A Novel That Evokes Sally Mann, Diane Arbus and Berenice Abbott

A Novel That Evokes Sally Mann, Diane Arbus and Berenice Abbott


By Myla Goldberg

Myla Goldberg’s ambitious new novel, her first since “The False Friend” (2010), follows a fictional midcentury photographer whose pioneering oeuvre draws from the real-life work of Sally Mann, Diane Arbus and Berenice Abbott, and whose milieu — the Lower East Side of the 1950s; Brooklyn in the 1960s — offers a lively fictional counterpart to the Beat movement.

As a high school junior, Lillian Preston discovers photography. “Making pictures makes me fully and truly myself,” she gushes as she spends Saturdays taking undercover “photography walks” around Cleveland in her father’s clothes. Though she maintains the appearance of a proper girl of her era, even after she moves to New York and carves a niche for herself in the downtown bohemian-intellectual scene, Lillian has been waiting since childhood for a “different life to reveal itself”: “Since I was little, I knew I was meant to live differently than others, I just wasn’t sure how or why.”

Live differently, she does. At 19, she finds herself pregnant. After a harrowing trip to a back-room abortionist, she decides to keep the baby and raise her alone. That baby, Samantha, will become her greatest subject, as well as the one who secures her fame: An exhibit of photos depicting Samantha half-dressed is deemed obscene. Lillian and her gallerist are thrown in jail, the photos are splashed all over the tabloids and the case becomes a free speech cause célèbre, ultimately going to the Supreme Court.

The story unfolds, cleverly, through an imaginary (and, it has to be said, highly improbable) museum catalog — the accompaniment to a posthumous Preston retrospective at MoMA — written by Samantha, and filled with Lillian’s letters and journal entries, as well as interviews with the major players in her life. Together, these “documents,” linked by Samantha’s wry commentary on the photos and Lillian’s life, form a kind of feminist Künstlerroman, in which the artist comes of age in tandem with becoming a mother, and her divided loyalties to her child and her art threaten to tear her apart, emotionally. (The Dexedrine she takes, to stay awake all night in the darkroom and tend to Samantha during the day, helps a bit.)

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