Relentless pursuit of the truth makes for great art in “Feast Your Eyes,” but not a great childhood.
Myla Goldberg’s first novel since “The False Friend” in 2010, “Feast Your Eyes” returns her to the mother/daughter theme of her breakthrough, “Bee Season.” The mother is Lillian Preston, a fictional midcentury photographer whose biography borrows from the lives of Diane Arbus, Sally Mann and others. It’s the Mann stuff that touches off the conflict in “Feast Your Eyes” because, like Mann’s, Preston’s ruthlessly intimate photographs of her preteen daughter result in accusations of child pornography. For Lillian’s daughter, Samantha, those photos also lead to ridicule, a name change (to Jane) and forced departures from schools.
“Feast Your Eyes” alternates between three narrative forms. The bulk of it takes the shape of the catalog to a photo exposition, with Samantha analyzing more than 100 of her late mother’s acclaimed works, most of them shot and developed within her presence (it sounds like it would be tedious to read descriptions of nonexistent photographs, but the “catalog” is lively and vivid). There’s also a running oral history, which Samantha assembles from interviews with her mom’s friends, lovers and associates. Finally, there are Lillian’s journal entries — which, for reasons that have more to do with the demands of creating fiction than they do logic, represent Lillian addressing her daughter and attempting to explain her often baffling behavior.
The faux catalog entries are the best parts of “Feast Your Eyes.” It’s a mistake to assume autobiography in an artist’s work, but Samantha has a better handle than anyone on who her mother was and she expertly applies that knowledge to the photographs, most of which are street scenes of New York (“I don’t want to make photographs,” says Lillian. “I want to make windows.”) Goldberg makes sharp use of Samantha’s insights, which provide background on how Lillian related to her subjects and, tantalizingly, what would have been happening just outside the frame of the captured images.
Goldberg expertly differentiates the voices of the interviewees who help Samantha figure out who her mother was — a big job, since Lillian declined to tell Samantha anything about her dad and spent most of her time in the bathroom developing photos while hopped up on amphetamines.
One of the big pleasures of the novel is Goldberg’s uncanny ear, which nails everyone from Grete, a Scandinavian-American friend with a wry sense of humor, to Nina, a bulldozerish gallerist who spearheads an obscenity court battle that overwhelms the increasingly unwilling Lillian and Samantha.
However, each of the “oral history” subjects knows only bits of Lillian’s story. The journal entries are meant to fill in those gaps, but, even in her private thoughts, Lillian remains a frustrating character, too obtuse to see the damage she’s doing to her own daughter and too work-obsessed to understand how much she’s harming herself. For most of its length, “Feast Your Eyes” is a fascinating attempt to know a person we suspect is unknowable, but the best approach to reading Goldberg’s book may be to realize from the beginning that its shutterbug subject will forever remain a blur.
Chris Hewitt is a writer and critic at the Star Tribune. 612-673-4367
Feast Your Eyes
By: Myla Goldberg.
Publisher: Scribner, 326 pages, $28