Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Paint it Black by Janet Fitch

This book is thoroughly depressing, but so very well written that I quite willingly stepped into Fitch's carefully cultivated world of misery.

My primary goal in reading fiction is the element of escapism, and I judge the quality of writing by the ease into which I can slip into an existence other than my own. While iced in on a cold, rainy Saturday, I felt transported to LA, circa 1980, immersed in the decadent of punk rock / art scene.

Josie Tyrell came to LA with nothing but a desire to escape the tow yard in Bakersfield and her white trash family. While working as an art model, she met Michael, an art student and Harvard drop-out with famous, wealthy parents who wanted to live in the "true world". He wants to be part of Josie's world, one in which people take care of themselves, one in which he's not controlled by his parents and their history, he wants to be his own person for the first time in his life. Michael though, despite his desires, suffers from depression, more severe than he or Josie or his mother, Meredith, can understand.

One day he tells Josie he's going to his mother's house to paint and a few days later Josie receives a phone call informing her that he's been found dead in a hotel room, a gunshot to the head in an apparent suicide.

That's how the story begins. The rest of the novel is Josie's attempts to understand what happened, what went wrong, the signs she might have missed, a place to lay the blame. But instead she discovers more secrets and lies and confusion, and more questions than she will ever find answers.

Josie finds herself forming a bond with Michael's mother, the only other person who knew him. They cling to each other because no one else could possibly understand their shared pain. Josie is drawn into the world that destroyed Michael and is then faced with the decision to succumb or pull away.

Because of the superb writing, the characters in this story feel so real. Josie's memories of Michael's gradual slide into darkness, her fear and admiration of Meredith, and her struggle to continue a new life, one without the only person who ever made her feel real. Michael was the first person who didn't look at her as if she was trash, and yet, the more she learns about him, the more she begins to question what she believed was their love.

I suspect it could be the result of my own unstable mental state that I felt so connected to Josie. Not because I know anything about living in California or being an art model or having a boyfriend that committed suicide, but rather because I could relate to her determination to have something more, something better than her past told her she could have - even if that meant being left with nothing.

There's a scene near the end of the book when Josie's sitting in traffic wondering why she couldn't have been satisfied with something simple.
Pg. 345 - In an alternate universe, she would be going home from a day at the bank, the Auto Club, the State Farm office, thinking about her own kids and what she would make for dinner in her suburban kitchen in El Monte. Tuna casserole with potato chips crumbled on top. Her young husband picking them up at day care. What was so wrong about that? Something simple and basic, attainable. She wanted too much, that was her fault, not just Michael's love, but everything everything everything. Genius and wealth and culture, art and achievement...

I read that passage and immediately felt like I knew the character and understood everything she wanted. The burning a person feels when they escape a small town and yearn for something more, something so out of their reach. The easy way out is right there in front of you, but if you take that path, you know you'll never have a shot at what you really want. So you opt for nothingness rather than simple mediocrity.
Pg. 383: She liked the city, people close all around, crowds, the feel of something happening. Music, nightlife, being on the list, the girl everyone wanted to know – the possibility of more than dishes and diapers and the grocery store.

You hold onto that possibility as the world crumbles around you.

This is a story about people trying to pull away from that which controls them, without letting go, because they can't or they won't. This is about coming to terms with a past full of horror and degradation or allowing it to destroy you, actions and words that you can never take back, memories that you have to learn to live with, set them aside and move on. Most of all, this book is about trying desperately to find something beautiful in a world that is filled with ugliness. Josie didn't even know there was beauty in the world until she met Michael. But then Michael gave up his search, overwhelmed by the process, leaving Josie behind to continue looking on her own.

I really liked this book.

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