August 2: “The Fat Artist” by Benjamin Hale

Say hey, Story366! Today, Karen returned from her writing retreat, meaning we got back to life as more or less normal. As soon as she came home, we set out for lunch, voting, and some family fun, which led us to one of those places where you paint ceramics, they bake them for you, and you pick them up a couple of weeks later. I have to admit: I love this. I know it’s really a place that’s set up for kid parties and retired people, but I’ve done this a half a dozen times now, and every time I go, I really get into it. It’s contemplative, most of all, this task they put in front of you, no pressure to complete it, but still, you want to do well, make something nice. I have no illusions about myself as an artist in these places, but I lose myself in it, try to do a good job, try to come up with something neat-o-rific.

To note, since the more layers of paint you put on the items makes the color show up more consistently once glazed and baked—the people in charge recommend three coats—I actually layer at least a dozen levels of paint, just to get the brightest colors possible. Today I painted a yellow relish tray (what Karen and the woman at the place called a “taco holder,” as if I need something to hold my tacos for me …), and I swear, when we pick that thing up, it may outshine the sun.

Anyway, one of my kids painted a Frankenstein mug and got bored after ten minutes; my younger kid painted a spider and finished, taking about forty minutes; Karen made a nice speckled plate and took about a half an hour. Me? I lasted nearly two whole hours, really perfecting the hell out of that relish tray, slobbing layer after layer of yellow, red, and black across its porous surface. I know we have some pretty high-level grocery stores here in Springfield with some pretty fancy-type specialty items, but for these pickles and relishes and olives and such to be worthy of my relish tray, they are going to have to meet a particularly high standard. I need to find some magical pickles and fast. Springfieldians, please let me know where I can purchase such items.

For today’s post, I read from Benjamin Hale’s new collection, The Fat Artist, out from Simon & Schuster, focusing on the title story, “The Fat Artist.” “The Fat Artist” is a whopping fifty pages long, but worth every word, as it’s a complex, terrific story. Like Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist”—which Hale generously alludes to—this is a story about an artist who attempts art that’s a bit different than a painting or a sculpture, using his own body as vessel to convey something about the human condition. The story’s a commentary on modern art, for sure, but it’s not that simple, as it’s also a fascinating character sketch, a love story, and an excuse for Hale to have paragraphs full of lists, one of my favorite fiction-writing techniques.

This story is about Tristan Hurt, but is also just as much about Tristan’s voice. Hale has a lot of fun with this snobby, erudite artist, so contemptuous of normal people, of normalcy, he can’t even see when he’s being ironic (which is, I guess, ironic). Hale mixes up an SAT-vocab and rambling diction with some Foster Wallacesque footnotes, a lot of asides in parentheses (which are a lot like footnotes, but inside the sentences), and a general roundabout way that Tristan gets to his points, relishing his own words, the sound of his own narration. Tristan, telling his story in first person present, is fascinating to read, and that’s before we get to the whole art thing, how’s he’s trying to get himself up to 1,600 pounds, which would make him the heaviest human in recorded history.

The story is also framed, as we start near the end, Tristan revealing that he’s dying, that his weight—and its numerous side effects—are killing him. After a lot of self-deprication—which is as earned as any self-deprication ever—Tristan loops around to the start of his story, when he was a six-foot-tall, two-hundred-pound artist living in New York, succeeding in the experimental modern scene. An early performance featured Tristan masturbating—in front of an audience—into folds of raw meat, which Tristan dipped in shellac then hung around the room like towels drying on a clothesline (a production witnessed by his conservative parents, marking the last time he would ever see or speak to his father). Tristan’s larger fame came as a result of some sort of structure made up of thousands of pink latex casts of his own genitals, lit by pink neon tubes, decorated with thousands of shredded New York phone books, the walls painted with a mix of Tristan’s semen, urine, feces, saliva, and … you get the idea; this is the part where Hale takes his shot at what constitutes modern art, or at least what non-artists perceive it to be. It’s creative and pretty funny, but honestly, as a non-artist, I’ve seen some pretty weird shit, and it wouldn’t shock me if Hale was basing this on something he’d actually witnessed in the real world.

Tristan gets really rich and really famous, and along the way finds a girlfriend in Olivia, a mousey writer, with whom he has a relationship. When Olivia dumps him—for an reason unknown—and asks that he never contacts her again, she seems afraid of him, of what he’s capable (but then again, if she’d seen his art, what was she hoping for?). Losing Olivia sends Tristan into a spiral of self-hatred and self-abuse, which includes ingesting a lot of drugs, alcohol, food, and pornography, a pattern that leaves him, a year later, at four hundred pounds and broke. Tristan snaps out of it when he’s out of money, tries to recover, but has perhaps dug himself too deep a hole. However, as a side-effect of his plunge into darkness, he realizes his absence has made him somewhat of a mystery figure in the art world, everyone wondering what he’s been working on while in isolation. The art world assumes that his hefty appearance is part of this, and Tristan, seizing an opportunity, agrees, declaring himself a fat artist, as in, an artist that works in the medium of fat (as well as a fat artist, an artist who happens to be fat, a distinction Tristan points out).

A generous Guggenheim grant later, Tristan is living in a self-designed glass living area/exhibition space on the roof of a  Guggenheim museum, attempting to reach the aforementioned weight. This is where Hale more or less drops the fancy voice and all the tricks like footnotes and really breaks out his descriptive powers. At this point—only a third of the fifty pages in—the exhibition of Tristan Hurt, Fat Artist, takes up the rest of the story. We finds out all of the nuts and bolts, all of the logistics of Tristan’s exhibit, not only how he gains the weight—Hale must have had a blast writing one particular paragraph, over two pages long, that describes Tristan’s diet—but how he lives, how he sleeps, and how he goes to the bathroom. We also learn how the exhibit works, how the paying public can take a gander at the fat artist, the living exhibit of human decadence and gluttony.

I think I’ve gone a bit too far in revealing details here, but really, you have to read all this in Tristan’s voice, employing Hale’s skills, all of it unraveling little by little. Hale is a Post-Modernist, a satirist, and a humorist–many of the stories in The Fat Artist appeared in Conjunctions, where Hale is now Senior Editor, if that’s any window into his style—and while I’ve not ready anything by him before, I’m totally on board with him now. He has a well received novel as well, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and I want to read that, as well as the rest of this book. Hale is a talent and a half. Get this book. It’s fantastic.