LaFarge's 'Artist': no help for the pain


"The Artist of the Missing," by Paul LaFarge. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 241 pages. $13.

Some novels are absolutely engrossing even if one is never quite sure what they are about. Sentences, pages and finally whole chapters go by in patient anticipation that the mystery will dissolve and everything will become clear.

Most authors sooner or later oblige readers' desire for resolution. Paul LaFarge, whose "Artist of the Missing" tantalizes without ever quite allowing itself to be pinned down, is an exception. His tale is fantastic, funny and at times chilling, yet it ends where it begins and leaves unanswered most of the questions that kept this reader turning pages into the wee hours.

Normally, this would be a serious flaw. But LaFarge's subject is grief and loss, which is to say it is about things that have no neat endings in real life, either. In such circumstances, he suggests, only an endless conflation of the surreal and the commonplace keeps people sane.

Some things that are lost are never found, LaFarge seems to be saying, and some pain never goes away. Alas, that's the way the world is, and too often there's just no help for it.

Frank, an orphan, arrives in the city with his friend James. The two take lodgings at Bellaway's, a cheap rooming house, where Frank teaches himself drawing and James chases women. Then one day James steals all Frank's money and disappears.

The tale takes a Kafkaesque turn when the penniless artist goes to work in the rooming house laundry, scrubbing the robes of mysterious, itinerant judges who frequent Bellaway's. He also begins sketching a woman he sees through an open window across the street and whom he later accidently meets at a crime scene, where she is working as a police photographer. Her name is Prudence.

Frank and Prudence become friends, then lovers. Their idyll ends abruptly, however, when Frank notices strange posters tacked to the city's streetlights by citzens whose relatives have disappeared. It seems a lot of people in the city are missing. The next night, as if on cue, Prudence disappears, too.

Frank sets out to find her, and the rest of the novel chronicles his misadventures through a world that page by page grows more bizarre and malevolent. He hooks up, for example, with a support group for relatives of missing people; when they learn he is an artist, they beg him to paint portraits of loved ones he has never seen. The pictures make him famous as "the artist of the missing."

They also attract the attention of the police. Frank is arrested and sent to prison (it's unclear for what crime, since he has no trial and the judges, in any case, all turn out to be babbling children). Frank spends years in confinement, only to be liberated for reasons that seem as arbitrary as his imprisonment. Ultimately his release merely ushers in a new existence among the permanently brokenhearted and bereaved.

This is LaFarge's first novel, and it is a dark vision indeed. It's also beautifully written and utterly enthralling. As a novel of ideas, "The Artist of the Missing" is as deliciously ambiguous as are the haunting block-relief prints by Stephen Alcorn that illustrate the text.

Glenn McNatt is art critic for The Sun. He was previously an editorial writer for 10 years for The Sun and began his career as a college English teacher.

Pub Date: 06/27/99

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