THE COLORIST by susan daitch


one definition of a novel, say, is that which honestly tries to organize the chaos of thought into a semi-satisfactory, semi-consistent semantic machine of about eighty-thousand words. this definition might help us understand a book that’s mainly digressive in structure or one that fails to draw a moral conclusion.

only the simple and the pedantic want an art that purports to teach you something. or, as robert creeley said it: “Had I lived some years ago, I think I would have been a moralist, ie, one who lays down, so to speak, rules of behavior with no small amount of self-satisfaction. But the writer isn’t allowed that function anymore, or no man can take the job on very happily, being aware (as he must be) of what precisely that will make him.”

a big [sic] to the genderizing, but you get the point.

one is drawn to susan daitch’s magnificent novel because a reader can feel, can sense, the writer thinking as she writes. both to the reader and herself, the author is unpredictable and surprising. she is gratifyingly clever; she is free.

i think, because of this freedom, the book is capable of mysterious and beautiful passages that are wonderfully unanchored and yet, which in accretion, create a trusted, consistent experience… passages like the following which describes a uniquely modern state of desire, a ghost of love — a momentary and unpassionate desire:

She looked at a photograph of an attractive young man, not an advertisement, but almost. It was something passed by quickly, flipping through the pages of a book or a magazine. Laurel was drawn to the picture, although she didn’t turn back to it. She put the volume down and left the store. Even if the man himself stood near her in the store, she would have left. That kind of pursuit, whether she was its object or the pursuer, seemed unfathomable to her. It was something she was no longer capable of, she’d lost the language. As engaging or as easy as he or any random person looked, she knew she’d only feel embarrassed about it later (200).

i re-read this book after about fifteen years and i think it feels even fresher than when i first came to it… susan daitch’s fantastic novel tells the tale of julie greene and her boyfriend, eamonn, a weegee-admiring photographer. julie is a colorist, one who colors comic book panels for a living — specifically a comic book about electra, a heroine who can make duplicates of herself.

electra’s doubles, the comic book industry, eamonn’s photography — all allow a focused but continued and varied meditation on the artifice of representation, its constantly shifting mimetic, mythic and mystic functions. this meditation meanders and digresses while slyly and courageously never coming to a conclusion.

late in the book, Daitch writes:

Electra’s world had turned into a house of mirrors. She reflected or mimicked every situation she found herself in. I considered this condition a kind of disease, one which had lain dormant for years: she’d probably caught it in space. The first symptoms were awkward polyphonic parrotings of other people. Residents of Allen Street avoided Electra because she copied them involuntarily. She would instantly look and sound like each random passerby in turn. Her reflexivity reached such proportions that Electra was, for all intents and purposes, invisible. She had no control over herself. People saw themselves in her, which was confusing to both parties, or she blended in with buildings. It was an anti-solipsistic condition, and it explained why Eamonn’s photographs of her were blank. In the early stages of the disease, the camera was more sensitive to invisibility and mimicry than the naked eye (212).

daitch’s style is never ostentatious, almost modest. and yet, using subtle juxtapositions and transitions, this work creates all kinds of new holes of indeterminacy, weird and new thoughts.

an opposing but related definition to the above for the novel might nonetheless also be true: the novel as a totem — a symbol to ourselves that the ineffable unfolding of the world cannot (and should not) be made into a reductive narrative. the novel then can only exist as a fractal, unresolvable piece of the whole. THE COLORIST is thus a brave type of paradoxical work — a powerful and almost impossible novel that attempts to organize the unknowable and yet also one that refuses to do so.

buy it used or find it at your local library.


a nice interview with daitch by KCRW’s silverblatt (which takes place in 1990 and has great background from daitch — and also includes a historical bit …as silverblatt also interviews knopf editor robin desser, then an editor at vintage contemporaries, who speaks, it’s almost quaint, about the reasons a book would come out as a “paperback original”) :

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