Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book Review: Chinese Takeout, by Arthur Nersesian

The novel Chinese Takeout by New York-based poet, playwright, lit mag editor, and novelist Arthur Nersesian, concerns a lower Manhattan artist in his early thirties, Orloff Trenchant (great name). His friends call him Or. And sometimes either/or. Or had a level of success early in his career after he produced a series of paintings depicting his real-life experience of his getting pushed onto train tracks (what Or refers to as the subway accident). Eight years after his first solo gallery show, Or is living a squalid life, sometimes in run-down apartments, sometimes out of his van. He pays for his supplies by selling used books on the streets of Manhattan while struggling to complete his latest work—a series of paintings of swimmers navigating the East River.

As the novel unfolds we are introduced to Or’s various downtown artist friends, lovers, and critics. There is Bethsheba, an Australian artist with which Or pals around and occasionally sleeps with. Klein Ritter, “a shrunken, deviously mild-mannered man and the most venomous art critic on the scene.” Cali, a matronly gallery owner who got Or his first solo show. And June, Or’s artist girlfriend. By the end of Chapter 2, Or’s jealousy overtakes him when he finds some sketches June drew depicting sexual acts that Or is sure he was not a part of. In a fit, he destroys a couple of her finished works, ceremoniously breaking off their relationship.

In any other novel, this rash, extreme act would connote the beginning of a downward spiral. But Nersesian avoids cliché by having this be just another blip on Or’s radar of life. The chapters are fairly short, averaging ten pages, and the prose is brisk and the dialogue true, funny, and plentiful. Flashbacks are kept to a minimum, with the story told mostly in the present.

Or avoids living in his van by moving into an older artist’s loft space while the artist, Shade, is out of town. He meets Rita, a beautiful young punk who works for a needle exchange program, handing out new needles to street addicts with names like Meaningless Mike and Crackpipe Bob. He is instantly smitten, falling for this girl he knows almost nothing about, and turning her into his muse.

Nersesian adds discussions of real artists like de Kooning and Rothko, as well as art critic Robert Hughes, lending an authenticity to the story. He shows us how hard it is for Or to continue living in a city that has priced out poor artists and writers. The locations feel authentic to Or’s life: he meets up with fellow artists and writers at the KGB Bar. Shade’s loft space is in the Jarmulovsky Bank building, on the corner of Canal and Orchard Streets. Though published in 2003, Nersesian has set his story pre-9/11, specifically during the 2000 presidential election. This lends the novel a fabled feel of a time and place that was inexorably changed within the year.

Or is not just a character in a story who happens to be an artist. When he’s not buying and selling used books, he’s drawing, painting, or sculpting with palpable passion, frustration, failure, and success. Nersesian appears to know what he’s talking about, and highlights the day-to-day details of what it takes to be a working artist in New York. He describes artists' financial struggles, the types of art supplies needed for a certain project, and the thought processes that spin through the mind of a painter.

The Chinese takeout of the title is a sculpture job that Or is offered, to create a headstone in the shape of a Chinese food takeout carton. Or accepts the work because he needs the money. But he also wants to learn more about working with stone. Or is a specific type of artist, and there are probably many like him in the New York art scene—broke, struggling, but also trying to become better at his craft in hopes that one day recognition will come.

The tone of Chinese Takeout is handled deftly, with sly, comic touches, and dialogue that is generally honest and real. You learn a lot about Nersesian’s characters by the way they talk and interact. When Or falls hard for Rita, he learns that not only has she quit her job with the needle exchange, she’s an addict herself. The theme of addiction is marbled throughout Chinese Takeout: not only drug addiction, but also fame addition, poverty addiction, and love addiction. This is heavy stuff, but it never becomes overwhelming or suffocating. I felt more like I was being shown a new, unfamiliar world by an author who wanted me to understand it without judgment, while also warning me about its pitfalls.

In many ways Or is lucky, as a character and as an artist. But he is still a character in a novel, and as such experiences a story arc. And whether you buy the end of the novel depends on whether you can appreciate Or foremost as this specific character. I enjoyed reading about Or’s experiences and ultimately I found the ending of the novel and of Or’s story arc a satisfying conclusion.

I admit it took me a while to get into the writing. I was put off by the many adverbs in the character tags. Often Nersesian hits you over the head with them, using phrases like, “he replied nervously”, “I asked delicately”, “I replied earnestly”, and “he instantly retorted.” This is an important point, because as a writer I try to avoid redundancy or hyperbole. But a strange thing happened on my way to the finish line: I warmed up to this style and believe it added a level of warmth and sympathy to Or, and made his occasional rash, rude behavior come across more human than douche baggy.

If you want an adult read that will take you to a place and time in Manhattan you might not otherwise get to see (and if you do, take care out there), I recommend Chinese Takeout. If you read it, let me know what you think. And if you’ve read other books by Mr. Nersesian, tell me which of his books I should pick up next.


Liz (made in lowell) said...

Another fantastic review! I know I kept asking you what the book was like while you read it, but all I had to do was wait and now there is this brilliant description which tells me all I wanted to know without giving too much away, thanks!!

Liz's Mom said...

I love your book reviews. You are right, I will never find myself in the Manhattan Art Scene, or know any of the struggling artists in this book, so this review is enough to satisfy my curiosity about all that.

Dell Smith said...

Hi Liz and Liz's mom: thanks for reading. And I'm glad you aren't in this particular art scene. I don't think you'd enjoy it. But it's fun to read about.

Robin said...

Hi Dell -- I definitely want to read this after your well-written and passionate review. My college roomie, Colleen, lived in a loft in Soho during her NYC years and knew a fair number of artists. Interesting point that Nersesian places the timeframe prior to the events of 9/11. Thanks for a great review!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Sounds fascinating. I think I'll give it a read. :)