Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Chinese Takeout by Arthur Nersesian

I don’t know if Arthur Nersesian is a painter or can just channel one, but this book is the most perfect representation of an artist’s inner dialogue that I have ever read. Not just dreams and inspirations, but the anxieties, reactions and yearnings that provide a mental soundtrack to the creative process. He knows not just what it’s like to get caught up in the frenzy of painting a feeling, but the point where one wonders if the painting or even the idea is working, if it has validity. He describes how artists are continually sketching or planning pictures, almost as a stream of consciousness response to things. And there is the voicing of the secret fears: what if I’m not good enough; or if I am, what if no one else finds out; what if I never sell another picture; what if my best work is behind me? There is acknowledgment of the desperation of trying to get exhibits anywhere, anywhere at all.
The novel’s first person narration is by Or, an artist who is just getting by, but often must sell used books as a street vendor to make ends meet. As the book begins, he is living with June, another artist, but their relationship is crumbling. He soon becomes involved with his “dirty-winged angel” Rita, a heroin addict who quotes Baudelaire, whom he becomes obsessed with rescuing. But Or is not a hero, he uses people and can’t be bothered with their problems, even if they are friends.
The blurb touts his commission for a gravestone resembling a Chinese takeout carton, but that’s just a side note, though it provides some slight suspense in seeing whether he meets the deadline. The novel paints the gritty streets of New York City and is sarcastic from the first page, which lends humor and intelligence to it. The descriptions are terrific; an “unchecked gang of pigeons” on the windowsill, a gallery patron looks like “a big yellow dahlia and smelled of roses” and an angry woman resembles a “killer koala bear”.
But the book is not without flaws. There is a bit of redundancy, the ease of posing junkies is explained twice, in much the same words.A subway accident is referred to repeatedly, but not explained until nearly halfway through the story. June, the ex-girlfriend, is engaged to someone else in less that a week after the breakup with the narrator, though she supposedly wasn’t sleeping with them. In fact, June is described mainly as a sexual object, whether as a girlfriend, a painting subject or with jealousy. A brief description of her is at the beginning of the book, but it’s not enough to make her a real character. There are bar denizens described more fully.
However, those are quibbles in an otherwise excellent book. Don’t let the specialized subject matter deprive you of a complex story examining the many shades of creativity, love and inspiration.

Marion Boyars 2005 284 pp. ISBN-10 0714531111

See also our feature on Marion Boyars Publishers

6 comments on “Chinese Takeout by Arthur Nersesian

  1. Catheryn Kilgarriff
    February 18, 2008

    Of all the books we have published, this is one I wish had been loved by more reviewers and readers. We’ve all been to art shows and wondered about why some artists succeed and the others do not. And the story of sheer artistic struggle and failure in this book is poignant and so likely. I’ve done some pretty crazy things in my time to make ends meet, but Or beats me.

    Catheryn

  2. rosyb
    February 18, 2008

    Jackie – yet again, your reviews of art-related matter intrigue. I think this might well be one for me (having done the whole art college bit). This is a world I would like to see represented properly at last, and it sounds like this one is a work with some honesty about it all.

    Can’t help seeing the parallels between the struggles of the art world and that of the writing world, which is covered so much in literature.

    Thanks for commenting Catheryn – great to see you here.

    I will link this review to the interview so people will find a few routes to it too. :)

  3. sequinonsea
    February 18, 2008

    Another one I like the sound of. Puts me in mind of Anne Brooke’s A Dangerous Mind.

    “He describes how artists are continually sketching or planning pictures, almost as a stream of consciousness response to things. And there is the voicing of the secret fears: what if I’m not good enough; or if I am, what if no one else finds out; what if I never sell another picture; what if my best work is behind me? There is acknowledgment of the desperation of trying to get exhibits anywhere, anywhere at all.”

    Rosy, yes it does sound painfully similar to the struggles of writers!

  4. Leena
    February 19, 2008

    Great review, Jackie – you give such a clear (and intriguing!) idea of the book and its flavour.

    Do you think the flaws you mention might be intentional – partly, at least? Well, not the engagement bit I suppose; but the part about June being a vague character and others coming alive much more fully made me think about the artist’s point of view. I expect in many cases artists (and writers for that matter) pay the least attention to those who are closest to them. And the way you describe the repetitive descriptions, I can’t help but wonder if they have something to do with the way the artist sees the world, too… but hard to say anything more before I actually read the book myself!

    The cover is very intriguing too, by the way.

  5. rosyb
    February 19, 2008

    Good thought. I keep thinking of Picasso’s depictions of the women in his life where he knowingly and tongue-in-cheekly “objectifies” them by turning them into testicles and penis! The girlfriend as muse – romanticised (or not) but not seen as a character in own right…(?)

  6. Mhairi
    February 20, 2008

    Great review, Jackie … you make it sound like a really intriguing “must read” …

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This entry was posted on February 18, 2008 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: general and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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