Bogosian’s New Novel Probes the Artist’s Psyche


By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

With a nod to James Joyce (Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man), novelist, entertainer and playwright Eric Bogosian has crafted a fictional probe into the psyche of the artist that is both pitiless and hilarious.

His protagonist, Richard Morris, a middle-aged (57) Jewish writer, pretty sure his creative glory days are over, attends an awards ceremony at the invitation of his longtime editor and publisher, Leon, where he is passed over by another novelist. Richard’s soured attitude towards his less-than-brilliant career, the publishing business and the characters of writers and mankind in general is evident in his musing on the occasion. “Does your stuff SELL? Why would anyone be doing this, making all this effort if not to sell millions of ‘units’ so that the author-hero can become a wealthy author-hero! Then the author-hero can attend more dinners and receive more awards and sell more movie options to the corporate leviathans and spend more time at more Hampton get-togethers to cluck and kiss the other author heroes’ bronzed cheeks, dazzled by the reflection of the collective genius present. The artist is the antenna of the race and the race is venal and hollow.”

Richard, childless, never married and “fixed” (so as not to be trapped by a chance pregnancy), nevertheless, has not been precisely alone. He has a current girlfriend, Sarah, approximately half his age, and examines, as though searching for a sore tooth that’s never been yanked, the demise of a 15-year relationship with Elizabeth, a beautiful and successful actress who dumped him.

Bogosian uses the device of Richard’s youthful journals from the ’70s, discovered while on a visit to his ailing father, to create a double portrait of his protagonist. The reader comes to know both the young, inexperienced and ambitious writer on the make in the Big Apple and the seasoned, cynical, though still faintly wistful, much-published writer in the present, who owns an apartment on the Upper West Side and a country home in Connecticut, the latter, fruits of his success.

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A visit to his father’s doctor leads to a bypass operation (hence, the perforated heart). Richard’s ensuing post-op sense of vulnerability pressures him to share his predicament with his friends and publisher, who are mostly bored or indifferent.

Bogosian contrives to have the two Richards meet in the latter half of the novel, as the middle-aged Richard chooses to look up some of his pals from his earlier life: his roommates, Dagmara, the Polish beauty he’d hoped to seduce, and Haim, the crazed Israeli who sold posters outside the Metropolitan Museum, and most importantly, John, the stoned guru who held court in his downtown loft for the druggy world of the ’70s, which included would-be artists like the young Richard. His reconnections are, without exception, disillusioning and/or disappointing.

Bogosian manages to maintain a kind of existential duality throughout the novel, not just between the younger and the aging Richard, but in his ability to delineate the human capacity to experience two opposing thoughts or feelings simultaneously. Nowhere is this more poignant, brutal and hilarious than in his relationship with his father, who, at one point, is thought to be approaching his death throes. Determined to play the part of the “good son,” he welcomes his father home from the hospital, cleans his house and fixes his favorite meal, to be rewarded with both vitriol and vomit, awakening Richard’s irritation and disgust.

Richard’s strongest drive is to keep moving at all costs. When he visits John, now a raving lunatic in a nursing home in western Massachusetts, he finally makes love to John’s wife, Gitte, whom he had admired from afar in his younger days. While he relishes the low to which he has sunk, he does not regret his actions.

Bogosian has clearly chosen to avoid the Armenian story, the Armenian history that would perhaps occlude all other concerns if he were to address it fully. However, the mature Richard, on a trip to a writer’s conference in Jerusalem, does make a brief visit to the Armenian Quarter to buy some souvenirs and thinks, “The Armenians are interesting. I should write something about them. What really happened ninety years ago?”

Close to the end of the novel, Richard expresses his last take on what it is to be an artist. “It’s not an easy job to be an artist, but if the artist doesn’t do it, who will? To acquiesce to the conventional morality is to be a well-behaved ‘nice’ person. What is that but a form of cowardice. It takes courage to press on and fight the good fight. Say what has to be said, damn the torpedoes, damn the feelings of others. Damn the impression you make, etc. The ultimate goal is to tell the truth.”

And so, when tempted by the flattery, empathy of a younger writer who happens to be John and Gitte’s son, Richard has the backbone to say “no.”

Bogosian has written what may be an important book (Bogosian’s inner Richard is no doubt railing at this ambivalent assessment). He has, at the very least, addressed a serious question: What is the function of the artist in society, especially in a materialistic society where the artist’s value is so often determined by financial success? He also addresses the conflict between the human need for love and intimacy and the competing equally strong need on the part of the artist for privacy and aloneness in order to accomplish the work.

The author’s viewpoint could be called misogynistic — the women in Richard’s life exist primarily to serve his needs — with the possible exception of Katie, one of his youthful lovers, an artist whose work he deems worthless. But he could be accused equally of being misanthropic, as he savagely dissects false politesse and other people’s self-centered, hidden agendas. The book is written with an economy of design and structure that is aesthetically pleasing. It is probably the irrepressible performer’s best book.

Perforated Heart. By Eric Bogosian. Simon & Schuster. 2009. 272 pp.$25. ISBN: 13-978-1-4165-3409-9

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