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Book Review: Bruce Bauman's "Broken Sleep"

By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, MAY 2016

Gone with the Wind meets Infinite Jest meets Lust for Life meets Off the Grid meets Great Expectations meets The Corrections in this sweeping novel of epic human flaws and unwieldy intergenerational destiny set against the paradisiacal dystopia of the late-20th century American art world — oh, dear.

Reviewing Bruce Bauman’s latest novel Broken Sleep is a challenge — maybe even an impossibility. It's more of an undertaking than a story. At 620 pages it’s almost a dare. Its lifeblood is a kaleidoscopic richness of detail whose textured wit is the very thing most at risk of being lost in summarization. In structure the story is not particularly experimental though its timeline editing is choppy in a certain kind of cinematic manner in which flashbacks and multiple points of view and recovered memories disrupt the linear but cohere into a full picture-puzzle — eventually. The plot twists and turns like a languid thriller, if not exactly cloak and dagger then the psychological equivalent.

It takes place in the art world but it is not insular. Knowledge of the names and dates that light up the map are useful but not required. Being good at the game of art-world roman-à-clef makes the game richer perhaps (and don’t we all keep an eye out for the characters playing us); but such insight is no more required than is a law degree to enjoy John Grisham. Bauman’s gift for balancing playfulness with historical accuracy, for naming figures with an expressively poetic flair, and for hanging the narrative armature on the believable private scandals of the iconically famous. For example, the theory that Broken Sleep’s mater familias, Salome Savant, may have been the illegitimate child of Greta Garbo and Marcel Duchamp. Actually, Greta is her mother. Actually, parental lineage, adoption, abandonment, and genetic inheritance are the primary forces propelling the story forward through the generations. Because while the choice of setting gives the author free reign to be as surreally mannerist, eccentric and mod-goth as one can be in describing the movements of the characters, the story itself is straight-up classic American novel. It's a weird book about weird people that are easy to love but hard to like. There’s more than a hint of Spy in the House of Love.

Bauman also has a knack for the challenges of writing about art in this context. The main character is a legendary contemporary artist. At certain points, her work needs to be described, and her motivations need to be expressed in the first person. (Each character benefits from Bauman’s channelling of the full throttle vernacular of their individual voices.) Bauman needs the art in the book to not only be recognizable, believable, and memorable, but to mean something specific when it’s time to move the story with it. That kind of aesthetic reverse engineering is no easy feat, whether in first person or omniscient narrator, or switching between them. Along with switching between narrative perspectives, Bauman also splices timelines, like 3-D chess, or Pulp Fiction. It should be a tempest but when you relax into it, you realize it’s the fractal pattern of a fractured consciousness, and develop a patience to await the unveiling of the final mysteries. By the time you and Moses reach the end, you’re already casting the film version. WM

Shana Nys Dambrot

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine, Contributing Editor to Art Ltd., and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Huffington Post, The Creators Project, Vs. Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Montage, Desert Magazine, LA Review of Books, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for art books and exhibition catalogs, curates and/or juries a few exhibitions each year, sometimes exhibits her photography and publishes short fiction, and speaks in public at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. An account of her activities is sometimes updated at sndx.net.

 

Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff

 

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