Sunday, October 14, 2007


Since the beginning of this blog I’ve seemed to only be reading crappy books, so I’ve decided to regularly devote a column to my unfortunate reads, under the title: Today I Saved You [insert amount here] (+Tax)!
I figure, with all the money I’m saving you, you all of my (15? 20? You’re becoming too many for me to count) devoted readers will be able to band together and buy me a nice B-Day present. Like this, for example, or even this. You can send it to me on Thanksgiving Day, since there won’t be a Thanksgiving in [Insert Month Here]™ in November (I wonder why???) but instead a My Extremely Belated B-Day in November! My B-Day for real is in the Spring, but I didn’t celebrate this year so if you really, truly love me, and I know you do (right???) then you can invite me to your Thanksgiving celebration and make it my B-Day! That is, if you celebrate with your friends. I don’t do very well with families, as a rule.

Anyway, recently I’ve wasted $25 (+tax) on Noah Charney’s The Art Thief, which would have been more aptly titled the Time Waster.
Full disclaimer: I’ve picked this entirely on my own while idly browsing at my local bookstore, so please don’t try to misdirect the blame toward my Distinguished Literary Correspondent, he has nothing to do with this mistake. We’ve been speaking about music lately rather than books, but I realize I need his advice pronto if I don’t want to sink money into too many more tree-killers. (Mike, seriously, let me know what you’ve been reading or I’ll have to resort to get the Alan Greenspan. Better yet, please write a book. Please?).

It’s my fault really, for being such a sucker for art-related light fiction. Each time I fall into the same trap, thinking I will have a good fluff moment, and I end up fulminating about how badly plotted or written my picks are.
I stayed clear of Dan Brown for example but unfortunately picked Danielle Ganek – who, in retrospect, gains some extra points for at least making her characters likable, if not very deep.
I picked up the Art Thief mostly because of my memories of Iain Pears’ art theft stories, set in Italy, with his delightful characters Flavia, Jonathan and Bottando. Most of his plots are well-crafted, you cannot help but like his characters and his art history is generally flawless. Unfortunately, Pears fancied himself a more serious novelist and ended up publishing rather boring, if very well-made, historical books, trying too hard to reiterate Umberto Ecco’s successes.

It’s usually problematic when publishers try to ride on the success of some international bestsellers such as the aforementioned Da Vinci Code, and churn derivative products by the dozen. Somehow, I should have known the minute I picked Charney's book how bad it was going to be: a poorly-designed burgundy and gilt-embossed cover with a cheesy 19th century frame that shows a bit of a Caravaggio (David, from David and the Head of Goliath or whatever it is called in English), and on the back cover a picture of the author himself, wearing an unhappy combination of discordant various blue hues, sporting a 1950s mafioso haircut, and holding a painting with his bare hands, paint side rubbing on his clothes. Ouch! Fully disqualified to ever work in a museum in any capacity. I mean, no question the said picture must be a dud, but nonetheless you do not handle paintings like this. Ever.
Many details in the book itself shows the author to be fairly ignorant of standard museum procedures, and quite scary when discussing conservation issues. I mean, even if it’s a fictional, fake Malevich painting we’re speaking of, cutting some canvas from the stretcher bars in order to steal the work WILL damage the painting.

So, fully discredited as an art professional, the dude may still have stood a chance at being a writer, if and only if someone at Simon & Schuster had bothered to edit the thing. Alas, no such luck. I suppose the fact that Charney attended the Courtauld and Cambridge U. seemed a gage of quality to some hapless publisher who knows nothing about art history, but reading the book kind of challenges claims to the quality of the schooling delivered at these highly reputable institutions*.
One very annoying thing throughout the book is the professorial tone adopted by all art professionals depicted in the story. It’s rather irritating as it gives a *Art History 101* (later referred as AH101) feeling to the book, but a very dated, iconological *Art History 101*. Very Panofskian, already totally obsolete when I was an art history student myself, 15 years ago.
Charney doesn’t even bother to be accurate, a quality we should somehow expect from a Cambridge U. Ph.D. student (seriously, how did he get in there?). I mean, if one of his characters has to take his students on a tour to London’s National Gallery, maybe the author should at least bother to get Jan van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife’s title right. No, it is not called The Marriage Contract, even though received iconology determined that what’s the painting is supposed to be. As a good art historian he should know this particular interpretation may even be challenged in the future. I don’t know what kind of tuition the fictional students in his book are supposed to pay, but I feel they should be entitled to a complete refund if they are subjected to such obsolete art history.

By the same token, Charney’s interpretations of Malevich remain at wikipedia-level**, and the way he describes Malevich’s and Suprematism’s fame in the book smacks of someone who never bothered to study his Modern courses seriously. Charney’s “Iconoclast” interpretation of Malevich is part of an extremely complicated story that includes a Caravaggio’s Annunciation stolen from a Roman church, a painting that resurfaces in the narrative some 150 pages later, after being obscured by an increasingly and unnecessarily complicated plot involving fake Malevich monochromes, several insufferable lectures by various characters including the would-be-hero-turned-art-detective who’s in fact an insurance investigator-cum-lecturer, more or less, pretending to make a living “on the lecture circuit”. Ha! And me, I’m making money out of the outpouring of art love lavished by my zillion readers. Very credible.

The problem with the book is it’s trying very hard to include some art historical mystery à la Da Vinci Code, but fails to be gripping precisely because of the lecturing tone adopted by the main character, and by many of the various other protagonists. It only succeeds in being pontificating, a tendency alas aggravated by all the class comments. The author is at pains to explain in a couple of occasions how his posh characters sometimes mingle with low class people and how these yet-unrefined-but-nonetheless-absent-from-the-narrative-persons are the most intelligent ever, not that we doubt this statement in itself, but it is totally unnecessary in the story and serves only to validate the authors good opinion of himself.

There are many other annoying aspects of the book that could have been avoided if someone had bothered to edit it. After all it’s hardly unexpected a 27-year old would-be-hero would master the craft of novel-writing naturally. Case in point: the book is peppered with French and Italian bits of dialogue. I’ve nothing against it, but:
a) what happened to the convention of using italics for foreign words? It serves a function, really.
b) The use of foreign languages is a contradiction with the supposed retarded level of the reader, who needs AH101 to be explained throughout the book even though AH101 has no bearing on the narrative.
c) and therefore they should be translated, or if the author wants to assume that, on the contrary, his readers are fluent in both languages, then please get a French or Italian-speaking editor to check accuracy and consistency of the languages supposedly fluently spoken by the main characters.

As for the French part of the plot it is strangely unfinished, half-abandoned to its own devices, 90% of them not relevant to the story. It seems to this French reader most of that part only serves as a demonstration of Charney’s mastery of a few French bad words, such as *Merde* or *Putain*, but not in a way any living French person would use them nowadays, as they are inserted in sentences that are so formal and so 1930s –sounding you would think they come straight out of the Berlitz manuals.
I mean, I’m deeply aware of my own very limited English skills and I feel rather bad about the non-copy-edited aspect of FBC!, but in doing so I’m joining the cohorts of Web 2.0 everyday users, I’m not publishing a book with a serious and reputable house. If I were to publish a novel I’d like a copy-editor, please (and if it ever happens, it’s OK if Charney wants to skewer me on his website, c’est de bonne guerre.)

Anyway, to go back to the book and its annoying traits: the cheesy lifestyle-class-envy –comments could have been avoided. Why do museum offices chairs have to be “Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs” for God Sake? On breaking into a suspect apartment (who, incidentally, is a French aristocrat and therefore unlikely to destroy the interior of his hôtel particulier to transform it into a bland modern loft), some Armagnac negociant/police sidekick is envious to see a Viking range. Note to Noah Charney: if you want to make it Frenchier, switch it to La Cornue, it would work better.
Likewise, Charney’s masculine fashion sense seems to be fixated on “ironed-crisp, cuff-linked sleeves" which appear at least half a dozen times on various male characters in the story. Suits are well-cut, unless they belong to some poor devil of a policeman, all of whom made to look slightly ridiculous, in case they would compete with the dashing Gabriel Coffin, hero of the book.
Here I should insert the spoiler alert, just in case you feel like wasting $25 (+tax) anyway : a major problem with the book is how transparent it is, despite the complexity of the plot. By the first 25 pages you’ve already guessed the hero is also the thief, if only because of the repeat assertions about the honor and aristocracy of art theft (as if), how the good thief was saved, the various affirmations of admiration expressed throughout the book about the audacity of the theft, etc.

The slightly touching thing about the book (aside from the fact that the author genuinely likes historical art, if he doesn’t understand anything post 1900) is how badly Charney wants to create a hero, in a little boy-famous explorer- great athlete-gentleman robber-Great Houdini-magical way : a male character who’s good-looking, smart, well-educated, gets a sexy woman/art thief who’s an exotic Italian on top of it, creates incredibly sophisticated plots and can literally do everything, from painting fakes to speaking a dozen languages fluently, etc. It’s a very nerdy type of hero admittedly, and it reeks of trashy romance novel for boys. In doing so Charney joins Dana Vachon in the new genre of light *lad-lit* (for lack of a better word corresponding to chick-lit). In Charney’s *lad-lit* world couples wake up mercifully free of morning bad breath, routinely eat at “the world best restaurant” (The London Ivy? Pleeeaaase), where former child prodigies/chess players can spot a fake artwork the minute they see it (thus displaying a complete disregard for scholarly integrity) and live in a world where “good taste” is paramount, if standardized, boring and predictable (see Viking range, ironed-crisp, cuff-linked sleeves, aristocrat-envy, modernist lofts and Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs above).
A little bit like going on a pilgrimage to DIA or Marfa and thinking art has stopped there forever: sanitized, clean, accepted, massive and silent.

The sad thing about it is how Coffin echoes the image the real life Charney projects: look at his website, interviews and projects and you will see how it’s all about showing off and trying to impress, from the blurb about him on the book cover to the wikipedia entry. I’m sorry for Charney if he feels so insecure he has to list all the schools he has enrolled at and the Ph. D. programs he has signed up for, but for the moment, as an art historian he has published zilch (which is totally normal for a 27-years old, so no worries, but no need to splatter his schooling all over the internet either). His art crime-fighting agency sounds all jolly good, and all very childish. I’d like to feel some empathy for the little boy who’s trying so hard, but all the self-promotion is too terribly off-putting.

So as promised, today I’ve saved you $25 (+tax). Don’t forget me this Thanksgiving!

* The Courtauld is pretty solid in some areas but it seems to have slipped a bit in the last few years, as opposed to what it was up to the late 1980s.
** There’s a wikipedia entry for Charney which tends to show him as a lightweight (how can you be taken seriously as an art historian if you haven’t finished your Ph.D or even published a couple of scholarly articles?) and also seems to have been written by Charney himself since the entry posters don’t seem to exist in wikipedia’s users realm. This thing is such a joke. I think I’m going to add an entry about myself explaining how I’ve curated non-existent Biennials and written the definitive books about contemporary art at the beginning of the 21st century.

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