Edward Hopper’s paintings, with their starkly lighted vignettes of big-city anomie and their mysterious denizens who seem frozen in a moment of doubt, have long exerted a siren call on artists of various stripes. They have inspired at least two great songs by the Canadian rock band the Weakerthans alone, along with outstanding poetry by B.H. Fairchild, among others, as well as a powerhouse 1995 anthology that grew out of the artist’s celebrated Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective.
Now renowned mystery writer Lawrence Block adds to the take, putting 17 Hopper-inspired tales between the covers of “In Sunlight or in Shadow.” As seductive as the idea and as likable as its executor are, the anthology is handicapped by two serious problems. The first is, quite simply, one of quality. For every story that is deeply imagined and felt, there is one that feels perfunctory, at best. Some of the entries, to be sure, are inventive, keenly imagined and crisply executed, and each features a lush full-color reproduction of the painting that inspired it – almost worth the price of admission alone.
Block and his fellow writers make natural matches to Hopper’s Depression-era noir sensibility of fatalistic losers and con men. Lee Child’s “The Truth About What Happened” is a jaunty yarn with an O. Henry-like twist, and Block himself chips in with a satisfying tale of a cunning big-city grift based on the desolate “Automat.” In “Soir Bleu,” Robert Olen Butler spins a gothic backstory around one of the strangest of Hopper’s paintings, a “living portrait of the tormented clown painted on the canvas of the actor’s face.” Similarly, Nicholas Christopher builds a surrealist fable, touched with a trace of Latin American magic realism, out of “Rooms by the Sea,” a haunting late masterpiece.
The dropoff after this harvest is steep. There seems to be an almost inverse relation between the celebrity of the writer involved and the rigor and complexity of the tale at hand, the exception being Joyce Carol Oates, who contributes a reading of “The Woman in the Window” that bristles with imminent violence, with hatred that “roils like a smoldering heat about to burst into flame” — an Oatesian artifact, indeed. Some of the other high-profile contributions . . .well, the phrase “for completists only” comes to mind. To be fair, assembling an anthology of this kind is probably harder than it seems — a product of favors called in and networks worked — and one can almost feel some of Block’s contributors straining to manufacture a riff ingenious enough to merit inclusion.
The second problem is deeper and altogether more slippery, but it has to do with a certain banality inherent in the book’s operating principle, one that fundamentally misunderstands both Hopper specifically and the relation between art and narrative more generally. Hopper’s background was in commercial illustration, an occupation that he loathed and that he successfully escaped. All his life he was fiercely resistant to the not uncommon idea that his paintings were nothing but illustrations of a high order. In a letter of 1948, he explicitly disavowed the narrative element, writing of “Office at Night” that “I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.”
“Painting is story telling,” a woman tells Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s “Nighthawks,” but she’s got it all wrong. The whole point of painting is that it is not storytelling. The force of Hopper’s art is located within the piercing sense of possibility that the paintings convey, the sense of ambiguity and essential unknowability. To provide a literal-minded narrative frame is to destroy the source of that power; the lack of narrative context is what endows them with their mystery and beauty.
Writing about the fiction in the 1995 anthology based on the Whitney exhibit, the late John Updike noted “the gulf between the two modes of artistic expression, and how tempting yet misguided it is to marry the two.” He goes on to observe that “if the narrative content were not submerged but brought to a humorous or touching point, we would have a period magazine cover . . . which would win our momentary response and then vanish as a painting” — an observation that remains as pertinent now as it was in 1995.
As clever and loving as some of these acts of homage are, their creation ultimately works against the paintings that inspired them. Their celebration contains a diminishment. Block’s own story provides an unintentional clue to this paradox. The woman sitting in the automat is “using the time to scan the room,” looking at the other diners. “She might have amused herself by making up a story about them,” Block writes, but unlike her creator, in the end she “let her attention pass them by.”
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
By Lawrence Block
Pegasus. 288 pp. $25.95