The Antigonish Review
161. (Spring 2010): 99-101.
Review by Darryl Whetter
With its keen, imaginative attention to the varied operations of a mid-sized Canadian art gallery, Mike Barnes’s novel Catalogue Raisonné invites an obvious architectural metaphor. Quite simply, Catalogue Raisonné has a superb blueprint, and its many successes follow from its enabling design. From its inception, the novel triangulates art, careerism and society. Barnes shrewdly augments those triangulated inquiries in choosing a gallery security guard as his protagonist. Paul and the other guards are steadily reminded of their low status in the gallery’s repeatedly articulated pecking order. Circling the gallery’s many rooms and deepening scandals, Paul generally enjoys his view from the margins, at least until events turn deadly.
With the foundation of a gallery setting and its marginal protagonist, Catalogue Raisonné manages to avoid Can Lit’s two most common mistakes in writing about work. Generally, too much of our fiction falls into the Hollywood trap of ignoring the workaday necessities of earning a living. Paul and Angela, his romantic cohabitant, both work at the gallery in low-paying jobs. Refreshingly, we see characters who worry about rent increases and can only afford cocaine for really special occasions (the novel is set in 1984). Barnes can and does write illuminatingly and rewardingly about the intricacies of brushstrokes and shading, but never gratuitously fills pages with a homework-heavy techno-porn devoted to the chemistry of oil on canvass. He’s confident and reader-friendly enough to show his own eye for art without ever losing his story, as when he refers to the “suicidal stasis” in an Alex Coville painting. Unlike Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart or Carol Shields, Barnes knows he’s writing a story, not a how-to manual. Refreshingly, this novel includes normal, clock-punching citizens who happen to paint, not an arts aristocracy or speculation about some past European master.
Plot has become an endangered species in Canadian fiction, yet Catalogue Raisonné cradles its varied strengths of characterization, lively prose and a keen social and psychological eye within a steadily evolving plot. Paul, a former punk musician, is not the only misfit working security. Sean, or Mumbles as the others call him, prefers to police the most remote and empty rooms of the gallery to better work on his epic poetry. Another attendant, Robert, works endlessly on a symphony and cohabits with his sister Claudia, a neurotic painter. Paul and Robert discuss the gallery, art, and life during their regular chess games. When these idle speculations turn to how a painting could be stolen from the gallery, Robert’s mental instability is only the first shocking discovery.
As a genuine novel, Catalogue Raisonné is less concerned with the what and how of art than with its why. Barnes, the author of five books of fiction and a memoir, writes knowingly about “the self-doubt and self-pity and rivalry and envious gossip that were the artist’s lot.” In his perpetual place on the sidelines, Paul notices that the gallery’s “Outreach” coordinator made it impossible “to distinguish the genuine from the artificial in a true ‘people person.’ That was what being a people person meant.” Romantically, Paul is the kind of guy who privately admits he likes the relationship he’s in for now, and yet doesn’t exclude that relationship from his (under-stimulated) intelligence. As the art theft plot turns deadly and the stress rises, Paul sees both the strengths and the weaknesses of his relationship: “Angela had begun to use words like ‘supportive’ and ‘nurturing’ far too often, but she actually was those things. It was partly why I loved her. It was also why I hated to hear her talk that way. And if it was true that her tenderest sympathies usually found their way back round to herself, was she any different from the rest of us in that? From me? At least her feelings made the outward journey first.” The novel is fuelled by a dynamic plot but also draws interesting material for both the head and the heart in its wake.
The commitment to plot, however, also produces the novel’s only shortcoming. Near the end, Barnes sprints too quickly for the finish line and strains credulity, interest and sympathy. Inexplicably, worry doesn’t rise when the body count does. Major ethical and legal considerations are brushed aside in a race for the finish. A late romantic development is prepared on only one front when it should have been prepared on several.
Catalogue Raisonné is much, much more than a novel with an interesting setting and subject. As a mid-career writer, Barnes writes knowingly and intriguingly about one art world while working in another. With the multiple strengths in prose, character and plot he shows here, Barnes deserves a good, long run.
Darryl Whetter is a creative writing prof at Dalhousie. His latest book is The Push & the Pull, a novel of love, death and bicycling. See www.darrylwhetter.ca for details.