“Yes, read it, you’ll love it, you’ll start over again the minute you reach the end, and you’ll be able to ace an art history exam to boot” – A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume
High five if you recognise the title of Baume’s second novel – you’re probably part way towards figuring out what kind of book you’re about to read (you know you are going to read it right?). But don’t worry if the reference passed you by (it’s also the title of an artwork by Richard Long): as well as a meticulously sympathetic story about a young woman’s existential crisis, A Line Made By Walking is also something of a crash course in late twentieth century and contemporary art. (Educational and entertaining: the BBC should be so lucky.) And if that sounds dry, don’t worry – it’s anything but.
Frankie is an art school graduate who’s been doing an art-world grunt’s job (endlessly repainting the white onto a white cube gallery) for several years, but one day she can’t make herself get up any more. She retreats from her Dublin bedsit to her parents’ midlands home (a former famine hospital) and then to her own Walden: the countryside cottage that once belonged to her dead grandmother. Under the guise of keeping the place up while her family tries to get it sold, Frankie spends a long summer alone in the house, thinking about art (her own and others’) and nature and life and death – and photographing death as she encounters it – and trying to work out her place in the world. It’s a quiet book, lacking pyrotechnics and high drama: Frankie’s life is reduced to the microscopic analysis of the minutia of her environs and her thoughts – making, in her own words, the ‘ordinary things’ grotesque – and the reader drifts with her as she’s carried along these localized peaks and troughs, propelled by anxiety and panic and ferocious bouts of frustration and anger at both herself and the world. There is a trajectory here – we find out what brought Frankie to this point, what her childhood was like, how she negotiates the world, the neighbours and her mother’s worry – but it’s by no means a crash-burn-recuperate-return narrative. Rather, it’s a study into ‘medium to severe’ depression; just as the artworks Frankie pushes herself to remember and recite at intervals throughout the text (‘Works about Lostness, I test myself: Stanley Brouwn, This way brouwn, 1960-64’) explore (as Frankie sees it) certain phenomena or states of being, the novel, or her own story, is a extended work about sadness – what it might be, from whence it might have come, how we might deal with it and/or live with it, how we might conceive of ourselves from here, beneath its weight.
So, yeah – that might sound heavy, and it is certainly, brilliantly, thought-provoking, both in terms of Frankie’s inability to stop herself from crying and in terms of her observations and analyses of what’s going on in the world around her, but it’s also a very funny book, a witty and snappy series of observations about the oddities of rural life (the lonely old Born Again man next door) and the art world (the daily repainting of the walls lest a lone visitor question the institutional parameters of their art experience). Baume’s dialogue reminds us that Frankie’s scrupulously detailed perception of the world isn’t the only way of living: as she circles the void around which she feels her life is centred, her father cuts to it with, ‘Well. How are you then? Your mother’s woeful fucking worried.’ While, like Baume’s debut, spill simmer falter wither – and like Thoreau’s Walden – this book is also full of beautiful, evocative renderings of the countryside and its cycle of life and death, Frankie’s also hung up on the realities of the questionably unemployable art graduate in the modern world: she doesn’t like Lidl, she remarks, ‘it reminded me of the dole queue, only with vegetables’. She’s a sharp, self-aware, remarkable intelligent and understandably floundering narrator, and so the book bounds along, despite its lack of conventional plot, as Frankie navigates a path towards self-reliance, or at least, the consideration of its possibility.
Any Cop?: If you liked her first, you’ll like her second: it’s quieter, but it’s just as affecting. While, like Walden, A Line Made By Walking is a meditation on nature and selfhood, it’s also something like a rural Irish 10:04, in that it’s an exploration of art and the role of the artwork and the artist in contemporary times, as told by the artist, from within and without the art-world. And even if you don’t think you’ll like that sort of thing, Frankie’s no-bullshit voice will drag you into it, and you’ll come out the other end wanting to run off to look at some Cornelia Parker or Felix Gonzales-Torres. All of which is to say, yes, read it, you’ll love it, you’ll start over again the minute you reach the end, and you’ll be able to ace an art history exam to boot.
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- February 21, 2017 / 9:00 am