world — idealism seems shallow to them.” Artists, as Fitch sees it, need to be selfish “because people will take all your time if you let them.” Saying no is her credo — “no, you can’t drive the carpool, you can’t cook the dinner, you can’t attend the shower.” You need to spend that time writing. “No,” she claims, “is a writer’s best friend.” No buys time and energy.

Meredith is good at saying no. On the other side of that is empathy. Less ambitious, scrappier, her character Josie is well endowed with the trait. Josie, it would seem, can feel more — though empathy, like shallowness and narcissism, is a curse and a blessing in Fitch’s rendering. Clearly, the world tends to kick the sensitive person’s ass. To feel more is to love more, but also to hate and hurt more. Fitch looks for beauty to offset the brutality of the human condition, and beauty can be many things — punk, elegant, perfectly controlled, chaotic. “As a kid I always looked for some shred of beauty. Art was a doorway through which a sensitive person could look,” she says. Again, the rueful laugh. “You have to be friends with the world to be a novelist.”?

PAINT IT BLACK | By JANET FITCH | Little, Brown | 387 pages | $25 hardcover

Janet Fitch reads at Skylight Books on Wednesday, November 1, at 7:30 p.m. For information, call (323) 660-1175.

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