Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Vexations"

Caitlin Horrocks's story collection This Is Not Your City was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Another story collection, Life Among the Terranauts, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in 2021. Her stories and essays appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, Tin House, and One Story, as well as other journals and anthologies. Her awards include the Plimpton Prize and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the MacDowell Colony.

Horrocks applied the Page 69 Test to her debut novel, The Vexations, and reported the following:
There are five main characters in The Vexations: the book circles around Erik Satie, the French composer (1866-1925), but also contains chapters told from the points of view of his brother Conrad, his sister Louise, his friend and collaborator Philippe, and a romantic interest, the painter Suzanne Valadon. All of the characters are based on historical counterparts. Page 69 falls during the first Philippe section, when he’s newly arrived in Montmartre, the arty Paris neighborhood that he’s been building up in his head throughout his childhood in Tarragona, Spain. Philippe is desperate to be part of a community of artists, and will soon be equally desperate for money. He’s met a young Erik Satie at the Chat Noir, and Erik has proposed setting some of Philippe’s poems to music:
Not sure which poems Erik might want, Philippe swept into his bag the whole row of notebooks on the single shelf in the room he’d rented at an address Erik had suggested, near the top of the Montmartre Butte, the highest point in the city. The pricier, flatter part of the neighborhood lay at the bottom of streets so steep that Philippe had to throw his weight backward from his hips as he walked, wary of his slick, worn shoes on the cobblestones. Happily, he’d had no heavy luggage to bring up the hill, where horse-drawn cabs refused to go. Like all the other men and women who filled the streets around the Place du Tertre, he lived lightly, with what he could carry on his back.
I think page 69 is representative of the novel in its effort to imagine and depict the realities of living in a place and time that by now has layers of clichés crusted over it. Belle Époque Montmartre didn’t actually look like a Toulouse-Latrec poster for the Moulin Rouge cabaret, so what did it look like? There’s a romance to our idea of the “starving artist” that I’m guessing the artist himself did not feel when he was literally starving. Art-making has always seen its share of hustle, exploitation, and hard decisions about where and how to make rent. Not every character shares these concerns, and I hope readers who wouldn’t normally gravitate towards a book with a lot of music or artists in it will still find plenty to enjoy in this novel. But I hope the book does justice to the realities of the time and place, in both the Philippe sections and elsewhere.
Visit Caitlin Horrocks's website.

--Marshal Zeringue