Beware the Artists and the Aesthetes!: Four Stories That Influenced Susan Juby's The Truth Commission.
I read a lot of YA, and have done so for well over a decade. So when I say that Susan Juby has been on my shortlist of favorite YA authors—and favorite authors, period—for pretty much the entire time that I've been reading YA seriously, well, that's saying something. I discovered her Alice MacLeod books right out of college, and I've been reading her ever since.
The Truth Commission is easily one of my favorite books of the year so far, and less-easily, it's my favorite of her books so far—it's so smart and so funny and so honest, it asks really hard questions about family and loyalty and bravery and betrayal and art and about the nature of truth itself, it features a diverse cast of characters who're so well-developed and real that I feel like I could run into them at the grocery store—and I hope hope hope that it brings her the recognition in the US that she so very much deserves.
And now, here's Susan:
Some of the books that influenced and inspired The Truth Commission were about visual artists and people who love art to an unhealthy degree. They gave me the notion that there can be something cruel, or at least unpleasantly gimlet-eyed at the centre of the artistic enterprise—people who are obsessed with beauty and art can be wildly cavalier toward other people and anything they consider mundane and ugly. Here are some of the most memorable titles that fall into that category.
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
This novel is about a British stockbroker named Charles Strickland, and is said to be loosely based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin. At the start, Strickland seems rather bland and dull, in his wife’s shadow. That changes when he abruptly abandons his family and goes off to Paris to be a painter. He’s lousy, at first, but persists. He’s helped out by another artist, who recognizes Strickland’s potential. Strickland pays back the other man’s kindness by stealing his wife. When Strickland casts her aside, she responds by committing suicide. What does Strickland do? He simply jaunts off to Tahiti, where he has numerous romantic liaisons with Tahitian women and enters the most productive part of his artistic career. After producing many works of genius, he finally dies of leprosy. (Sorry for the spoiler, but the book was published in 1919.)
I read The Moon and Sixpence for the first time when I was fifteen or sixteen. I remember being fascinated by Strickland’s cruelty and callousness, and wondered if this was a necessary part of artistic genius. I remember being glad that no one in my family was an painter. We were spared that, at least.
“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather
I was assigned this short story in either high school or university; there’s also a 1980s TV movie starring Eric Roberts. It’s about a young man from Pittsburgh who is in love with beauty. He’s so in love with beauty that he’s unable to function in the ugliness of the ordinary world. He is distracted and agitated in school, and his only joy comes from his job as an usher at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall, which his father makes him quit in an attempt to get his head out of the clouds. When Paul gets a “proper” job, he ends up stealing thousands of dollars from his employer and lighting out for New York City. He checks into a beautiful hotel and buys himself a wardrobe of fine clothes and is happy for the first time in his life. That lasts until the money runs out (eight days, if I remember correctly). The thought of returning to his mundane, middle class life is too much, and so Paul kills himself.
I read this and thought: Good lord! What is up with these people who can’t handle the everyday and the mundane? (It must be said that I’m perhaps too fond of those things.) “Paul’s Case” taught me that being too in love with art and beauty is a disability, but there’s something oddly noble about it, too. It also made me wish I wasn’t so practical.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
This is a novel about two siblings, Buster and Annie Fang, whose performance artist parents have gone missing. The timeline shifts back and forth between the adult Annie and Buster’s search for the senior Fangs and the past, when the children were made to participate in their parents’ “performance events.” It becomes very clear that being used by their parents as artistic accessories did the Fang children no favours. As grown-ups they are, to put it mildly, screwed up. The novel is extremely funny, but it’s also sad and disturbing, and the ending is a shock. The novel also contains a scene with a potato gun that is one of the great comic set-pieces I’ve ever read.
I loved The Family Fang from beginning to end and again came away the renewed impression that having any kind of artist in the family (or, even worse, two artists), could be a treacherous thing.
Trick of the Light by Louise Penny
All of Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries are brilliant and unsparing on the subject of artists and art. Trick of the Light is about a murder (naturally), and it’s also fascinating in its depiction of rivalry among artists. In this novel, Clara, a beloved character in the series, is finally having a great artistic triumph and being recognized for her genius—and at that very moment, her former art school rival (a nasty and manipulative art critic attempting to atone for her behaviour) is murdered. Once again, this wretched woman is one-upping Clara! Stealing her moment! As bad or worse, Clara’s artist husband Peter’s jealousy about her this triumph is becoming too pronounced to ignore.
If you wondered whether the professional art world was a kind and congenial place filled with charitable people who are happy for each other’s success, this book will set your mind at ease. Nope.
The important thing to remember is that these works are, of course, not the whole story by a long shot—artists also form supportive communities and help each other uncover new ways of representing the truth and the world.
The stark divergence between those two approaches is something I tried to capture in the pages of The Truth Commission.
Susan Juby has written a number of acclaimed novels for teenagers, including Another Kind of Cowboy, Getting the Girl, and the Alice MacLeod trilogy, the first of which, Alice, I Think, was made into a successful television series. Her most recent book for teenagers is The Truth Commission. She is also the author of two comic novels for adults (Home to Woefield and its sequel, Republic of Dirt), and an adult memoir, Nice Recovery. She is currently working on a companion novel to The Truth Commission, also set at the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, and teaches creative writing at Vancouver Island University.
Susan and her husband James live in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, with their Australian Cattledog, Rodeo (AKA Rodie).
SQUEE FROM LEILA: OH MY GOD I DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT THE COMPANION NOVEL I AM DYINGGGGGGGG.