on The American Painter Emma Dial, a novel by Samantha Peale (Norton)

Emma Dial is a 31-year old painter who won’t paint. Or rather, as the assistant to Michael Freiberg, famous since the 70’s for his landscapes, Emma paints only for her boss in his Manhattan studio. He sketches or works from found imagery, she executes from his maquettes. Michael, who is married, and Emma have been lovers for the six years she has been his employee. As her narrative opens, we find her on a scaffold working on a 96-by-111-inch seascape, Michael standing below. “Perched four feet in the air, a row of warm incandescent lights over my head and the remains of a cheese sandwich at my knees, I felt like a pet bird,” she says. “A red-footed falcon or a hooded crow. Or a gull. An unlikely pet.” At the end of the novel, when Emma risks the attempt to paint on her own, she focuses on a dead bird floating in the pool at her Miami apartment, saying, “Obviously, it came for me because I was finally ready to make a painting of its mangled little body soaked in chlorinated water.”

Peale7.jpgThis may sound like a bracketing device in a typical novel of self-discovery -- and perhaps some reviewers, prone to plot summary and niche-naming, will describe this book as such. Or as chick lit with palette knives. Or as a skittery send-up of the contemporary art market. Even the Norton publicists plug the novel in conventional terms such as “a smart new perspective on an age-old dynamic – the great man supported by an even more talented woman offstage,” though it is Emma’s creative ability, not Michael’s, that is in question and unproven. But The American Painter Emma Dial, Samantha Peale’s splendid first novel, is not simply a long runway to Emma’s break from Michael, nor is it primarily a chic vindication of a woman’s right to paint and live as selfishly and forcefully as a man. It is an altogether convincing rendition of what it sounds like to be suspended from one’s calling. Emma tells her story from the vantage point of knowing her breakthrough occurred – but she is still in the grip of those years. There is something about the waiting that still enfolds her.

While the candid narrative entertains the reader through keenly recalled episodes, Emma’s putative reasons for failing to break away never quite explain her creative standstill. The security of Michael’s wing is identified as the prime impediment. “Alone with him I was capable and important,” she says, “attributes so at odds with the role I played in my family as a dreamy person who lacked direction and tended to be short on facts. I kept thinking sadly about my parents, whom I missed but who were by and large too displeased with me to visit during the holidays.” The cost of living in New York is itself a hurdle. Emma’s art school teacher, the painter Meredith Davies, “lasted twenty-three years in New York” before handing over her Brooklyn studio to Emma, who doesn’t use it. As for the disapproval of her mother, Emma's remarks the estrangement from her family sound obligatory. One begins to wonder about Emma's ability to give to others -- while rooting for her to be more selfish about her art.

Peale2.jpgBut Emma is neither very analytical about her own psyche, nor particularly expressive about the urge to make art (though she often expresses remorse about not working). Her behavior strikes me as both authentic and poignant. When we talk about the source of creating, we say it’s mysterious. But when we talk about the source of not-creating, we say it’s pathological. In fact, it’s just as mysterious. Is Emma willing herself not to create? Or are internal and external factors beyond her immediate grasp and powers conspiring against her? Or is she living in a sort of perfect storm of non-creation? She says, “Many months had passed, I was afraid it could be a year, since I had worked in my own studio, and before then, not so much. Not for several years. There was no painting under way there. I had vivid memories of other artists discussing how long one could go without lifting a brush, developing an idea, before the need and the desire slipped away, before one simply became deluded, a quitter and a fake.” But after all, this condition is enigmatic to Emma – beyond statements like the one above, she remains silent about not-painting.

Peale4.jpgPeale’s characters are vectors pointing to the choices and dilemmas of the young artist. Emma’s former art school roommate, Irene Duffy, moves frenetically from one photo or film project to the next. Hideki is the assistant to the painter Therese Oller, Michael’s former wife. Emma describes Hideki’s paintings with mild demurrals. When his gallerist decides not to show his work, Hideki faces a sudden demotion from the Manhattan scene. There are characters who have abandoned their art careers (but who play key roles in Emma’s pivot towards her own canvasses).

Then there is Philip Cleary, completing the trio of art icons with Michael and Therese. Competitive with each other, they socialize and keep an eye on each other’s work (and assistants). When Emma takes steps to meet her hero Philip, she sets in motion a quasi-self-directed effort, powered by eroticism, to move out from under Michael’s alleged grasp:

“Again I had the sensation of all my desires welling up, as I had on New Year’s Eve: the need to feel myself equal to him as an artist, and a force. He made me feel competitive and agitated. My attraction to him was sexual but there was something else mixed in. I had become aware that I was not doing enough with my life. I did not want to pale next to anyone.”

Peale3.jpgBut paling is about all she does – among the gallery shows, benefits, bars, restaurants, apartments, and her disused studio space. These perfectly observed and heard scenes offer not only great entertainment, but also a sideways glance at the blind gap between the social life and the creative life. At the Armory Show, where Hideki’s gouaches are hung, he says, “I love that everything is for sale. Everything and everyone … I like that it’s all purposeless. Even the meaningful stuff is purposeless. Do all these people care about art?” In Peale’s New York art world, not exactly caricatured but certainly narrated by Emma with a caustic edge, the surface rules and the chasm yawns. Emma says of Michael, “I had decided that all of his emotions were fabrications. A real Michael did not exist. His personality had long ago been subsumed by his art.” Yet when Emma tells Irene about her plan to move from New York, her friend responds, “You’re too old. Too fucking lazy … You’re a shadow, an outline of a person.”

Peale masterfully aligns her materials with her narrative method. Just as the art world dismissed the psychological interior decades ago, Peale incorporates that value into her prose – while undermining it at the same time, portraying a speaker whom we care about from the inside out, insofar as we can find her. There is just one notable instance where Emma talks about Art, and there only briefly. At a dinner with Philip Cleary, his daughter Isabelle (another artist) and some patron-friends, Emma is prodded to say, “The more you make paintings, the more you can understand what is humanly possible if you make an effort. Painting is a way to increase experience.” Then Cleary adds, “Over a period of time.” Emma’s icons may be insufferably selfish, but she rarely criticizes them as artists. On another occasion when Michael taunts her, Emma doesn’t fire back, presumably because his attitude hits home:

“The problem with you is you don’t have the balls to let nature complete the picture. You’re a shrinking violet. You can’t hear the fucking tweet-tweet-tweet, the little helpless animal screaming that nature doesn’t care about humans. Even the larger mammals, the big dogs, the horses, put their needs first. Like me, I’m fucking Leo Tolstoy fighting Napoleon in the snow. You make the picture happen, Emma. Some people get lucky, the rest of us have to come up with the goods and say ‘me first.’”

Peale5.jpgIf anything, Emma’s rekindled spark to create in the final chapter seems tangential to the story’s preoccupation – which is to linger in the passive zone, letting instinct and intuition find their ways to the exit and the light. Picturing herself at the point where she was finally alone and ready to paint, she says, “I had never been a person who had to get into some existential state to work; I had been task-oriented about it – there is always a job to be done – but this was a big horse to remount. Away from Michael’s studio I missed painting in a physical way, the way I would miss drinking coffee.” Since she tells her story as if treading the surface of memory (she is a swimmer), one could conclude that she still misses the pure physicality of producing an assigned effect in paint. The necessity of assigning the job to oneself is equivalent to the need to deplete one’s own materials, reach all the way to the end of a pleasure. In telling this story, Emma has re-used and used up her cache of recalled experience in order to fully own it. She has finally followed her mentor Meredith’s advice: “be possessive.”

Emma Dial is a completely realized character – even as Samantha Peale restrains herself from giving Emma too much insight and articulation. This careful portrait allows the reader to experience the taste of the hours before something creative happens. A wonderful achievement, The American Painter Emma Dial is a novel that should have broad appeal – a treat for both the artist of any medium and the general reader.

[Published May 11, 2009, 330 pages, $24.95 hardcover]

re: Block

Thanks for pointing us to this book. I'm interested in writer's block and have read some about it. I always tell my creative writing students that there's no such thing as writer's block. I tell them that because otherwise they'd be giving me arguments about how they can't write anything and how I have to give them an A anyway. I tell them there's no such thing, but I know it's a fact.

I was blocked for 30 years, but it was pretty much a matter of choice. I chose to focus on academic writing (dissertations, books, articles) rather than creative writing. I've known painters like that too, who do profesional art rather than personal art. Guys and gals who give up their own work to do someone else's.

I didn't feel blocked, not really. I was not anxious or frustrated. I was writing but not writing "creatively."

And how about you, Ron?

Did you feel block?

When I started writing

When I started writing poetry again after a 20-year silence, I didn't want to think too carefully about why things revved up again. And when I looked back, I couldn't tell if the silence was self-imposed or pressed on me. The confusion or indeterminate nature of the experience is probably why Peale's novel engrossed me. Emma is just 32 when she finally makes her move. I was 50. Art is a long apprenticeship -- but to what? Waiting, learning, then waiting some more. Listening for something. Anyway, I think this novel teaches in a shrewd way -- and can offer insight about not-making (the feel of that experience) to young writers beyond what the workshops may teach.

Here's a very good article by Joan Acocella about "why writers stop writing" -- from a 2004 issue of The New Yorker.