Francine Prose and Doon Arbus Talk Museums, Revision, and the Objects That Give Our Lives Meaning
A Conversation with the Author of The Caretaker
Francine Prose, author of 21 works of fiction, joins Doon Arbus, an American writer and journalist, in a conversation on museums, revision, and Arbus’s debut novel, The Caretaker, a tale of devotion, enlightenment, and the objects that give our lives meaning.
Francine Prose: All right. So let’s do the hard part first. Here’s what I thought listening to you the other day talking to Hilton Als on the McNally Jackson Zoom event, I was thinking about how back in the day before they did these “In Conversation With…” things and you’d go out there all alone—you know, lonely warrior—to do a bookstore reading, and it was very clear to you, because you were the only person there who knew you, or [laughter] I mean the only person who knew what the book was about. So you felt compelled to say this is a book about… I don’t mean about-about, I mean, like, About. Whereas if you’re talking to someone in conversation—
Doon Arbus: Mm-hmm.
FP: —you don’t ever feel compelled to say what the book is “about” because someone there knows. You know what I’m saying?
FP: Okay. So I’m gonna pretend—because I think it’s a good idea—I’m going to pretend that I don’t know what the book is about. On the stupidest level, the stupidest “what happens” level, just as if you were not in conversation, and you were, you know, talking to a bunch of… I don’t know what—fans, homeless people, the way we used to—
DA: Homeless people?
FP: Well, that happens. Bookstores were a warm place to be.
FP: What would you have said? And again, just on the stupidest level, this is what happens in the book.
DA: Okay, so I know this is cheating a bit, but among the many lovely words you used in what you wrote about the book was the word “philosophical,”—even better, actually, “subversively philosophical”—which strikes me as both surprising and accurate, and which, in answering this dreaded question, I mean to embrace. Or cling to.
Now for the hard part: A man who has been sort of at loose ends in his life suddenly gets the opportunity to serve the person he most admires in the world, a wealthy eccentric collector named Dr. Charles Morgan, someone he has never met, but with whose work and whose influential writings he is very familiar. The opportunity presents itself in the form of Dr. Morgan’s unexpected death, which leaves the strange private museum to which he has devoted his life in need of a caretaker. Hence, the title.
After subjecting himself to a fairly hostile interview process conducted by members of the Board, who consider him—perhaps with good reason—generally ill-suited for the job, the man is finally hired, thanks to the intervention of Dr. Morgan’s widow, his sole advocate. When the book begins, the caretaker has spent more than twenty years in his chosen position, attempting to fulfill—
FP: And what exactly is the job? And what is the vision?
DA: Well, okay, in addition to doing whatever is necessary to preserve and care for Dr. Morgan’s museum and its individual objects, a significant aspect of his job is to conduct tours of the place and its collections for the small groups of people who come to visit.
The museum is filled with—I want to say, a cacophony—of objects intended to defy the notion of hierarchy, everything from a Durer portrait to a spatula, from a human skull to a plastic coffee cup lid, or, say, a meteorite, a wire hanger, a chewing gum wrapper, a pair of dueling pistols—well, you know, you get the idea. In the way these disparate objects—each presumed to possess its own history and its own unique totemic power—are placed in relation to one another, sometimes in opposition, sometimes in collusion, purports to illuminate the fundamental nature of existence. This—at least in the caretaker’s eyes—was Dr. Morgan’s mission. And it is now his own. The caretaker’s, I mean. His goal is the ultimate enlightenment of even the most casual visitor to the museum.
I was thinking about how back in the day before they did these “In Conversation With…” things and you’d go out there all alone to do a bookstore reading, and it was very clear to you, because you were the only person there who knew you.
FP: Excellent. So—
DA: Does that sound like the book that you didn’t read? [laughter]
FP: That’s the book I didn’t read. So I was thinking this morning—Oh, one thing I wanted to ask you. Have you, have you ever been to a museum anything like this?
FP: Was it in Barcelona?
DA: There must be so many.
FP: I bet there are.
DA: Yeah, I think there are. There’s the Soane’s Museum…
FP: Oh, yes. In London.
DA: Yeah, well, yeah. Um, and there’s one in, damn it, um, like Pennsylvania. And I can’t
FP: With the freaks and bottles collection? Is that the Mutter Museum?
DA: Well, of course, that too. [laughter]
FP: That one’s dear to my heart, right?
DA: Oh, yes, and what I was thinking of before is in Doylestown in Pennsylvania, the Mercer Museum, which is mainly devoted to tools, but has, if I remember right—was it a sled or a carriage hanging from the ceiling?—stuff like that. And then a little bit the Barnes Foundation, but that was a different, much more classic sort of art collection. But that did have the burning issue of
FP: Right. Their legacy problems.
FP: Right. No, because there’s one in Barcelona. The Frederic Mares Museum. It’s two or three floors. On the ground floor it’s all these gothic crucifixes, so beautiful. And then you go up and the guy saved everything. Like cigar wrappers, fans, combs, playing cards. It’s fantastic. And part of what’s interesting—and it’s also what’s interesting in the novel—is that it’s about the obsession as much as it’s about the things that the obsession collects.
DA: Yes… and the belief that these objects, regardless of their supposed value in the outside world are potent, have something to tell or reveal if they’re treated properly and are given the appropriate sort attention. It’s an obsession with something much larger and more fundamental than—
FP: This time reading it, I don’t know, maybe it’s that it’s autumn or the full moon, but I was struck by how much it’s about mortality. It’s so suffused throughout everything in the book. Even from the beginning, the caretaker’s discarded career ambitions. One of them was to be a pathologist! You know, as the daughter of a pathologist, that kind of rang a bell.
I hadn’t particularly thought of it that way but speaking of bells ringing, it certainly rings a bell. In the caretaker, seeking respite from what might have become his own life. The building that, unlike those around it, has inexplicably survived destruction. The objects themselves, redolent of the remains of that which is no longer present. But maybe the sense of mortality lurking under everything is a bit like what we call real life, no?
FP: I wanted to ask you, how long did you work on this? Because I had a feeling that you were working on this even when I met you, which was what, ten years ago? Is that true?
DA: Not quite. But I think maybe soon thereafter. And, you know, it took an embarrassingly long time. I don’t know why, whether for good or bad reasons. Or both.
FP: So how long was that?
DA: I think about eight years, eight
FP: Because I remember at one point—okay, this is a question that has nothing to do with anything—I remember at one point, I said, “Oh, how’s it going?” And you said, “Oh, I’m kind of stuck trying to figure out how to get these characters out of a room.” I mean, you know, there are tours of the collection that happen during the novel. And the most striking tour, the—I don’t know what you call them—“tourists?”, are convinced that they can’t leave. I mean, it’s like that Bunuel film (The Exterminating Angel).
The belief that these objects, regardless of their supposed value in the outside world are potent, have something to tell or reveal if they’re treated properly and are given the appropriate sort attention.
And I remember giving you some flippant advice, like, “Oh, you just put in a space break, and then you don’t have to get them out of the room.” But that isn’t what you were talking about, was it?
DA: No. I think I felt that once they had remained in the room that long, enduring what they had to endure—which was a lot—and yet still finding themselves unable to leave, what could possibly happen that would manage to set them free? The whole time writing the novel felt like a process of devising solutions to what seemed like insoluble conundrums with hidden clues, and those solutions once found turned out to constitute new obstacles to whatever might come next. It was like some strange board game or like a jigsaw puzzle in which only one thing would suffice but it could only be discovered by default, by casting about and saying no, this doesn’t fit, this doesn’t make sense, until you’d eliminated everything but the one thing that seemed to have been preordained all along. I guess I just felt—well, I felt it had to be believable that they would finally manage to leave because the whole thing in the room did, you know, feel like “No Exit.” [laughs]
DA: Weirdly enough, after the fact, after they did somehow finally manage to get out of there—I mean, space breaks are very nice… [laughter]
FP: [laughing] Underappreciated.
DA: Yeah, but they don’t solve the problem. The reader still needs to feel they know, or at least can intuit, what may have happened in that empty space. In retrospect, I thought this was as close as I probably would ever get to something with political overtones because I realized that their
FP: Something about it reminds me—you know that movie “Force Majeure”? You know, the one about the avalanche?
FP: The one about—it’s not that long ago—the family that goes on a skiing vacation, Scandinavian family, and they go on the skiing vacation and there’s an avalanche that comes toward the place—the family is having some meal in a restaurant. And the father grabs his cell phone and runs. You haven’t seen that?
FP: Oh, you should see it. Anyway, there’s a scene near the end where it’s very much about the small group versus one person taking action and the way in which the group is paralyzing.
One of the things I loved in the novel—I mean, speaking about the puzzle and the clue—was, okay, you know, the sort of normal expectation, whatever that is, is that you get to the end of a novel and the mysteries are going to be solved or you’re going to find out the underlying secret that’s been withheld or… And yet you do this thing where you just introduce more mysteries kind of near the end, if not at the end, more mysteries, and then that’s it. I mean, there’s no suggestion that the reader rethink the novel through the lens of this rather serious and important additional information.
DA: [laughs] Right. It doesn’t pretend to answer any open questions. It may simply expand them.
FP: I thought that was such a brave thing to do, you know, just to—whatever that expectation is on the part of the reader—to just not give in to it, you know.
DA: What I thought was maybe brave or daring in the sense you mean was to announce about two thirds of the way into the book—although at the time I wrote it I didn’t know it was two-thirds in because I didn’t know how much was going to come after—that if this were the end, and perhaps it was but nobody knew it yet, then whatever followed was nothing more than an epilogue. And a lot of pretty major stuff follows. That paragraph just sort of got itself written.
I don’t know if this is related to what you were saying, and maybe it’s different with different books, but how often when you’re writing do you, or in what sense do you, feel in control? And in what sense do you feel in the service of what’s in control of you?
FP: [laughs] Well, you hope to feel in the service of what’s in control of you. I mean that’s the reason to do it. I think. I mean, that’s the main reason. It’s like, you know, it’s the best thing if you are not there and something else is doing it. You know, that’s why the metaphor of taking dictation—I mean, I used to say, “Oh, I’m really like an executive secretary,” you know, taking dictation. Those are the great moments. I mean, when you feel like you’re in control, it’s more likely that you’re in control the way Sisyphus was in control. [laughter]
FP: Whoa, this thing’s heavy—[laughter]
The whole time writing the novel felt like a process of devising solutions to what seemed like insoluble conundrums with hidden clues, and those solutions once found turned out to constitute new obstacles to whatever might come next.
FP: —and it’s gonna be heavy tomorrow in the same way. So, you’re right. You don’t know the answers. You don’t know the answers. But then, I think in revision, there comes a point—and maybe this is what I mean by brave—there comes a point where you go, Am I going to be able to get away with this? And that doesn’t seem to have bothered you. You did get away with it. You obviously did, but it’s not like—it’s not like you had that little Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder saying, You have to explain how this affects everything else. Or you should have put it earlier in the book and then we would have, gone, Oh, okay, I get it. But it’s not like that.
DA: I suppose I’m pretty suspicious of explanations in general. They pretend to do away with the imponderable, but mostly they’re just an excuse to dismiss it and sweep it under the rug, you know. So in that sense, it suited me that the accumulation of information doesn’t necessarily really lead you anywhere.
FP: You can look at it this way, you can look at it that way, but they don’t call it a mystery for nothing. It’s a mystery.
DA: I thought that the relationship between the caretaker and the man he’s serving, the dead man he’s serving, was a little bit like the challenge of falling in love when the person you’ve fallen in love with is at one and the same time intensely familiar and utterly strange. And what the faller-in-lover sort of wants or needs to do is to get closer, to eliminate that distance, or at least to make it smaller. And in doing that, risks destroying the very thing that generated the attraction.
DA: So I don’t know why I brought that up just now, but I think that’s a lot of what’s going on in the book. Where are the boundaries between you and someone—maybe even some thing—you intensely care for?
FP: You mean, the—what do I want to say?—the respect for the mysteriousness?
DA: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And the dangers inherent in not.
FP: When you were talking about books that you read that might have influenced you—and you mentioned Absalom, Absalom, and I thought, Is she kidding? I mean, I can’t think of a book
FP: Absalom, Absalom, you have to dig around to figure out what’s going on, who’s speaking and so forth, whereas this book is lucid at every point. Which seems to me a basic distinction. Don’t you think?
DA: Well, maybe the books that have the greatest impact on you have nothing to do with what you could—or maybe even what you want to write. Did you hate it?
FP: Absalom, Absalom? No, I loved it. I completely loved it, but if someone put a gun to my head now and said, “You’re going to have to reread Absalom, Absalom ” I’d be, you know, like, James’ The Ambassadors… “Oh, no!” If you put me on a desert island with James’ The Ambassadors…
…I’d probably have to start swimming. The thing is, it’s interesting to me that unlike everybody I know, you seem to belong less to a specific time and place.
FP: I mean, you just don’t seem to quite be of the moment or rather, you’re your own moment. And the book has that quality. I mean, if you were to just at some point take off the copyright page, and the cover, and put it in some library, and you know, take it out of the library in 50 years, I think the reader would have a hard time telling exactly when it was written. Don’t you think?
DA: Yeah, except for a few clues.
FP: Except for a few clues. Which the reader would have to dig for. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Virginia Woolf, I always bring up her work as an example of… I mean, not The Waves—when it comes to The Waves, you might as well read Absalom, Absalom.
But her essays in particular. And then Mrs Dalloway. I keep resorting to that word “lucid,” for which I think the reader is incredibly grateful. Lucid without being overly simple.
DA: I guess I’m sort of surprised that I would have achieved lucidity by what seems a very circuitous route. [laughs].
FP: No, I don’t think you could read this book and not understand, not understand even on some simple level what’s happening.
FP: Okay, stupid question: Of those eight years, how much do you think was just kind of first draft-y and how much do you think revision-y?
I think in revision, there comes a point—and maybe this is what I mean by brave—there comes a point where you go, Am I going to be able to get away with this?
DA: I only wrote one draft.
FP: Get out of here! I never believe people when they say this. Really?
DA: I couldn’t get from, you know, A to B without feeling like, Okay, A is done. I don’t have to revisit it.
FP: Actually, I know one other writer who does that. She doesn’t revise. She doesn’t go ahead until she—It’s so strange to me it’s because the only way I can trick myself into doing it is by saying, well, this is just—
DA: I’ll fix it later?
FP: I’ll fix it later. And also, it doesn’t even have to make sense. Or what if I’m forgetting the characters’ names from one chapter to the next, you know, I’ll deal with it—
DA: I mean, you pointed out things where, you know, a left-hand had turned into a right-hand, that sort of thing.
FP: Yeah, but I mean that’s just glorified copy editing, really. But it just seems to me that I’ve always relied on revision as a technique for making writing less frightening.
DA: I feel like I could never go back there, you know, and I could never put it together differently. Although I must say that pretty early on I had what I thought of as the last paragraph. so, I kind of knew all along that I had to get there, because I wasn’t going to let that paragraph go.
FP: And at some point, did you have an idea that that was the end?
DA: Yeah, I thought that was the end. And then, as it turned out, there was a little more of an end.
FP: Did that make it easier? That you knew sort of what the end was?
DA: Oh. Well, I’m not sure. Not necessarily because I had to justify the end which had sprung into being on its own, with no relationship to where I was in the book, demanding I make my way toward it sort of blindfolded. So in a way, it may have made it harder because it was like feeling for something that seemed both elusive and inexorable that kept saying, This is where you have to go. [laughs]. Like a trapeze artist, with no choice but to reach out for the only thing that will save him from falling.
FP: But somehow you made it seem inevitable. I mean, where else was it going to go?
DA: Yeah, exactly. Well, maybe it was preordained somehow, by something wiser than the author. That’s what I mean about being a servant to—
FP: [laughs] The one you’re taking the dictation from. You know that great Philip Guston quote, we probably talked about this a million times—that great quote from Philip Guston… it’s in that documentary and I always get it wrong—but he talks about going into the studio and all these people are there with him in his head, his critics, his public, his wife, his gallerist, his blah, blah, blah, blah. And, he says, “And then, when I start working, one by one, they leave the studio. The public, the wife–” and he says, “And then if I’m really working, I leave the studio.”
FP: That’s the great thing about it. Those are the moments you hope for. So, how do you
DA: I’ve done very few and the ones I have, I’ve been sufficiently on the outskirts that I could leave without disrupting the whole thing. But again, this tour in the book never really made me think of any that I had been on. I mean the caretaker’s ambition for what he needs to achieve is so outsized. He really believes he has the power and the responsibility to change everybody’s life… [laughing]… by hook or by crook, compelling them to recognize the essential nature of things.
FP: Well, I mean, it’s the faith in the value of things that goes all the way through the novel. I mean it’s fantastic.
DA: I want to talk about the narrative voice or the narrator. I found in this voice a way of knowing everything, but not deeply, and having to respect the unknowables. And that seemed very crucial to me. I thought of this as an omniscient voice, but one with a very limited vision and a very disciplined sort of reluctance to intrude, one therefore that could wonder about things and do a lot of supposing and didn’t have to be the authority on what actually happened or on what was really going on in anybody’s head. Rather like God in a way: detached, observant, ineffectual, a bit bemused.
FP: I don’t think there is such a thing as an omniscient voice. Every voice has a personality. And the voice makes choices because of what—or who—the voice is, about what can be said or what can’t be said or how much freedom there is to do the kind of thing you’re talking about, making suppositions and asking questions and so forth. I really can’t think of a voice of any novel I like that—I mean, yeah, third person, whatever that means. It means not first or not second.
DA: Yeah, right.
FP: I mean the voice of the novel, it is like another character. It is like another character. It just is. Oh, I know what else I wanted to ask. There’s—toward the end in the letter, there’s this sort of complicated reflection on guilt, on the subject of guilt.
FP: Which is again [chuckles], a sort of big one to take on near the end of the novel and then just to sort of let it float there. So what about that? I mean, I don’t know. Again, no temptation to like hover over it more? Not that I think you should have, but it was just interesting to me that there it just was.
DA: Well, it seemed like this whole letter was sort of—at least, after it gets started—was pouring out. I mean, it’s really the only place in the book where it pours out.
I thought of this as an omniscient voice, but one with a very limited vision and a very disciplined sort of reluctance to intrude.
FP: It’s a confession. It’s a huge confession.
DA: Yeah, yeah.
FP: And then a confession saying, Well, guilt is sort of beside the point.
DA: No, not beside the point. Guilt is an attempt to assert power in the face of a lurking sense of helplessness over something that has happened. I think I really do feel that. Guilt is an attempt to claim responsibility for things that are usually beyond your control by saying, rather arrogantly, It’s my fault, I am the cause, I could have prevented it or made it otherwise. Which I think mostly isn’t so.
FP: I’ll have to remember that.
Doon Arbus’s The Caretaker is available now from New Directions.
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