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Monday, May 3, 2010


At the outdoor table of his Spanish villa overlooking a Mediterranean bay a sculptor in glass wraps his works for an important exhibition. Normally, he would perform such chores in his studio, but for reasons unstated he's chosen to work outdoors, on a blustery day, and against the wishes of friends who have enjoined him not to use the table as a workspace.

There are some lovely qualities to this opening scene. As a lover of anything to do with the Mediterranean, I can't help being drawn into the setting. I'm also drawn to this artist by his Romanian background (one that begs explaining, since his surname, Macek, is most common among Latin Americans) and by the distinct nature of his work. Though I've run into hundreds of fictional artists working in oils on canvas, and chiseling marble, so far I've met no glass sculptors. (One thinks of Chihuly, but he's no Romanian.)

The setting and the artist are engaging; the scene less so. For action, we have a man wrapping things, rather absentmindedly, while surveying the "visitors" (tourists?) as they struggle to preserve their hairdos while walking a windy promenade, and to dwell on critical receptions of his work. The protagonist is more wrapped up in his thoughts than in his wrapping.

Which brings me to one problem with this otherwise well-written opening scene: Mr. Macek's ruminations—assuming they're his ruminations and not the interjections of an intrusive author—feel unmotivated or irrelevant.

The second paragraph offers the first rumination, about Mr. Macek's daughter, who, we learn, like the visitors promenading below, has had her own struggles with her hair, black and kinky "when the style was for long and straight." While there's no question that these are Mr. Macek's thoughts, why would he think them? A short mental leap might get him from the people below and their hair issues to his own "wiry strands," but to get from there to women in general, and from women in general to his daughter and to her hair struggles takes many leaps, all by a man wrapping sculptures on a windy Spanish balcony for a major exhibition.

These kinds of seemingly arbitrary musings are the stuff of stream-of-consciousness. But since the technique touches only this one paragraph, its use here likewise feels arbitrary or accidental. It's one thing to plunge readers into a character's stream-of-consciousness; it's another to soak them for one paragraph then leave them high and dry.

In the third paragraph as the artist wraps "another piece for the show at the Museo d'Arte in Barcelona" (we're told—rather intrusively), we're treated to a Wikipedia entry summarizing past critical responses to his art, including a snippet review. The contrast between this and the earlier passage where the protagonist dwells on his daughter's kinks couldn't be greater. The first takes us into the character's psyche, the second is dryly objective.

If compelling reasons exist for Mr. Macek's choosing to work outdoors in blustery weather rather than in his studio, those reasons might form the spine of his interior monologue here. We know the protagonist is wrapping sculptures; we know he's on a balcony overlooking the sea; (we don't need to know, by the way, that the Mediterranean's waters are "turquoise," or that waves unfurl or undulate "as they reach the shore"); we do want to know about protagonist, about whom the most telling thing so far is his refusal to work indoors. Were the scene written from deeper in Macek's viewpoint, his resistance to his own studio might form the substance of a scene which, as written, though as carefully set as a jewel, lacks a thematic center or focus.

Alternatively, a second character might be introduced, a friend who arrives on the balcony and sees the artist wrapping his sculptures at the forbidden table, and reminds him of the injunction against his doing so. This would be the dramatic solution.

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