OneMansView, January 01, 2011
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Is life a pose? (3.5*s)
This is a tragic tale of a once robust, productive marriage that turned suffocating and is in its last deteriorating stages. It also addresses the interaction of, or the disconnect between, art and life. Both Irene and Gil are of Native American descent with him being one of the better known painters of Indian subjects. Irene gave up her academic quest many years before to become Gil’s wife, but more importantly to him, the subject of his paintings. The vast majority of them depict her in some state of nudity with themes that range from the aesthetically pleasing to dark and humiliating, which supposedly are windows into the life or treatment of Indians.
Over time Irene has come to feel that the entire process of posing, let alone her overexposure in these paintings, has in essence sucked the life right out of her and she has become merely a two-dimensional shape both on canvass and to Gil. Irene is well aware of Indian lore that holds that subjects of portraits “sicken and die” as a result of being depicted. While Indian culture to some degree is part of the story, the themes developed are more universal.
There is little escape for Gil or Irene as their antagonisms are played out in their home in Minneapolis where they work and live with their three children ranging from six to thirteen. The perpetual closeness, in addition to her resentments of posing, is undoubtedly a factor in Irene’s turn to alcohol. She adopts the curious tactic of misrepresenting her thoughts and actions in a “Red” diary to induce overreactions from Gil when he secretly reads the diary, as she knows he is doing. It is a dangerous game of escape that she plays with the obsessive and abusive Gil when she claims to have been entirely faithful in one diary entry but suggests that Gil is not the father of her children in another.
The novel is a quick read, but has a fragmented feel in the staccato shift of short scenes involving the children or Irene and Gil alternating between invectives or pretending that all is well. To witness marital discord in its final stages is always disturbing. Children invariably suffer the most as do Irene’s. However, while there is pain in this book, the structure and plot tend to diffuse the impact. There is the sense, until the end, that Gil and Irene are simply engaged in a more elaborate playing out of their troubled artistic problems. In this case, the combination of love, life, and art proves to be a volatile mix.