Dee's latest novel, Palladio, is nothing if not ambitious.
He attempts a tale that encompasses most, if not all, of
the great twentieth-century themes. Okay, probably not all,
but let's see what he's dealing with here:
1. The validity of art
2. The truth/lies of advertising
3. Random, possibly self-destructing sexual encounters
4. Avoidance of intimacy
5. Total dysfunction of family
6. Utopians created by benevolent dictators
I can't help but admire Dee's voluminous ambition, since
so many of those themes have been done to death before,
and staring down the barrel of a gun loaded with those bullets
is certainly more daring than catching a single one in your
teeth. But each theme has had its very own novel to call
its own, and those respective books were big and tough enough
with only that to contend with.
Palladio tells the two stories of Molly Howe and John Wheelwright.
In the first half of the book, we get Molly's story. Molly
is an extraordinary beauty living in upstate New York whose
family is an unemotional lot. The avoid each other like
estranged lovers. Her brother, Richard, answers questions
in a manner that leaves it impossible to tell whether he
is being genuine or sarcastic or genuinely sarcastic or
sarcastically genuine or that he even remembers who these
people talking to him are, Molly's parents hardly bother
speaking to each other anymore, and eventually make Ophelia's
meltdown look subtle. Molly's beauty, though, attracts men
to her in an impossibly easy manner, and it has the effect
of making men see her as be anything they want her to be.
We don't see this, it just is, which is one of the bigger
problems with Dee's creation of Molly: Little explanation
is offered to explain why she, or her family for that matter,
are so passive and dead on the inside; it's just one of
life's little mysteries, like why does upstate New York
breeds such contempt in contemporary fiction writers?
After the whole small town learns of her affair with the
father of a kid she baby sits for, Molly flees across the
country to Berkeley where her brother is going to school
and gradually becoming a rhetoric-spewing fundamentalist
Christian. But she takes a room in his house anyway. Very
much like today's growing out-of-work twenty-somethings,
she audits classes and takes odd jobs occasionally to fill
the hours of her days.
Whereas Molly's story is told in the past, the story of
John Wheelwright is told in the present, where we find him
gainfully employed at an advertising firm in turmoil. One
of the partners, Mal Osbourne, has created a commotion with
an unorthodox client pitch that backfires, resulting in
his abruptly quitting the firm. John is summoned by Mal
to go trolling for art and artists in NYC, but Mal remains
an obscure and silent figure in John's first brief encounter
with him. Eventually though, John is summoned again by Mal
to join a new agency called Palladio. Mal's vision is an
agency in which art becomes advertising. At first it vaguely
resembles advertising, with billboards, TV spots, and the
like. Soon, though, it morphs into something resembling
early downtown performance art (think Maurizio Cattelan*)
and one-of-a-kind installations (think Olaf Breuning**).
It's a bit of a naïve creation, on Dee's part. I can't
help but think that anyone who has ever even momentarily
mused on advertising (specifically the dot-com ad splash
of the '90s, where the product was secondary to building
the brand) has thought of this same Utopian vision. At Palladio,
where Mal has assembled a collection of avant-garde artists,
no one is even told the product or company they are supposed
to be advertising. They are just given free reign to create.
Apparently this sort of idealistic innocence is what the
world wanted, because the company takes off and becomes
a giant success. Who woulda thunk it.
Along the way various groups and individuals try to take
Palladio down, including a filmmaker and two ex-university
professors. John is supposed to ease these dissenters' worries
(and both times tries to bribe them to enter the folds of
Palladio), but he is unable to and in the end the firm immolates
of its own accord in a brilliant moment of pretension and
The stories of Molly and John eventually converge in the
second half, the half narrated by John. Molly meets John
at Berkeley, moves in with him, and the two become romantically
linked, if it can be called that. She remains passive as
he devotes more and more of himself to her. She is essentially
an object that men project onto. Whatever they want, she
becomes, but not by changing anything about herself. She
is described by Mal as "the anti-Heisenberg; she's
not changed by being observed." Mal finds this a good
thing. As advertising promises wish-fulfillment, so does
Molly-at least to the men in her life. She remains impossible
to actually own, however, and of course cannot grant the
wishes of her suitors any more than a brand-new Starck-designed
potato peeler can make you a suave blue-blood earning six
figures with a chic loft in SoHo and a plasma TV. You have
to inherit that.
Molly and John's stories finally clash when she visits
Palladio with her filmmaker boyfriend who wants to film
the agency for a documentary, and expose its brash treatment
of art. The filmmaker is turned away, but not before Mal
can steal Molly from him and continue the circle of her
being revered like a precious statue only to take flight
and leave her suitor in disarray. Why does she leave every
time? It appears to have something to do with not being
owned, but the thread of a metaphor gets pulled thinner
than that of a Nicholson Baker book.
In the end, Dee satirizes and skewers virtually ever subject
he touches (see the aforementioned list), and the reader
is left wondering what all there is to rejoice and find
direction in. Religion is for crackpots who can't relate;
academia is a fall-back position for radicals who fail;
family become catatonic with ennui; and art and advertising
are the foolish endeavors of lunatics and merchants of Venice,
So the book doesn't entirely succeed. However, Dee is clearly
willing to tussle with that which is worth tussling, and
he should be read and admired for that alone. Fearlessness
should payoff, and though Palladio doesn't deliver on its
promises and Dee seems to have come up short in offering
any solutions or even stop-gap measures to the problems
he posits, it is a highly energetic and enterprising effort
that should be valued for that alone. It's not as if there's
dearth of people willing to write books about nannies or
anything that could be turned into a Hugh Grant vehicle.
We get plenty of those, but we deserve more Jonathon Dee's.
* From the MoMa Web site: "In this project Cattelan
focuses on the artist Pablo Picasso. By using his likeness
in effigy, Cattelan elevates Picasso to a position in European
Carnivale celebrations most often reserved for world leaders.
An actor in a Carnivale-type Picasso mask will greet visitors
to the Museum during the run of the exhibition."
** From The New Yorker's Web site: "Breuning's last
show posited the existence of a race of Neanderthal surfers;
now he has clicked past "Gidget" and MTV to "Halloween"
and the WB, with this life-size diorama of an axe-wielding
sex doll's rampage. To get the full view of "Hello
Darkness," you have to crawl into a library setup ruined
by axes and rigged with flickering lights, strewn books,
and a smoke machine. The artist draws a fine line between
quoting pop culture and sampling it. "It's not just
a cut-and-paste job," he says, for the benefit of those
who might appreciate such a distinction. "More a kind
of remix." "
-- Chris Gage