An Imitation of Life, by Laura Solomon (Proverse Hong Kong, 2013), 296 pp., n.p.
Local oddity Celia relays her eye-popping adventures with startling clarity. All the more surprising considering the difficulties she experienced since being left on a doorstep as a baby. Celia is a giantess, she also ages at three times the rate anyone else usually does. Then she falls in love with photography.
Lurid and amusing incidents ensue, with well-realised odd-bods involved, and in a cliché-ridden voice ringing true nonetheless, as many do naturally speak (or write) in the vernacular.
Eventually, An Imitation of Life develops into a fantastic celebration of the redemptive qualities of art itself, while also slyly poking fun and criticising some of its self-promotional aspects. Perhaps this book is simply the tale of an outsider who triumphs. But Solomon’s grotesque giantess also never loses her disdain for pretension and the narrow minded, nor her cynicism about the business side of the art world, and how politics sneakily affect daily life. By creating someone who looks quite unlike most well-known living Western artists, too, Solomon allows Celia to explore, expound and create, with refreshing freedom and insights. Solomon’s stories often do far more than wildly entertain, and they’re not usually about propping up a perceived status quo.
A detailed, sometimes hilarious book, An Imitation of Life also has a relentless sense of something like modern gothic horror. The artist is a monster, or so certain other people think. But Celia Doom writes, ‘I was not just a freak with a camera.’ Her everyday images bring her fame: ‘I am quite a regular at this Museum of Things Long Forgotten.’ And Celia also has a way with words: ‘… the Opal [River], the surface of it shines like its namesake, a treacherous gleam’; and ‘I awoke to a snowfall. I rose from my bed, pulled back the curtains, saw nothing but a blanket of blankness, stretching out before me like an unwritten page.’
Beautifully edited, the story flows and, despite disturbing details, also remains engaging. The characters in An Imitation of Life are idiosyncratic and well realised. Ordinary Lettie and Barry work as retailers – a laundromat attendant and a butcher. Chosen randomly by Celia’s birthmother, their doorstep was graced with this malformed infant. When Celia bites, Lettie houses this enormous child in the basement. Then Lettie observes how Celia manages to survive, having refused food, by chewing through baby bottles. Their unofficially-adopted offspring’s strange tastes are quickly catered for; Lettie and Barry want her to survive. Love finds a way.
I read this book some time ago and found some details difficult. Celia presents a few icky habits and eyes humanity in a murky fashion. But it is testament to Solomon’s writing skill that when I re-read her novel’s 284 pages, it seemed more engrossing and I noticed more. You may think this only a peculiar tale, for example, with some laughs and many peculiarities. Or you may, as I did, believe that something else is also represented. Artists usually appear as outsiders after all, no matter what we look like: Celia Doom has strange eating habits and truly dubious friends, but produces brilliant photographs.
She possibly represents artists as seen by anyone not particularly creative; artists as monstrous, or treated that way, by the everyday world (while to an artist their life may seem everyday too). This novel could be asserting that creatives may appear as mutant, also celebrating that fact. Celia accepts herself. She also knows she causes people to worry, but that’s not her concern. The book could be covertly saying to artists: ‘Look, Celia gets on with it, why don’t you too?’ Writers, let’s say, sometimes cause consternation, preferring a solitary existence. Human beings more usually prefer to stay in groups for various reasons, including that survival’s more likely that way. But artists have to stick to what they think is best for their work. This story provoked me to consider such matters, carefully.
Whether you look at this novel in depth, or just as a cracking good read, Solomon’s imagination proves a wonder. Well-crafted characters have both good and bad qualities, a certain amount of dullness or stupidity too, and such liveliness. Celia’s two grandmothers, for example, cannot stand the sight of each other. Solomon describes them so thoroughly you could see yourself popping down the road and knocking on the door for a cuppa.
If calling at Grandma Lolly’s house though, you’d need to hold your tongue. She puts fistfuls of sugary sweets into her cup, and gin. No lectures about healthy living welcome there, probably. Then across town, Grandma Stuff sits and chats surrounded with taxidermy in peculiar costumes. Her guests are ‘surrounded by the terrible dead animals that stared’, the display a tribute to her dead husband, Thomas Doom.
The older women each did befriend the abruptly adopted Celia, and she grew fond of them. A community developed, bristling with intrigue, personality clashes, odd behaviour and, also, love.
The book’s cover features Celia Doom’s true love: her Leica camera, gifted by a magician – her apparent uncle. This camera helps to shape Celia’s fanciful imagery, and Celia herself often talks about others as if at a distance; not only due to her unbelievable ugliness (which she accepts matter-of-factly, if rather glumly), but also because she views life through a lens, rather than face-to-face. Her enormous size also means she towers over people. There are other issues, too. Maybe many people could identify with her: aren’t human beings inevitably a mystery to each other on some level?
Naturally a high point arrives when someone befriends Celia. She adores attention. Enter Jacob and his love of explosions. Photography uncannily promotes what the pair get up to. Celia discovers where rebellion leads, she develops and adjusts. Jacob lingers and becomes part-memory, part-ghost. The friend of an outcast is portrayed here with true inventiveness and more than a touch of twisted humour.
The story swerves too when sudden holes appear. Sometimes someone or something falls in. Life in Provencia, a small place apart from the city but near it, grows ever more challenging.
Art, however, art answers everything, and art brings actual riches, and with it people who want to share those profits also appear. To what extent can Celia Doom, her CD and her photographs be exploited in a willing market?
Solomon is a witty writer, as Maggie Gee (OBE and former chair of the Royal Society of Literature) has pointed out. Gee called Solomon a writer to watch: ‘clear-eyed, both lemon sharp and seductive …’ Celia, when thinking about her agent George states, ‘he will drive me to the capital to see their National Modern, where the retrospective will be held’. Then Celia thinks:
… it’s a great big ugly construction near the centre of the capital, a brick monolith where budding artistes display their piles of garbage and pickled cows … Personally I would’ve rather held my last exhibition in … Creme de la Creme, it’s still up and running; a little moustachioed guy they call The Weasel bought it years ago, and it must be one of God’s own miracles that the place hasn’t gone under, like so many of the other institutions around this old town. It must be struggling. I think it must be holding on for dear life. It receives government funding of course, that always helps. Guilt’s got the money out of them. They’re trying to pretend they are not enjoying watching us drown.
Possibly Solomon’s novel presents what many in art circles dare not publicly admit (cynicism spoils the parties), but somehow in this humorous story we can more likely agree that judgmental attitudes exist without flinching from the fact – more readily understanding ourselves then too. Jung said, ‘When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside of you as fate.’ Perhaps seeing the art world not as idealised or rarefied but as fallible could eventually serve to improve it. And perhaps writing such as that in An Imitation of Life could assist with a manner of wholeness, as Jung espoused. Literature can have magical effects.
Or perhaps you’ll just read, laugh and gasp, wondering how Celia is going to get through another mad episode, and another – amazed that somehow she discovers so much, and manages eventually to find a level of dignity and self-respect, too. Something to be said for keeping on making art, no matter what, and never mind who we are, as well. It’s inspiring to read an engrossing story where so much happens: drama, humour, romance, renovations; with a giant, a pyromaniac, a magician, a bunch of individualistic relatives and an art dealer, along with many others. Fakery here serves to show us who we truly are, like a spell, like theatre, and, oh yes, like accomplished fiction writing.
RAEWYN ALEXANDER writes fiction and poetry. She is also an editor and publisher and teacher of creative writing. Her most recent novel, Glam Rock Boyfriends, was published by brightspark books in 2014.