Photo by Paul S. Greenan
It may seem like a fairly lame point, but follow me: A symphony can’t extensively describe a brilliant — and nonexistent — work of architecture. Nor can a building, or a painting, or a play, or a song (or a video game or a designer dress) ever do very much in the way of convincing you of the existence of a fictional work of art in another form. It’s only the novel — the baggiest, most elastic and inclusive of forms — that really has a chance. A novel can seem to envelop time and space, and with them the varieties of human experience, inside its borders. So, among its many unique opportunities (and booby traps) is the possibility of enclosing within its descriptions a fictional work of genius — an unheard symphony or an unseen painting.
Film, fiction’s nearest cousin in its variety and relationship to time, may also appear able to enclose other forms. But photography’s fatal literalism means film needs to prove what it asserts — and so a piece of, say, choreography, depicted in a film, must either be real and persuasive or else kept teasingly offscreen. The novel, with its mesmeric capacity to engage the reader’s complicit imagination, can actually dwell on another art form, or artifact, or performance, until the item seems to hum into existence, and become a part of the larger-on-the-inside-than-on-the-outside magic spell of a book. The pitfall is only the vast risk of failure — c.f. those dozens of rock & roll novels featuring “legendary” bands no one would ever have wanted to listen to, or novels in which “famous” movies are described and sound only unbearably trite.
What does any of this have to do with the fact that the Modern Library has, at last, rescued Russell H. Greenan’s legendary It Happened in Boston? from out-of-print status? Or possibly you’re wondering who Russell H. Greenan is in the first place. I’ll tell you what I know. It Happened in Boston?, published in 1968, is the first of seven or eight novels in English by the mysterious Greenan (though he writes in English, and lives in Rhode Island, he apparently has another four or five novels published only in France!). Before he began writing, Greenan sold diesel engines, industrial gas and ball bearings, and studied art history. After the publication of Boston? he became that most anomalous of creatures, an unfamous but industrious novelist, beginning with a book that will never be forgotten by any who’ve read it, and which well deserves revival.
Greenan’s debut is a perfect magic spell of a book — phantasmagoric, entrancing. Full of eccentric characters and devious twists of plot, the story centers on a pair of formally trained men who are nevertheless “outsider” artists in that their work is rebuffed (and their lives eventually destroyed) by the contemporary world of art criticism and art commerce. The novel is traditional and in some senses even old-fashioned, but makes delightful use of modernist touches, with hints of unreliable narration and wryly self-conscious structural devices; it’s a riotously silly and engaging “entertainment” that is nevertheless at times both devastatingly sad and existentially terrifying. If the lushness of the prose recalls Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, the conflation of mythical realms of art and history with an acute portrait of a sensitive psychopath losing traction in the everyday world suggests the result if a Borges or Cortazar had tackled the tale of Norman Bates, or the Unabomber. Greenan’s debut is one of those in which the writer has offered a smorgasbord of every notion he’d ever hoped to transmit, as if in fear that he’d never have a second opportunity.
But above all, It Happened in Boston? achieves its distinction by presenting, by my count, not one but two characters of unmistakable genius as painters. I mean of course the narrator and his friend Benjamin Littleboy. That the talent of these two men is anachronistic, impractical and, by the end, tragically misused only makes the reader more certain that it could have been real. And the buttery opulence of Greenan’s descriptions only makes our appetite to see the invisible masterpieces with which he decorates the novel more ravenous.
As well, Boston? contains a tender depiction of male camaraderie, among the narrator and Littleboy and a third, more ordinary and more successful painter, Leo Faber. The sweetness of the triumvirate’s friendship remains unpoisoned by professional jealousy — or by the naive and increasingly dangerous fantasizing of the narrator. This in turn renders the swirl of corrupt commerce around them even starker, and makes the disasters of chapters 54 and 89 genuinely tragic. It would be criminal not to also mention the joke- and riddle-loving ghetto urchin, Randolph, who serves as a kind of earthly sprite or spirit guide at the entrance to the novel’s chamber of horrors and wonders. Late in the book the narrator muses, “Is there more to the child than meets the eye? His precocity is almost weird,” and the purity and innocence of the remark, given the weirdness and precocity of the narrator himself, is heartbreaking and hilarious proof of the narrator’s good faith with his companions, and Greenan’s with his creations. The narrator loves Randolph, and Faber, and Littleboy, and we love them and the narrator too, and we wish to preserve them all from disenchantment, from the rapacity of a modern world that discounts their reveries and short-sells their masterpieces as forgeries.
Cheapened by his descent into that world of forgeries, the narrator of Boston? then further dilutes his own angelic purity by shifting his efforts from the glorious white magic of the making of beautiful objects, and of his dreamlike voyages to distant times, to the paltry, venal black magic of arcane spells and ancient curses. Most bitterly, those prove more effective than art can ever be. The book’s unnamed angel is Lucifer, and like that angel, everything in the book is fallen: art and art patronage and love and late-’60s inner-city Boston all fallen from grace by the end, and redeemable only by the faith required to assent to the book’s last few paragraphs. However deep into reverie you are able to follow Boston?’s pathetic and splendid narrator — I reach a different conclusion each time I read the book — I guarantee you will not be sorry to follow him to the juncture where you must part ways. What a pleasure it is to introduce to you, reader, this little masterpiece on the subject of the world’s neglect of masterpieces! I feel almost as though I had single-handedly pulled Benjamin Littleboy’s The Birth of Death from the flames of destruction, painstakingly restored the damaged portions, and then hung the canvas where it so clearly belongs: in the lobby of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.