Brother on Sunday

“It’s a beautiful day,” she says. And she’s right.

In lieu of doing all the things I gotta do today, I started reading “Brother on Sunday,” a short story by A.M. Homes in the New Yorker.

he often thinks of himself in the third person—a dispassionate observer.

The story caught me off-guard. Not sure what to make of it. It strikes me as unusually self-conscious, but a story that at the same time masks or distracts the reader from its self-consciousness——with its conventionality. Lines like the above urge the reader to think of Tom, the protagonist, a plastic surgeon and amateur photographer, as an analogue or a figure for the author, of the artist.

“Because I met you,” he says, raising the camera like a punctuation mark.

The third-person story is really narrated by Tom, thinking of himself and his friends in the third person, “dispassionately” framing and observing them.

“And then I glanced at my mother’s easel and saw that she’d drawn everything but the woman. She’d drawn the table with the vase, the flowers, the window in the background, the drapes, but not the model.”

What is Tom’s subject that he’s painting around? Is it his friends, his brother, himself?

The story is self-consciously conventional. It seems aware of itself as “a New Yorker story.” A bunch of wealthy white East Coast friends who cheat on each other with each other drinking mimosas on the beach and talking about food, fitness, Sontag. Tennis or the boat? Their lives are empty and the conversation is supersuperficial — but does this really mean the story is a critique of this sort of life? It seems like a pretty easy target. (Other bloggers seem to agree.) Maybe it’s not about this preppy demimonde at all, but rather about, like, the challenge of representation? The contradictions inherent in all art: it simultaneously preserves and destroys, records and distorts. Or is this story just the New Yorker’s updated status quo, “middlebrow postmodernism”?

He imagines the boy painting the woman with lotion, and then using his fingernail to write his initials on her back. He thinks of a time in St. Bart’s, when Sandy was lying nude on the beach while he painted, and he picked up his brush and began making swirls on her skin. He painted her body and then he photographed her walking away from him into the water. In the sea, the paint ran down her skin in beautiful streaks of color. Later, one of the friends, the one with the boat, confessed, “I got hard just watching.”
“You should try it sometime,” he said. “With your wife.”
“Oh, we did, that night, but I didn’t have any paint. All I could find was a ballpoint pen. It wasn’t the same.”

The artist is a dispassionate observer, creating a fictional, artificial world that’s removed from real life. But real people, and the rest of the world, are implicated and included in art. The paint-brush touches the real skin of his wife. But why is a ballpoint pen — fiction, as opposed to painting, as opposed to photography — insufficient?

He thinks that it’s strange he can’t remember ever having tasted himself before.

Tom is going to have a New Yorker–style epiphany. He is going to turn the paintbrush on himself? Include himself in the shot?

He thinks about Botox and Restylane and lasering spider veins and resurfacing a face, and sometimes he feels like a conservator, like the guy he once sat next to at a dinner, who worked at the Met, touching up art works when they chipped or when the ceiling leaked on them.

This story begins with Tom injecting Botox into his own face. Self-conscious fiction uses the artifice of fiction on itself — it’s aware of this artifice, which adds another layer of artifice.

“I can’t prove that I meant what I said. You should take me at my word.”

Language is artifice. Communication is impossible. Your wife is cheating on you. You are your own unreliable narrator.

“When are you going to tell her?” he asks, watching himself talking.

Watching oneself talk is the most blatant form of self-consciousness.

“You ungrateful little… son of a…”
“Butcher and an artist,” Roger says.

Roger and Tom are the sons of a butcher and an artist. The writer is also the offspring of the butcher and the artist. The writer fixes the world, in multiple senses: fixing something so it cannot be dislodged, even by a team of horses, but also fixing — preparing, manipulating, cutting — the world as a butcher fixes your cut of meat, or like a surgeon fixes your fucking face. I wish this story was called “Lipstick on a Pig,” and was instead  about a prominent political blogger who is the son of a pig farmer and a Hollywood make-up artist, struggling to make a living wage and feed his family by blogging about the Supreme Court.

to-do list:

  • read walter benn michaels
  • get internet set up at home
  • go to work
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5 thoughts on “Brother on Sunday

  1. Pingback: Brother on Sunday

  2. Jawbone

    *(A long meditation that begins with the question): What about the blind but smart girl?
    Tom sympathizes with her blindness as a kind of being unable to shut out information, or seeing too much. At first I read that as a metaphor for self-consciousness and a critique of narcissism. I expect that Tom’s kind of self-consciousness, as we first meet it (with botox at the mirror), will have a similar kind of bleaching effect on his perceptions of those around him: that his blatant self-consciousness, i.e. his noisy internal monologue, drowns out the voices and reality of those around him. And in some way it seems to. Further proof, for instance, can be found in the second scene (on the beach), when Tom’s friends are introduced: “Around him, his friends talk… [unattributed blah di blah].”
    But then as the story continues it contradicts this sense of his self-consciousness. Tom is a clear observer. Where others see a scar and a missing breast, Tom sees Terri’s face, “a dance of emotion [terror, triumph, vulnerability]”. Tom’s brother _is_ dreadful, Tom’s dread then is justified and not–or, at least, not just–narcissistic jealousy as one might first imagine. What Tom ultimately minds about Sally’s crack about his social skills isn’t the observation of his flaw but the way it slights his love for her. What else? Tom’s friends repeatedly trust him enough to show him their privates for their health concerns: where the reader on first blush might think for a moment that one another is trying to seduce him, it eventually seems that he is available and caring–his diagnoses are accurate and unemotionally complicated.
    The story seems to me to argue for the artist-author as dispassionate observer. Tom, working in skin and collagen and paint and photographic bytes (and narration), is the artist in the style of a butcher–“dispassionate”, sensitive but unsentimental, etc. His brother Roger on the other hand is the butcher in the style of the artist: he has an eye for detail but, among all the girls, he never used to find anything to like, much less love (nothing, that is, until we discover, he likes their smiles—that most social feature. What it seems Roger likes most is to be liked).

    *The breast Tom draws in the figure drawing class finds it’s twin on Terri the cancer survivor. Maybe another metaphor of representation—i.e. the scene in which the artist learns to see. As a child Tom, captivated by desire and passion for the body, draws only the breast; having witnessed it as such, many years later Tom is then able to see past the breast to Terri, the person.

    * Borges argued that, were there any doubt that the Koran was an Arabian work, the absence of camels is proof. Conversely Tom raising the toilet seat to take a leak (4th paragraph) seems to me to establish that this story was written by a woman.

    Reply
  3. quilty Post author

    Dear Jawbone,

    I will never alter or amend your comments on this blog, ever — and that’s a promise.

    And, yeesh, way to call out my lazy Sunday reading! You are a sage. How many times did you read this story, may I ask? I probably should have read it at least twice before sprinkling my doo-doo petals all uponto the web.

    You’re right on all counts, here, I think — though I do find it hard to believe that the man who likes nothing more than to be liked decided to become — a dentist.

    “Artist in the style of a butcher — ‘dispassionate’, sensitive but unsentimental” — YES

    And that’s fascinating re: the breast that Tom draws finding its twin in the cancer survivor. Could one then say that the survivor’s missing breast has its twin in Tom’s mom’s lacunaic still-life? (Probably not) (I am simultaneously re-enrolling and re-dropping out of college right… NOW)

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Pages tagged "dispassionate"

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