The Dissemblers

Given my recent forays in the fine(-ish) arts, I found Liza Campbell’s The Dissemblers to be doubly intriguing. Not only is the novel beautifully written, but it also offers a loving meditation on (among other things) the nature of art and its place in our world.

The narrative focuses on a young artist named Ivy Wilkes who ditches her past to seek her true path in Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico. Here, she takes a job in a museum gift shop, falls in love, and eventually becomes embroiled in a scheme to sell forgeries of O’Keefe’s work on the black market. Subsequently, Ivy’s work as a forger forces her to ask herself why humans as a species value art so highly. Is it simply for the beauty of artifact? And, if so, then why should an original O’Keefe fetch a higher price at auction than an exact replica painted by a skilled artisan? The answer, it turns out, is as complicated as Ivy’s relationships with the men (and woman) in her life. Hint: It has everything to do with love.

Fittingly, Campbell proves herself an adept word-artist throughout the novel. In some instances, this artistry takes the form of simple yet evocative declarative sentences that say so much about the characters she’s describing: “She laughed like bells,” Campbell writes of one character. Elsewhere, she demonstrates her mastery of narrative technique as well, as when she teases the reader with lines like, “If I’d known what was going to happen, would I have done everything the same?”

One other thing that Campbell does especially well in The Dissemblers is capture the ambivalent relationship between the artist and the art she produces: “[W]hen you finish the painting, there is a period of glowing adoration for what you’ve done. You think, this is exactly what I meant to say… But one day, inexplicably, you’ll see the painting from a different angle, or in different lighting, and suddenly it is a trite and talentless painting.” The author, of course, is discussing a visual medium here, but the same can easily be said for the written word. How many authors, I wonder, feel the same way about their work? And, more to the point, how many have the guts to admit it?

The Dissemblers is a beautiful novel in so many ways, and Campbell’s prose shines throughout. Whether describing the sweeping vistas of New Mexico or the longing of the human heart, she paints with words what pigments and brushstrokes might not so readily capture.