The Museum of Modern Love is more than just that rare treat, a book that requires something of the reader – it is a book that painstakingly prepares you for its own requirements. In a playful way, this bold new novel by Heather Rose is an astute meditation on art, bravery, friendship, love, how to live, and on dying.
The main character, with a nod to Tolstoy, is Arky Levin, a film composer whose wife Lydia is gravely ill. To complicate matters, Lydia has asked a difficult favour, which Arky upholds in discreet turmoil. Is he doing the right thing or, as friends advise, should he ignore her request? Arky, naturally self-absorbed, is suddenly forced to work out what matters to him and what gives his life meaning. Bravery is demanded of all of Rose's characters as they attempt to confront the reality involved in figuring out their path.
This is a novel with artistic sensibility at its core. Arky gets caught up in Marina Abramovic's 75-day performance piece, The Artist is Present, staged at MoMA in the spring of 2010. Abramovic polarises people, but even if you're not a fan or are unfamiliar with her work, the observations on life and art that come about in The Museum of Modern Love, as a result of reflecting on her work, are profound.
Because Arky can be opaque, we spend time with an assemblage of other characters who are also caught up in The Artist is Present, including Jane Miller, a teacher and keen observer of humanity. Through Jane, Rose deploys exquisite descriptions of how it feels to be in mourning, with someone still so present and yet unequivocally gone. "Karl was as much a piece of her as her liver or pancreas. Grief was as tangible as rain." My copy is lost to a fluorescent sea of highlighting. The narrative's philosophical nature is reminiscent of fellow Tasmanian Amanda Lohrey's outstanding Camille's Bread.
Arky's fascinating friends and colleagues are present to greater or lesser degrees, with their own complicated lives that are intricately rendered, giving the book a filmic quality. These people are interlinked and no one's story is straightforward or without pain. Hal gives Arky the vital ticking off that can only come from someone who has known you for years, and as Abramovic's performance continues, in a subtle and touching way, Arky finds the bravery to start searching for the answers to his own questions.
Rose weaves these lives together gently. The smattering of different personalities and approaches to life and art complement each other, together becoming more than the sum of their parts. Rose is particularly good at the ways in which citizens, as well as other artists, are affected by Abramovic's work, and the ways in which art can effect change for those who are open to it. The broader palette of the novel encompasses film and music, too, as well as the diverse critical interpretation and reception of works of art.
Rose is now entwined in the Abramovic story herself, having read an excerpt of the novel to the artist at a public performance for MONA in Hobart. In one section, we hear from inside Abramovic's head and it is a meticulous explanation of why anyone would choose to live their life in this incredibly unconventional way.
Rose could have left off the book's final chapter but in including it, she demonstrates her own form of artistic bravery. This is art about art concerned with looking death right in the eye. Once the novel is closed there is so much left to consider, leaving the reader at the start of a journey, but well-equipped.
Rose has been quietly publishing quality literary fiction for a few decades now. Perhaps The Museum of Modern Love, inspired as it is by someone who makes the headlines, and with an eye-catching Bauhaus geometric cover, will bring her some much deserved attention.