The box, the simple box, may be the art form of the 21st century. With or without its sixth wall, it promises a mystery; when its contents (or lack thereof) are displayed, some deeper mystery often remains. Past masters like Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp have inspired new generations of artists to fill rectangular solids with an assortment of found objects. Depending on your taste and perspective, this is either a form of sculpture or a short step up from the elementary-school diorama. The box is thus the darling of both the Tate Modern and the community amateur show: the bricolage celebrates vision rather than craft, suggesting to some that art is effortless, to others that it’s inscrutable. Meaning seems either elusive or all too obvious.
Gabriel Collins, the narrator of Stacey D’Erasmo’s new novel, “The Sky Below,” imagines his life as a series of such containers. He begins with the boxes and wrapping paper from which his mother builds elaborate mini-cities during his New England childhood; graduates in adolescence to shoeboxes full of pilfered knickknacks, “the kinds of things that would never be missed, that were treasure only to me”; and later embarks on a career as an artist. The objects he thinks of pasting into his works are varied and often grotesque: shreds of balloons, a belt buckle, teeth, hair, watch gears, a bottle of his own mucus, “pop-up line drawings” of male organs and sketches of 9/11.
Such assemblages of oddments have, of course, a long history. Beginning in the late 16th century, collectors demonstrated their command over the natural and artistic worlds in the cabinet of curiosities — a room, a set of shelves or even (yes) a box displaying whatever caught the collector’s fancy. Such are the roots of the modern museum. But as museums began to compartmentalize, then specialize, that sense of dizzying abundance was lost, and with it some of the pleasures of the unexpected discovery, the incongruous grouping or juxtaposition that might open up a new dimension of thought or experience. D’Erasmo recovers that pleasure in narrative form, presenting Gabriel’s life as if it were a series of cabinets of curiosities — of moments distilled into sets of objects that highlight but don’t define them.
From the outset, Gabriel insists on calling himself an average man: “I look familiar, though you can’t quite place me — I look like a lot of people you know, or used to know.” He takes a determined pride in his ordinariness, claiming that the tattooed bird on his hand is more memorable than his face. But literature, like art, displays unsuspected facets of the everyday, revealing how extraordinary it can turn out to be.
Sometimes it’s quite pretty, as when young Gabriel’s mother tents his bed with raspberry red silk and reads him stories from Ovid. He thinks she wants to change into a swan and take him and his sister away with her. He also imagines himself as Tereus, a man who changed into a bird, and remains fascinated all his life with feathered creatures. Hence the tattoo and some of his stranger moments, including days spent high in a sacred tree with members of a Mexican commune. At times, Gabriel even believes he’s turning into a bird. What he doesn’t admit (not even, apparently, to himself) is that Tereus is a terrible figure who raped his wife’s sister and cut out her tongue, then tried to murder both women. The avian metamorphosis was a punishment from the gods, not a reward.
It’s Gabriel’s father who leaves the nest first. After he drives off and doesn’t come back, Gabriel develops a taste for the forbidden. When his mother moves the family to Florida, the boy comforts himself by listening to his father’s old, staticky radio and sneaking into people’s houses to “try them on, haunt them a little” — always hoping to return to a version of his first childhood home. He develops into a blithe drug dealer, a high school ladies’ man and eventually a men’s room rent boy, giving the strangers who kneel before him “something special that they would take back, secretly, into their everyday lives.” He finds his artistic métier while attending a tiny college in Arizona, then moves to New York, where he acquires a significantly older lover (“Do I love him? Or is it just a daddy thing?”) and a stultifying job writing obituaries for a fading newspaper. He also ghostwrites for an aged novelist while regularly stealing valuable knickknacks from her. Yet when he falls in love, it’s with a house. Trying to finance a purchase, he blackmails a benefactor and buys himself some time by infesting the place with termites
In short, Gabriel isn’t easy to like. He repudiates his best friend when she decides to marry. He doesn’t even make a sympathetic invalid. When, at 38, he gets what his doctor calls a “lazy cancer” of the blood, he walks out on the family and friends who have gathered to help him and heads south of the border.
LL the same, it’s hard not to be seduced by this willfully selfish man, D’Erasmo’s most complex and accomplished character to date. (She is also the author of two previous novels, “Tea” and “A Seahorse Year.”) Gabriel may not be a great person, but in his hunger for expression, for a father, for a home, he embodies the deep yearnings and sense of entrapment that can make anyone act badly. After taking the subway to Brooklyn to see the house he wants, he gazes back at Lower Manhattan, where he works: “The river turned entirely gold, solidified. I could barely see the building now, it had dissolved into the last blaze of light, but I could feel the taut stretching, the hollow in my chest that pulled me toward it.” Later, the house pulls him in the other direction, promising the transformation he craves: “It was on its way, moving toward me, already lifting me. . . . I rowed as hard as I could toward that light.”
In moments like these, Gabriel’s voice is irresistible. He’s probably not much of an artist — he certainly meets with no worldly success — but he’s a brilliant narrator. Vibrant and precise, his storytelling is memorable not so much for its individual phrases (though plenty are exquisite) as for its overall sense of immersion into a distinctive world.
In Florida, Gabriel imagines himself inside an alligator: “It might be beautiful, too, gorgeous strong tendons and a translucent, cool, jade-green alligator heart. In case you ever got swallowed by one, you could look around in the jade-green light and see what was in there. Pieces of garden hose. Baby rattles. The bottom curve of the cool jade-green heart, like a sun hanging on the horizon of another planet.” Given such a description, who wouldn’t want to be eaten alive? And who wouldn’t long for wings after reading about Gabriel’s time in that Mexican tree: “I remember my wings. My wings! How they arched above my head. Their weight on my shoulder blades. Their conductivity: heat, cold, wind. Like getting a seventh sense.” But they also make his shoulders ache.
As in the best books (more rectangular solids), the meaning of these images seems to evolve as they repeat, bumping up against one another, altering slightly, until new combinations and minute adjustments lay bare the complex emotions within.Susann Cokal, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is the author of the novels “Mirabilis” and “Breath and Bones.”