Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Wednesday, February 10, 2016: Maximum Shelf: Tuesday Nights in 1980

Gallery/Scout Press: Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

Gallery/Scout Press: Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

Gallery/Scout Press: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Gallery/Scout Press: Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Tuesday Nights in 1980

by Molly Prentiss

It is New Year's Eve, 1979. In Buenos Aires, a woman named Franca is raising her son alone. The country is in the midst of the turmoil called the Dirty War; kidnappings are on the rise, and Franca is frightened: she has been baking cakes for an underground group that records the names of the "disappeared." In New York, a man named James Bennett has had a harder time than most finding his way in life: his synesthesia always made him exceptionally strange, as he refers to colors, sounds and smells no one else sensed. But he's finally made it, as an art critic for the New York Times. Also in the city, Raul Engales works night and day at his art, painting in poached studio space at New York University, a school he does not attend. He knows his work is better than any of what's being sold in the big galleries. If he could only get someone important to look at it.

Molly Prentiss's striking first novel, Tuesday Nights in 1980, covers one year, from December 31, 1979, through the final days of 1980. Says an art dealer with more influence than she perhaps deserves: "I've always found Tuesdays so charming, haven't you? I do everything on Tuesdays." The action tends to take place on Tuesdays, which sounds like a cumbersome and effortful device, but in fact flows smoothly and almost invisibly, following the lives of a few individuals in a city and an art scene big enough to swallow them. Tuesday Nights in 1980 is a sweepingly large and profound story about art, love and actualization, cleanly and beautifully composed.

The lives of Engales and James form the two main threads of story, with their fortunes rising and falling as precipitously as anything in 1980s' New York. James's success is born of the impressions other people's work makes on him: de Goya and Picasso's blue period both sound a bold, steady drumbeat; Bill Rice gives him a "nocturnal mood" and a headache; the paintings of Louise Fishman smell strongly of shampoo. "He felt gushes of wind and crawling ants, tasted burnt sugar and gazed at skies' worth of stars." Marc Chagall's work gives him a hard-on. Writing these impressions for a public audience gives him immense satisfaction and a little money, and helps him to accumulate a legendary and sought-after collection of "the pieces that made him hear beautiful music." Meanwhile, Engales sees the glimmering beginnings of the attention his work deserves. He finds a community: the grouchy woman at his art studio, the fellow creatives at "the squat" where he spends his free time and finally, crucially, a muse. Lucy is an innocent from Idaho who believes in omens, who steps out of a taxicab into a world of promise and finds what she thinks she is looking for in the artist. Then James and Engales each suffer a drastic, shattering loss that changes their respective abilities to create. And a small boy from Argentina appears in their lives, offering new varieties of pain, love and responsibility.

Tuesday Nights in 1980 portrays the arts scene as inspired and genius, and fraught with tension between creativity and the question of "selling out." James's weird and enchanting perceptions allow Prentiss to paint the visual arts colorfully, as well as fragrantly, noisily, brilliantly, tenderly and roughly. A central theme is the beauty of damage. "Wounds and deformities and cracks and boils and stomachs: this was the stuff that moved Engales... He could hear his father saying: The scratches are what makes a life." This is not a concept invented by Prentiss, but her characters struggle with and embody it in moving, new ways.

While always told from a third-person perspective, the focus changes from chapter to chapter among Prentiss's diverse cast: primarily James, Engales and Lucy, but supported by a number of equally fascinating and colorful associates. James's wife, Marge, is a woman who presents to him as a deep and glorious red, whose own creative career has been sacrificed to enable his. Arlene is a curmudgeonly painter friend to Engales, given to unconventional sartorial choices: a "long fish skirt and a coat that was somehow both puffy and flowy" or "a flowy dress with an outrageous pattern on it... eccentric cowboy boots and a trench coat of sorts, with many, many pockets." Prentiss's talent for characterization is prodigious, and matched by her delightful turns of phrase. The art collector who loves Tuesdays has "the kind of hair that was popular that year, a curtain revealing only the first act of her face: a queenly nose, confusingly colored eyes (were they violet?), cheekbones for days" and "a voice as simultaneously regal and flighty as her hair." She laughs "like a pretty horse."

A plot with multiple storylines involving so many characters is easily followed, because the people and events who form them are so memorable--but not to the point of caricature. No, James Bennett and Raul Engales and the rest are only as bizarre as their time and place, which Prentiss evokes perfectly: SoHo on the brink of devastating gentrification; artistic genius on the brink of commercialization or self-destruction, or both; and the insane, everyday choices made by regular people seeking love, identity and community but fearing to make the wrong move. Tuesday Nights in 1980 is a beautiful, poetic novel of ambitiously profound considerations, a large-scale drama in a series of small, perfectly rendered moments. --Julia Jenkins

Scout Press, $26, hardcover, 9781501121043, April 5, 2016

Gallery/Scout Press: I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

Molly Prentiss: Painting a World

photo: Elizabeth Leitzell

Molly Prentiss was born and raised in Santa Cruz, Calif. She has been a Writer in Residence at Workspace at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, at the Vermont Studio Center and at the Blue Mountain Center, and she was chosen as an Emerging Writer Fellow by the Aspen Writers Foundation. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the California College of the Arts, and currently lives, writes and walks around in Brooklyn, N.Y. Tuesday Nights in 1980 (Scout Press) is her first novel.

Do you have experience within the New York art scene?

It was mostly done by research. Most of my friends are artists or writers, but not in 1980. I went to graduate school at an art school, so I have been around a lot of visual artists, and my fiancé is a visual artist. Conversations with them often influenced the projects and pieces I referenced throughout my book. I go to a lot of gallery openings in the Lower East Side and SoHo with those friends. But I wouldn't say I'm an expert of any kind. A lot of it was googling and reading books at the Strand and some trips to the New York Public Library.

What about synesthesia? You portray James's sensations so vividly.

I don't have synesthesia, and I don't know anyone very well who has it. But I do think there are elements of synesthesia that exist within a lot of creative people's brains. I feel I have really strong associations: with days of the week having a certain color, for example, although I don't actually see those colors. Words pop into my head when I think of a certain smell or color. I often used my own associations to create James's. I was enthralled by the idea of synesthesia and I did tons of research on it. I read a particularly great book called Wednesday Is Indigo Blue. It includes charts made by people that have synesthesia, where they describe the exact color of every letter in the alphabet, or they talk about every date on the calendar and what it smells like. They see sparks or flashes before their eyes. They talk about it as if it's a screen in front of their eyes. They know it's their synesthesia at work, they know it's not "real" to the outside world. It was a really fascinating thing to look into, and I especially loved working with language surrounding James's synesthesia. It's my favorite way to write, to link one thing to another sort of haphazardly, but also in a way that feels organic.

Author Molly Prentiss and editor Alison Callahan discuss Tuesday Nights in 1980.

Your choices of subject and setting are exact and evocative. What brought you to this intersection?

You know, the novel has taken many forms throughout the last seven years. Many of them included much longer time periods, and more characters. An original draft had a very different central character, but then I started writing about his mother, and then I started writing about his mother's brother, who became Raul Engales, and a lot of that character's action ended up happening to Raul. But that shifted the timeline backwards a bit, to the late '70s, early '80s. And I realized that when I struck on that time period, something started happening. I found I was really interested in lingering there. And the same thing happened with the place setting. In previous drafts, large sections took place in Argentina, and eventually my agent (who I worked closely with to edit the book) and I talked about centralizing it in New York. That was the place where the book really came alive, where the action was really happening, and I could render it the most clearly, because I live here and have had such New York experiences and can speak to that the best. So both of those things happened organically. And the location and the time period ended up becoming central pillars of the book, but I didn't set off with starting to write a book in the '80s, specifically. I rooted the book in the characters first and the specific position in time and in place came later.

There was a ton of evolution. James in particular was always a thorn in the side of the book. He used to be a side character. In the beginning he didn't have synesthesia, and in another version he was going blind. I had to learn how to plot the book, move it forward and give it narrative drive, and I used James for that purpose a lot. He became a central character around which the book really revolves. So there've been many shifts in dynamics throughout the book, and ways that the plot and the characters have morphed in order to give the story more heft, or more direction, and those are things that I had to teach myself along the way, how to make the story link up and tighten up and push forward.

In a cast of such weird and interesting people, do you have a favorite, or one you most identify with?

It's hard. I really like Arlene, who is a side character, but she makes me laugh, just thinking about her. I like her relationship with Raul, which is simultaneously motherly and in some way romantic. I think she's sort of romantically interested in him. She's also sort of his mentor, and I like that relationship a lot. I ended up loving James, but he was so hard to write that at some points I really hated him. But in the end he wound up softer, more relatable and kinder than in the beginning.

What were the best and worst parts of those seven years spent writing your first novel?

There were many changes, probably just as many ups as downs, and many exciting parts within the actual writing. There are times when you're inside of a novel when something clicks, and you can feel it just working, bringing everything into place, and those moments are so thrilling. That's why you do the rest of the hard work. In terms of pitching the book to agents and selling it and all that, there were some crazy ups and downs. I queried my agent something like two years before I signed with her, and we finally signed and then worked together for three more years, so that was a super-long and arduous process. She was so great, and so helpful, but I would often leave her office in tears because she would have me reworking whole sections, and replotting, and there was a lot of grunt work and overhauls that were really difficult. But on the whole it was really great, to learn how to write the book.

What's next?

Well, I'm working on my second novel. I'm just in the beginning stages of brainstorming and conceptualizing. The full story is to be determined, but it's rooted in the way that I grew up, in Northern California in the 1970s, in a community living situation. It will have elements of that, totally fictional of course. --Julia Jenkins

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