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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Art Appreciation" by Fiona McFarlane

Each week I review the short fiction in the latest issue of The New Yorker. My doctor said it would clear up my seasonal allergies but no such luck...

Issue: May 13, 2013

Story: "Art Appreciation"

Author: Fiona McFarlane

Plot: Set in Sydney, Australia in the early 1960s, this is the story of how a young man's life changes after his mother wins 10,000 pounds (roughly $250,000 in present day U.S. dollars) in the lottery. The young man, Henry, almost immediately stops seeing his casual, weekend lover, Kath, and instead begins seeing a young woman named Ellie from his office. He assumes Ellie to be "better" than Kath, but doesn't have as much fun with Ellie. In spite of this, he eventually proceeds to ask Ellie to marry him. She accepts. At the end, Henry ends up sort of accidentally going to the racetrack with Kath and realizing, much too late, that Kath is exciting and interesting in a much more appealing in a way that Ellie will ever be. Sadly, he realizes Kath might be a better partner for him as well.

Review: I have to gush a bit and say I absolutely loved reading this story and I plan to read it a few more times even after this. One of my favorite literary genres is the "Angry Young Men" genre of post-WWII working class Britain. Although the main character is hardly "angry," and he doesn't work in a factory or live in the lanes of an industrial city in the U.K., the story works with essentially the same material and themes, primarily Class.

The title "Art Appreciation" stems from the fact that Ellie takes art appreciation classes at a local lecture center on Friday nights. Henry goes with her to one of the classes shortly after they begin dating, but never goes again and, in fact, gives Ellie some guff for taking the classes. He sees it as taking time away from him and he doesn't understand or connect with her need to broaden her mind. It's as if Henry's money has moved him into a different and (presumably) better social class, allowing him to date Ellie, but his mind will not make the same adjustment.

Still, the story is so well-crafted that we don't really hate or even dislike Henry for this flaw. Ellie, frankly, seems like a real drip and not that interesting. The way they begin their affair is painted as mechanical and almost routine; the author suggests that Ellie has heard of Henry's good fortune and immediately makes herself available to him. Not only does she make herself available to him, but from the very beginning she assumes a level of comfort and routine in their relationship that makes the whole thing sound bland and unexciting.

Not much is made of Henry's actual decision to stop seeing Kath and start dating Ellie, and yet this is the central point around which the entire story revolves. Henry is painted as a truly "emerging" bourgeois; he has working class tastes and attitudes but believes that money--and only money--is enough to make him a better person, and there to relate with "better" people. In fact, he explicitly states that he feels like a better quality person now that he's got more money.

Even his dreams are bourgeois to a fault; completely lacking in creativity or originality and totally driven toward comfort and the promise of ease. We want to be happy for him when he dreams of "days with Ellie by the Harbour" and "picnicking and maybe sitting on the water in a little boat" (those sound like pretty nice things to do, after all) but we wonder what he and Ellie will have to talk about, if anything. If Henry chose to attend her art appreciation classes (if, in other words, he were a different person) they might have something to talk about. However, the relationship between Henry and Ellie is not going to be one of shared interests and mutually-participatory growth.

Henry wants the wrong things, or rather, he does not understand that the things he wants won't make him happy. Even Kath, during their trip to the racetrack, toward the end, says to him, "For a man who talks big, you have no ambition." She was referring to his betting style, the fact that he does not risk enough money, but she might as well have been referring to the way he is living his life. Ellie may be boring, but at least she seems to aspire to a more stimulating life of the mind. Henry, on the other hand, doesn't even know what to aspire to outside of appearing like a big shot. We sense that Henry is going to make the transition into his new, more wealthy life, only to say, "Okay, now what?" He may turn to alcohol or infidelity or even workaholism in order to fill the void left by that question, but there will most certainly be a void.

Evidence of Henry's impending unhappiness is littered throughout this story. On a walk with Ellie, he inexplicably plunges his arm (fully clothed in his suit) into the cold water of a fountain, seemingly out of frustration that she won't sleep with him. To me this signals that he's acting out. Only question will be, how much can Ellie keep giving in, in order to calm the flames. What happens when the flames get bigger and he starts acting out in more destructive ways?

When he goes to the racetrack with Kath he feels an excitement at being with her. She is energetic, independent, men notice her. He also watches how she handles herself with confidence and exuberance during her first time at the race track, while imagining what it would be like to take his fiancee Ellie there: boring. He also finds himself uncomfortable around the noise and crowds of the racetrack, which used to make him lonely, and which drove him into Kath's arms for companionship. But the money has provided an artificial balm to his loneliness, and therefore he  now seeks status in a mate instead of comfort and love.Henry has visions of what his life would be like with Kath instead of Ellie and, frankly, that picture looks a lot more colorful, more sustaining, and more real.

We are left with the strong sense that Henry and Ellie's will end up a sad and loveless marriage or, at the very least, an unfulfilling and emotionally stagnant one. The windfall of money that came into his life actually seems to have de-railed his life instead of helping him. But we don't really know, and that's another beautiful thing about this story.

It seems almost unnecessary to point out that Henry tries to hook up with Kath after their visit to the racetrack, and that she denies him, asking instead for a loan of money. Henry treated her rather cheaply in throwing her overboard the moment he got some money in his life, however, she is not cheap. In fact, she sets the boundaries for Henry, and kind of puts him in his place, saying (essentially) "you used me, now I'll use you." And it is significant that she does not sleep with him or even allow him the slightest advance. In my opinion, it shows that she had some deep feelings for him.

I could go on and on about this story and probably write a piece twice the size of the story itself, I liked it so much. If I had a fiction class I would teach this story. Thank you, Fiona McFarlane.


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