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Finding distinction in literature

The Genius by Jesse Kellerman. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008. 384 pages

Sixty years ago, Graham Greene, one of the great English writers of the 20th century, differentiated his novels from what he regarded as his lesser works by calling the latter “entertainments.” Novels — Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter — constituted his serious writing, the themes, characters, and plots by which his literary reputation would rise or fall. Entertainments, on the other hand, were in Greene’s eyes those works written off the cuff, lightweight fiction aimed at the wider audience of best-sellers in airport bookshops, composed with an eye toward cash rather than literary fame.

In their lists of the author’s works, current reprints of Greene’s books do not delineate between novels and entertainments. Indeed, Graham Greene’s distinctions cast between his serious and his light fiction may even indeed strike us as humorous, false or perhaps Victorian in a world moving from a print culture to an oral culture and a society in which other media — television, computers — play a much greater role than that of the printed word.

In many ways, however, such a distinction between “light” and “heavy” literature might prove useful to an American culture in which sheer entertainment is often viewed as the high peaks of our culture. Americans 60 and 70 years ago distinguished between “high” and “low” culture, with the former being best represented by a performance of Beethoven sonatas and the latter by the music of Frank Sinatra or even Bennie Goodman. In the intervening years, low culture has swallowed up high culture. For those who doubt such a proposition, we need only ask a few questions. Who among us can them name a great—or for that matter, a not-so-great— American composer of the last 20 years? A great American painter? Thousands of poets publish today, but which of us can name a great American poet writing today? Who can name three American playwrights? In the 1950s, the names of “high-brow” artists — Picasso, Rockwell, Pollock, O’Neill, Hemingway, Faulkner, Frost, Sandberg, and others — were household words known to everyone with a high school education. Today popular culture focuses almost exclusively on actors, pop musicians, and a few best-selling writers.

To a certain extent, of course, “high” art itself must take some of the rap for its decline into oblivion. Many artists left off long ago making any attempt to appeal to a broad audience. A portrait of this rejection, inadvertently offered, may be found in Jesse Kellerman’s novel The Genius (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 978-0-399-15459-1, $24.95).

Ethan Muller, the novel’s narrator and son of one of Manhattan’s wealthier families, finds himself an art dealer after a troubled childhood in which his father essentially abandoned him to loneliness and private schools. He operates his Chelsea gallery with some success, his artists running from Egao Oshima’s “lovely, shimmering paintings” to Jocko Steinberger’s “papier-mâché genitalia. All of the Oshimas had pre-sold, and several of the Steinbergers had gone to the Whitney. A good month.”

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Then Tony Wexler, the confidant of David Muller, Ethan’s estranged father, calls Ethan and asks him to look at some drawings abandoned by Victor Cracke, a tenant in Muller Courts in Queens, one of the more squalid pieces of the Muller real-estate empire. After some hesitancy, Ethan arrives at the building to look over the drawings, only to find that they are not only works of genius but that there appear to be box-loads of them, with each drawing ultimately fitting together into a some vast map of Cracke’s vision of reality.

Unable to locate the artist, Ethan uses a select few of the drawings to open the next show at his gallery. After the media cover the show, Ethan receives a phone call from Lee McGrath, a retired policeman who recognizes one of the faces in the drawings as belonging to a boy murdered 40 years previously.

Here the novel widens its scope, moving to include a world of child murder, violence, and death alongside the wild world of postmodern art. Ethan becomes part-time detective, obsessed with finding Victor Cracke to determine whether he was the killer not only of the boy spotted by McGrath, but of four other boys in the drawings as well. During his search he encounters McGrath’s daughter, Samantha, a district attorney to whom he is quickly attracted.

Meanwhile, we encounter through a series of vignettes the Mullers who built the fortune which helped pay for Ethan’s education and which he has now rejected along with his father. We see what Ethan can’t see, that the accumulation of so much money and capital brings both freedom and a self-made prison to this ambitious family, that a scandal which haunts the family will eventually have repercussions for Ethan as well.

The Genius offers its readers many gifts: Kellerman’s knowledge of the art world, an array of believable characters, a tightly-wound plot, and some fine writing. What distinguishes The Genius from many other suspense novels is that Kellerman blends various philosophical insights entertained by Ethan, particularly ideas on genius, art, and morality, into the plot without slowing the action. Here, for example, Ethan offers us his thoughts on himself, on genius, and on the ordinary:

“Ordinariness is nothing to be ashamed of. It carries no moral weight. I don’t believe that geniuses are worth more in some cosmic Blue Book. They are worthy of more attention, of course, because they’re so rare — one in a million, or rarer. What that means for the rest of us is that someone has to be the first of the remaining 999,999 souls; and the higher up you are, the closer you come to the genius’s vantage point.

“To pursue that — to clamber up, to stretch our fingertips in the hopes of grazing the surface — can you imagine a more uniquely modern aspiration? A better metaphor for our oversaturated era than the desire to be the president of a fan club? The hero for the age is Boswell.”

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