Friday, April 08, 2011

Meet Me at the Met by Eric G. Müller

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 260 pages
• Publisher: Plain View Press, 2010
• Price: $18.95
• ISBN-10: 9781935514497
• ISBN-13: 978-1935514497

Being an artist’s daughter and dabbling in various art forms myself, I was instantly drawn to Eric G. Müller’s novel, Meet Me at the Met. I have walked a great many art museums with my father, painter Viestarts Aistars, from earliest childhood, listening to his stories about the paintings and artists whose work we viewed, and so I greeted walking the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York again in Müller’s book.

The premise of the novel is that a middle-aged man named Clarence is in emotional turmoil, in need of sorting out his life, his thoughts, his emotions, and he finds the perfect place to do this at the Met. Black and white art photos illustrate the book as Clarence muses on one painting or another, one artifact or another, and lets the art elicit his innermost thoughts. He expresses these in his writing.

Great premise, yes, but the book gets off to a weak start. The writing can be good (enough), but never moves beyond that, and too often falls below that. Clarence can come off at times as whiny, too self-involved, and tends to spin around and around a great deal without making any progress in his introspection. We hear more about his angst in writing then in reading real content.

The first pages gave me the sense of reading a high school diary, dotted with exclamation marks:

“… the rare contrast between her syrupy soft skin—the color of pure, polished amber—and the thick, smooth waves of long, straight red hair that shone like bronze in the sun, and turned into undulating sheets of saffron in the shade, was just as extraordinary.” (Page 19)

Syrupy skin? Hair that is wavy and straight all in the same sentence? This kind of sloppy, effusive writing, unfortunately, occurs too often. Dialogue, too, tends to occur in one person’s long speeches, interspersed by the other saying, “And what happened then?”

Clarence writes about love and his failures in it. There is ex-wife Arietta (she of syrupy skin and wavy, straight hair) and their daughter, Alicia (this relationship, too, can be troubled as his daughter struggles with an eating disorder). There is a young girl, Katrina, who has a crush on him that evolves into what nearly turns into a sexual harassment case. There is a romance with a museum security guard, Carrie of India, that brings domestic abuse into the storyline—a topic that is very heavy indeed, but probably deserved a novel of its own, rather than to be an interlude of a few chapters here. There is also an odd one-night stand while Clarence is still married to Arietta that seems to want to be made excusable, when such things never are. Let’s just say that sleeping with a suicidal woman is just another form of abuse.

Less is more. Müller has a great premise here, and he might have gone farther and deeper with it, rather than wandering off on tangents. I suspect that had he restricted himself to writing only within the walls of the Met, keeping the storyline between a man and art, his heart and soul exposed by what he sees, and so projecting himself, this novel would have been that much more focused.

This is a novel with potential; had it been treated to a good, hard rewrite, trimming away the extraneous, it could have achieved a higher level of art in itself.

Eric G. Müller lives in upstate New York, teaching music, drama, English literature and creative writing. Meet Me at the Met is his second novel.

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