Indefinite, Half-attained, Unimaginable Sublimity
"Real paintings based on my descriptions of fictitious paintings inspired by his real paintings."
Sometime in 2009 I asked my friend Becket (who in the art world goes by Becket MWN) if I could pay him to make me a painting. I had a steady paycheck for the first time in my life; buying a painting from a working artist I knew and admired felt wonderfully grown-up. I told him to make whatever he wanted.
A few months later, a package arrived in the mail with this painting inside (captured here, and inevitably distorted, by a Google Pixel 4a):
On the back, there’s a handwritten quote from Moby-Dick. It’s from the passage describing Ishmael’s experience, at the Spouter Inn, of an oil painting so old and dirty he can’t tell what it’s meant to represent. In the end, he decides that it’s a whale impaling itself on the masts of a ship, but we have reason to believe this has as much to do with his preoccupations than anything else.
In the 11-plus years since, I’ve hung the painting in eight different writing spaces, from a literal closet to a corporate rent-a-room. It’s become a part of my process in ways I’m sure I understand only partially.
The most explicit example came in 2011. I was living in Wilmington, North Carolina, and I’d just started writing what would become Planes (at the outset, it was titled To Mayfaire, lol). I’d begun with very little planning, knowing only that I was fascinated by the presence of a CIA-created “private” airline in North Carolina, and that airline’s roles in post-9/11 torture programs. Somehow, I thought, this was an entry point for a productively “new”––or at least good––of War on Terror novel. But how? I couldn’t really say, and was trying to find out via lots of unstructured “just writing to see what happens.”
At some point, this led me to a character: a painter, one who was traveling to North Carolina, hoping to use the presence of CIA airlines in the state to––you guessed it––make a new sort of War on Terror art. Writing about a painter meant describing their paintings. Becket’s painting was right there, hanging above my writing desk. You can see where this is going.
Over the next couple years, and alongside other work on the novel, I wrote ~150 pages about this imaginary painter––her life, her work, her approach to art in general and to War on Terror art specifically. I dreamed about someday paying Becket to make more paintings specifically for the book–– real paintings based on my descriptions of fictitious paintings inspired by his real painting––and maybe even managing to include them in the book when it was published. Outlandish as these dreams sound, they made the project feel real to me, and helped keep me going.
At some point, though, the painter began to slip out of the book. At first, I didn’t even realize it was happening. When I did, I was resistant: I’d worked hard on this character, filling her mind with what felt like elegant digressions on explicitly post-9/11 art and its shortcomings. But what I was starting to realize was that I didn’t want to narrate my own thought process as I tried to make something new. I wanted to try making something new myself and put it out there, minus the throat-clearing.
Now the book is done. The publication date set. Seven months ago, we moved again. Last weekend, we finally tidied the office enough that we can actually work there. Becket’s painting was the first thing I hung on the wall.
Melville writes, of the painting in the Spouter-Inn. “Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.”
I’m starting another novel now, and already, again, Becket’s painting is a portal that draws me into a book that doesn’t yet exist, and beyond, to all the things we can never name.
- As I wrote in my last update, there’s a long excerpt from Planes in the current issue of The Point for anyone who just can’t wait for May 31––or wants a preview before they plunk down their hard-earned cash.
- LitHub recently identified the book as one of its “most anticipated” 2022 releases!
- It’s available for pre-order. You can pick an online option from the publisher’s page, search for it directly at your preferred favorite online store, or––my favorite option––personally request it from your favorite local bookstore.
- Don’t forget to look up Becket (becketmwn.com).
Be in touch,