Book Review: In Sunlight or In Shadow

Book Review: In Sunlight or In Shadow

Writing Inspired by Edward Hopper

By DeWitt Henry, Literary Bookmarks Editor


Mystery writer Lawrence Block had an idea. He had always loved Edward Hopper’s paintings. Why not solicit other popular writers to choose a Hopper painting and then to write a short story inspired by it?

Some years ago, companion volumes were edited by the Hopper expert and biographer Gail Levin: Silent Places: A Tribute to Edward Hopper (2000), featuring fiction excerpts that touched on Hopper alongside the paintings, and including three entries by Block himself, and The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper (2007), which combined “for the first time” classic pictures by Hopper and poems inspired by them from prominent poets. But perhaps Block had in mind the larger tradition of ekphrasis: a poem or story inspired or stimulated by a work of art (think of Keats on the Grecian urn, Homer on the Shield of Achilles); or even perhaps the post-mod tactic of  interrogating or satirizing pop icons (such as Robert Coover’s retelling of the film “Casablanca” in A Night at the Movies). 

Block solicited an “A-list” of  mystery writers—“not out of friendship (although they are all friends of mine)”—who “all loved and responded to [Hopper’s] work, and in a very writerly way”: Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, Michael Connelly, and Megan Abbott are among the seventeen contributors, along with Block himself and, yes, Gail Levin. 

Introducing her own collection in 2000, Levin had written: “References to Hopper occur in many genres of fiction—from the most philosophical novels to mystery thriller, romances, and erotica…The implicit narrative in Hopper’s pictures has attracted distinguished contemporary authors of fiction…Detective and mystery writers have most frequently referred to Hopper….” Speaking for his fellow mystery writers, Block expands on this: “[Hopper’s] work resonates profoundly with those of us who care deeply for stories.” The paintings don’t tell stories, of course. “What they do is suggest—powerfully, irresistibly—that there are stories within them, waiting to be told.” 

This sounds promising, if a little like a sport or parlor game. Where Raymond Carver’s Hopper-esque fiction with its unspecified menace had caused renewed interest in Hopper in the 1980s, at least for literary readers, perhaps there is a surprise here in the mystery element: Hopper as noir and dystopian.  While his vision shares subjects and techniques with that of Andrew Wyeth, Wyeth’s effect seems sunnier and more engaged with nature (however red in tooth and claw); and both, as serious “realists,” reject Norman Rockwell’s overt draftsmanship and sentimentality. 

Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932. Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Anna R. and Frank M. Hall Charitable Trust, H-166.1936.

The majority of stories in Block’s collection are mysteries of situation rather than of heart. There is the lure of O. Henry snapper plots, or of Roald Dahl or Rod Serling, combined with gleeful cynicism. The best of this sort is probably Stephen King’s “The Music Room,” inspired by Hopper’s 1932 painting “Room in New York”, where a man sits absorbed in a newspaper while a woman sits at a nearby piano and idly picks notes with a single finger. What’s going on? Are they married? Are they self-absorbed, each with separate interests? For King, they are a grotesque, mannerly couple, who make a Depression living by luring prosperous loners from bars to their apartment for dinner, then drugging,  imprisoning, and forcing them to give up their bank accounts before starving them to death in an insulated closet and disposing of their bodies in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Both reader and King have fun with this concept.  As the wife hits piano notes, she is trying to ignore the thumps and muffled screams of their current victim. The husband remarks on his “gruesome vitality”; the wife protests, “[w]e are not murderers. Our guests simply lack sustenance, as do so many in these terrible times.” The story ends with her playing a show tune, and their laughing together, “the way people do when they have been married many years and have come to know each other’s minds.” 

The best stories here, however, are those by Oates, Abbot, Butler, and possibly Nicholas Christopher, all stories that do address mysteries of the heart and exert their own complex, original visions. 

Both Oates, responding to Hopper’s “Eleven A.M.,” and Abbot, responding to “The Girlie Show,” write about the revenge of women who have been objectified by men. 

Edward Hopper, Eleven A.M., 1926. Oil on Canvas, 28⅛” x 36⅛”. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966. Photography by Lee Stalsworth.

In Oates’s remarkable story, a naked, not-so-young woman sits staring out her open, sun-lit window: a kept mistress, the story assumes, awaiting the arrival of her married, boorish keeper. Oates is psychologically relentless in imagining their love/hate relationship from both points of view. The mode is stream of consciousness (though the woman’s thoughts predominate). They each want the affair over with, yet don’t; and on both sides, their conflicts rise to rage. “The more she thinks about it, the more her hatred roils like smoldering heat about burst into flame.” The man is always late and barely speaks. She hates her entrapment here; he is her oppressor. She has sewing shears hidden under her cushion, and will stab him in the throat: “Just stab, stab, stab, in the way he pounds himself into her, her body, using her body, his face contorted and ugly, terrible to behold.”  Yet she loves him. He thinks she is beautiful; he pays the rent. Point by point, painterly stroke by stroke, the tension builds. The characters are fully individualized. Exposition is fed in. We both recognize and experience the emotions. So far the two have only fantasized, but as the man approaches the woman’s door, action seems likely, if not inevitable: She “[s]tares out the window at a narrow patch of sky. Almost, she is at peace. She is prepared. She waits.” This story is in earnest, and hair-raising; both a departure from Hopper, and an approximation to his art.

In Abbot’s story, the woman’s husband is a painter who asks her to pose nude for him as he paints an “Irish Venus,” with red hair and a garish body unlike hers. She grows suspicious when she discovers he has bought green slippers that are too small for her. By chance she spots him in the city later and follows him to a strip club, where she meets the headliner, Mae, near the stage door, and is invited into her dressing room. The women form a bond. “You followed your old man,” Mae says, and when the wife notices the green slippers, adds “That’s the one, huh?…He’s a regular Romeo.” Giddily, the wife asks her for help; strips and gets made up. Then goes on stage, which is “bigger than a boxing ring” and where “[h]er skin is hot and magnificent.” Her husband cries out from the shadows—“What have you done to me?”—before a bouncer beats him up. More crudely managed than Oates’s, Abbot’s story is inspired nonetheless, especially as the women enjoy each other at the end.

Edward Hopper, Soir Bleu. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest. 1914.

Butler’s story is particularly dream-like and haunting. Hopper’s “Soir Bleu” features the figures of a standing woman and three seated men at some sort of festive street cafe at twilight.  Japanese lanterns hang overhead. One man is dressed as an artist with beret, another hatless in a uniform with epaulets, and the third as a white-faced clown in a white costume with ruffled collar. The story is told in the artist’s first person. The woman is Solange, his model and “necessary muse.” He is trying to sell a painting to Colonel Leclerc, the soldier, while Solange entices Leclerc to buy, and the clown, who has just joined them, sits silent. “He is, after all, Pierrot, and beneath the makeup, a mime.”  They are in Nice. The clown winks at the artist, Vachon; however, his eyes are “impossible to read” (indeed, reading people, in gestures and glances, becomes a theme throughout). While Leclerc remains enrapt with Solange, the clown gestures for a cigarette, but before Vachon can respond, conjures a lit one and they smoke together. Leclerc announces that he’s going to bed and leaves. “He will buy,” Solange says. Vachon, witnessed by the clown, worries whether she means herself or the painting, but assures himself that “[s]he has fallen in love the image of herself I’ve made for her,” and will remain faithful. He tells her go to their room and wait for him, and also to “be wary,” meaning both of Leclerc and of his jealousy. When she leaves, the clown gestures some doubts, but the artist dismisses them, and begins to think he’s seen the clown perform—if not the actor, then the character—years ago. He’d been twelve, with his father, in Valvins. Paul Margueritte had played Pierrot in his own play, where Pierrot murders his wife for cuckolding him by tying her down and tickling her feet until “she dies from the agony of unremitting reflex hilarity.” He’s also disturbed to recall his father giving him a look at this point: “I do not understand the look, but it as ferocious as his gaze at Pierrot a moment ago….The next day my mother is dead, her neck snapped….And he has vanished.”

In present time, across from Vachon, Pierrot suddenly speaks: “Be wary…You must go.” Vachon charges up to his studio, where he discovers Solange having sex with Leclerc. He lets Leclerc go, but strangles Solange; then turns and discovers Pierrot behind him. Pierrot peels and rips away his white face and “all is gray bone and empty eye sockets. All but the nose, which remains uncorrupted by the grave…” It is his father, and they have both murdered out of jealousy. We have to be amazed by this story as well as perplexed. As with dreams, the meaning is everywhere and nowhere, concerning men and women, violence, fathers and sons, art and life, acting and being, and the visual “reading” of others and ourselves.

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea. Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

Christopher’s story in response to “Rooms by the Sea, 1951” is even dreamier and more surreal—an extended myth about survivors from Atlantis and their descendants, who after death continue to live for a year in the sea before vanishing.   

The average story, however, seems contrived, whether closely linked to the painting or using it as a pretense. Warren Moore’s long-winded “Office at Night,” for instance, relies more on the film “Ghost” than on Hopper’s “Office at Night” (the secretary at the file cabinet has died in an accident and that is her ghost that we see, and why her boss at his desk cannot). For a contrasting take, see Pamela Painter’s independent story from 2009 here. Inviting readers to consider the paintings closely is a worthy task, surely; by comparing our vision to each writer’s, we should better appreciate both the writers’ imaginations and Hopper’s. And I would even push it farther. Why not several stories by different hands related to the same iconic painting, if only to gauge its range of appeal and different imaginations? A single author’s multiple responses to the same painting might also prove interesting. 

In addition to “mystery,” Hopper’s fundamental quality is poignance. Comparing Hopper and Theodore Dreiser as realists “who find significance of the external scene through his personal attachment to it,” Alfred Kazin quotes another critic who “has said that Hopper’s pictures—a silent city street early on a Sunday morning, a Victorian house by a railroad track, an usherette musing in the corridor of a movie theater—are astonishingly poignant, ‘as if they were familiar scenes solemnly witnessed for the very last time.’” I wish these stories explored that quality more, enough to inspire a Hopper to paint them. 

Copyright 2017 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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