Reviewed: The Modern, Anna Kate Blair, Scribner
The Museum of Modern Art is the glassy heart of The Modern, Anna Kate Blair’s debut novel, where Australian transplant Sophia spends the last days of her two-year fellowship checking artworks for dust and taking Instagram pictures of different gradations of white. Here, the monastic halls of MoMA are a transitory space, where even senior curators are on fixed-term contracts, and promotion is a far-flung fancy.
For Sophia, the stakes are particularly high: she still feels the pull of New York City with an outsider’s romantic fervour, but her visa is about to expire. Blair, who herself once worked at MoMA, enlivens the setting with gossipy insight into a hotbed of professional tension. Higher-ups communicate through opaque niceties, and curators advise Sophia to drink in front of HR, so they know she isn’t pregnant. At one point she recalls a particularly absurd fundraiser for monied guests, where the museum’s garden is walled off for a ‘Styrofoam and Plexiglas’ simulacrum garden.
Despite the tactility of Blair’s enticing setting, the novel prioritises the circuitous angst of Sophia’s first-person narration. As she attempts to secure a permanent position in the city she calls ‘modernity’s centre’, she frets over ‘all [her] peers in universities, writing dissertations on MoMA’s own neoliberal agenda.’ When she reflects on the colonial history of New York and Australia, she can’t help but lament, ‘it was a type of grief that I found hard to bear, and so I flinched when I was forced to face it.’ Later, when she hears about the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting online, Sophia’s thoughts inexorably circle back to her own identity as a white bisexual: ‘I felt guilt alongside the nausea. I’d premised my initial empathy on the idea that this was my community, which was a weak form of feeling.’
This is a constant preoccupation in The Modern. Even if Sophia’s various displays of self-consciousness is something she describes as ‘key to modernity’, it’s a rigmarole of guilt that offers little insight into her troubled soul. This paralytic uncertainty likewise extends to her personal life, where Blair uses characters as blunt metaphorical instruments to represent Sophia’s fear of losing an imagined ethical credibility. Caught between her engagement to bland fiancée Robert and her sudden infatuation with Cara, an amateur artist who she meets while bridal shopping, Sophia oscillates between the pressures of compulsory heterosexuality and her desire for women. Marriage to the wealthy and dependable Robert would solidify her comfortable city life, yet she worries it will extinguish a vital part of herself: ‘I wondered what actually distinguished me from a straight person.’ Her burgeoning friendship with Cara, meanwhile, is devoid of erotic charge—Sophia spends most of her time doom-scrolling through the younger woman’s Instagram as she imagines alternate realities where she’s sexier, freer, more openly queer. These thinly-sketched vessels that represent the battle between stability and spontaneity only go so far, adding to the vaporous, static feel of Sophia’s life.
The only thing that genuinely activates Sophia is her worship of artists, although it often has little to do with their work and more with her idealisation of their lives. The late Abstract-Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan is a pole star, whose failed marriages and diaries act as a blueprint for being a modern woman. Similarly, photographer Nan Goldin’s pivotal 1985 series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is a subject for mimetic desire: ‘I wanted to learn, from Nan Goldin, how to live a queer life whilst remaining with Robert.’ Even though we are presented with rich, provocative histories of cutting-edge artists, casting them alongside these solipsistic observations have a strip-mining effect; they become diminished in favour of repetitive hand-wringing over ill-defined morals. It’s a shame that the vibrancy and devastation of 50s–80s queer New York—vividly memorialised by writers like Cookie Mueller, Patti Smith and Frank O’Hara—is but a pale afterimage in a book that so frequently invokes it.
Throughout the novel, Sophia attempts to pin down the many hazy definitions of modernity. Reflecting on MoMA’s rubric for acquiring modern art, she muses, ‘it could be a matter of style, of pushing forward into the future, of being avant-garde. In some cases, modern just meant new.’ But ‘self-consciousness’ is the definition Sophia returns to and obsesses over: she acknowledges complicity again and again, but flinches and never looks deeper. This may very well be the modern condition, but it stifles the possibility for provocative insight, neither plumbing the depths of the alienated subject nor presenting anything particularly new.
Unlike the prominent artists mentioned throughout, Sophia is a character who rejects the past and fears the future, situating herself within a bubble of passivity that excises her from her immediate surroundings; she does not form any emotional connections and neither does she develop any real positions. This ultimately leads to some dire emotional consequences, but they quickly get lost in the anxious world of The Modern.