Lucy Ives was supposed to be writing her dissertation when Stella Krakus, the main character in Ives’s debut novel, Impossible Views of the World, came into her mind. It would take six years for Stella to fully emerge, but when she did, she brought an unlikely triumvirate of irrepressible qualities: a nerd’s expertise in maps and early Americana, a kooky and misanthropic sense of self, and a gimlet eye for the art world in which she seems surprised to have found herself. Stella is a curator at the fictional Central Museum of Art in Manhattan, and when one of her colleagues disappears, she quickly decides to ignore her professional responsibilities in order to pursue his trace through the more obscure corners of the museum’s collection. Along the way, Stella confronts her soon-to-be-former husband, Whit Ghiscolmbe; her colleague and occasional lover, Fred Lu; and her steely mother, Caro. I recently corresponded with Ives to discuss the book’s brief glimpse into this young woman’s singular, sparkling mind, what Stella’s future might hold, and what it would be like to run into her protagonist on the street.
The entire book takes place over a week in the life of Stella Krakus, a curator at a major arts institution in New York City. She’s a native New Yorker and there’s no doubt that Stella is whip smart—a real intellectual and a keen observer of social life. Her character and its freshness are one of the book’s greatest strengths. How did you come up with her voice?
I was trying very hard to do something else when I started this novel. I was supposed to be working on an academic task—I was a PhD student at the time. I was probably formatting my footnotes or lurking on JSTOR when the novel’s first scene popped into my head. The five-hundred-odd words I wrote at this time subsequently became the first pages of the book. Given these events, I’m not sure if I can take all the credit for the creation of the character or her “freshness”! Though I am the one who wrote this book, I was not intending to write it. It remained insistent over about six years, and while, as I say, I am not always sure if I wrote it or just tried to avoid writing it and failed, I also could not seem not to write it. Stella is quite different from me, yet she seems to be part of who I am in some strange, unconscious, and perhaps uncontrollable way. I don’t know where she comes from.
Stella spends a lot of time devising a hierarchy of the art world: the elegant established curators; the gallerists, who “age magnificently and make a ton of bank” at the same time; the questing youngs who dress too well given their poor salaries and survive on their youth; the corporate types who hang around art events to garner status. There’s an overabundance of enthusiastic women occasionally interspersed by the solitary dashing man who ends up being the one to succeed. Are things really so mercenary and sexist? How or why does Stella feel bound to—or resigned to—her role?
Though many people reading this interview may have already guessed this, I am not a curator, nor am I a gallerist, visual artist, consultant, art handler, professional fundraiser, or any other sort of art worker, though I do occasionally write art criticism. In addition to these limitations, as far as truth is concerned, it’s also very difficult for me to make claims about how things transpire in real life in general; I think this is why I write novels and poems rather than something else. All the same, I am, to some extent, with you on this one, because I, too, often wonder what Stella would do “in real life,” or what would happen if I were to cross paths with her on the street one day or on the subway. It’s likely enough to happen, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t live just the littlest bit in fear of it. I have no idea if she would have read the novel, and, moreover, I would not like to think that the world she lives in actually exists. All the same, it might exist. Or, the world we live in might contain mercenary and sexist features and/or milieus and maybe Stella Krakus is somewhere out there dealing with them.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m not sure that Stella really does feel so resigned to her role. When the novel opens, she is aware that things are not going well, and during the course of the novel certain events transpire that make it impossible for her to continue thinking and living as she has previously been thinking and living. To the extent that the novel has a plot, one of its major points or threads is the act of deciding to decide. That sounds a bit meta, but I think it’s one of the hardest things for people to do: to decide to act differently and then continue to decide to act differently, to act as they have never acted before in their lives.
Much of the book indulges in the enjoyments of an obscure, literary mystery. What was your research process like to concoct this crumb trail through historical Americana? I read somewhere that all the works in the book are fictional. How did you come up with all the charming details?
As a scholar, you are supposed to use objects and events of the past as examples to support a story you want to tell or argument you want to make. When the project of the researching professor is described in this simplified way, it’s easier to see some of the difficulties with it. Would you treat something that happened to you yesterday as an event typical of a broader historical trend? Are the objects in your home mere examples of the sorts of things a person like you (for there are many yous, historically speaking) would own? If you are answering “yes” to these questions, then perhaps you have a graduate degree or take a dispirited view of life more generally. But if you are neither of these things, and even if you do have a graduate degree, I think it’s clear how alienating the scholarly construction of reality can be. Having a strong sense of this alienating quality, along with the perhaps even more alienating process of creating texts that organize said research, I wanted to write a novel in which all the facts, as such, were fake. I wanted all these facts to be at once patently fake and very convincing. By proceeding in this way, it was possible for me to comment on the way in which historical and other kinds of facts “look” and “feel,” on how they relate to one another. The details in the novel, in all the imaginary works of art, emerge out of a desire, on my part, to think about how objects and texts from the past are presented to us in ways that convince us of their pastness. I am describing the distance between the past and the present by fictionalizing in this way and also describing the ways in which this distance is formed and mediated by contingent scholarly practices in the present.
Stella seems to approach artworks and historical research with much more vim and vigor than she does in her job’s requisite socializing. Indeed, compared to Stella’s views on her colleagues, her love of research and intellectual play is positively idealistic. Can you say more about that?
I think research is very safe. It is, in a sense, a highly mediated form of social life. It’s a little bit like email, which is a format Stella also loves. If I had to guess, I’d say that Stella is able to have relatively satisfying relationships with other people, not all of whom are alive, through the historical artworks and texts she encounters in her research. This research also gives her agency and a modicum of control over her fate: What she lacks in networking ability, Stella makes up for in information. She may be something of a misanthrope, but she is not a fool, and she realizes that she can get away with being a wallflower if she specializes correctly. Of course, this still leaves Stella at the mercy of the institution she works for, a problem our heroine must tackle before the novel’s close.
One of the pleasures of the book is getting a view into the interior world of an institution that resembles the Met. Some of this is mundane if accurate—Stella coming in late, not doing her actual work—but we also get a bit of the feeling of being in a museum after hours. There are moments when you have some of the world's great art all to yourself, or the privilege to rummage among the enormous collections that never even get displayed. I know your mom worked at the Met for a long time so I’m sure this gave you some insight, but there’s more to it than that. Can you say more about your personal experience of peeking behind the curtains of the art world, including those of its illustrious institutions?
There’s a lot of paperwork in there! More seriously, I think that jobs at art institutions are like many other jobs, although the scenery can be prettier. The present of art institutions interests me less than their pasts, which are inevitably more revealing and also strange. Part of what I hoped to do with Impossible Views of the World was to open up the institutional history of a fictional museum for (mostly gentle, fictional) scrutiny. In my fictional museum, the history of the acquisition of artworks both mirrors and becomes entwined with fictional present-day office haps. Which is to say, there’s a meaningful connection between the past and present in the novel; maybe the novel is even designed to allow that to occur. My own real-life observations of “illustrious institutions” are probably more banal, and don’t include plot twists or dramatic irony—or, for that matter, profound realizations about the meaning of institutional histories! I wish they did. I would probably have to start working at one of them for that to happen.
Stella doesn't seem to see herself as having many choices: she feels stuck at her job at CeMArt, in part because of her ill-conceived romance with one of her ascendant colleagues. That relationship and the end of her marriage occupy most of her social life. Otherwise, the person she appears closest to is her mother, whom she finds competitive and cagey. In fact, Stella feels that the biggest impact she makes is in a violent act that gets passed around YouTube. Why does Stella think her prospects are so grim? Are they really?
Stella spent six or seven years getting a degree and became a specialist in print ephemera. She’s a scholar of caricatures and political cartoons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She’s highly educated and in theory could do whatever she wants, and I think what you’re picking up on is her disappointment that her commitment to expertise doesn’t give her much of an edge in the institution where she works or, really, anywhere else. If she wants to do what she’s been trained to do in the context of the museum, she’s going to have to deal with the indignities of the pecking order and bide her time, for what might be a very long time. Perhaps unrealistically, Stella believed that being an expert in something esoteric would give her an interesting life and some small supply of power. She also thought that her friends and family would magically understand her commitment to weird, old things. But her life, if not uninteresting, isn’t what she thought it would be, nor does she have the sort of power that she had hoped she would have (what this power is, exactly, I am unsure). And no one around her, with the exception of her now-missing colleague Paul, has had much interest in her research. So, this is where things have gone wrong or askew—though I don’t think they’re grim, exactly, or Stella doesn’t see these things as grim so much as annoying. However, I do think we’d have to describe some of the novel’s characters’ actions as grim and reprehensible, and that’s a grimness that Stella can’t escape, no matter how amused YouTube users are by her antics or how well her latest microfiche foray goes. This is not a novel about revenge or redemptive, flamboyant success. The message is slighter than that. It’s about deciding not to look away from events, about confronting the simple grimness of apathy and deception in everyday life and realizing that one can choose to be different.
Anna Altman has written from the New Yorker, n+1, the New York Times, and other publications.
Date: September 13, 2017
Link to the interview at Bookforum.