[New Directions; 2020]
My mother’s favorite word in English is “stuff.” After immigrating to California from the recently disintegrated Soviet Union and learning English from scratch in her early thirties, she was quickly smitten with the word, which doesn’t exist in quite the same way in the Russian language. Stuff is ineffable and illegible, totalizing and abstract. It can name a single object or many, or even a concept that has no physical corpus whatsoever. My mother always giggles when the word escapes her mouth, like she’s playing a joke on the English language itself. For me, stuff sticks out most obviously in the world of literature: What else is a novel but an ordering of seemingly disparate details that constitute an entire world onto themselves? Literature’s existential preoccupation with “stuff” is explicit in Doon Arbus’s novel, The Caretaker. The novel weaves a narrative about the organization of details that meditates on the meaning of stuff—that slippery thing (or things) that populates history and helps us decipher who we are as individuals against the existence of others—and their stuff.
When famed billionaire Dr. Charles Alexander Morgan suddenly dies, his extensive collection of art and curiosities is left without a suitable custodian. We know little about the novel’s protagonist, the person ultimately chosen to serve as the caretaker of Morgan’s museum and home. We know he is a pale man who writes to Morgan’s widow of his admiration for the deceased collector’s theoretical writings on archiving and categorizing, a seminal volume called Stuff. We know he works a dozen or more odd jobs before sending his unsolicited application to the museum’s foundation. He writes from Prague, though it’s unclear if he has any generational attachment to the Czech Republic. He speaks English with a litany of accents ranging from a Southern drawl to a Swedish lilt and rolled R’s. This enigmatic, almost existentially pale man blends in amongst the oddities and objects in Morgan’s collection, which includes things like paintings, daguerreotypes, pinioned horseflies, tarnished spoons, fossils, children’s shoes without their laces, glass eyes, and even a geological anomaly borne from a meteorite impact. All of these things seem innocuous until a visitor accidentally destroys a prized item. This moment changes everything for the caretaker. After the incident, he surrenders his devotion to Dr. Charles A. Morgan and Stuff to a newfound hatred for being chained to the museum and its claustrophobic collection. The caretaker’s disillusionment becomes the central motif of Arbus’s novel, part thesis on the nature of stuff, part sinister noir.
Doon Arbus is keenly aware of the difficulties of the caretaker’s task. The daughter of photographer Diane Arbus, who created an extensive and influential collection of photographs of social outcasts, Doon became the manager of her mother’s estate after she died. Aside from publishing numerous books about her mother’s photographs and organizing exhibitions at major American and international museums, Arbus is an accomplished journalist, playwright, and now, novelist. For Arbus, preserving a collection of seemingly disparate objects is only the first challenge. The next is to figure out a way to meet audience expectations while providing them with a meaningful system of presenting the objects. Although Arbus claims that she didn’t intend to write herself into the novel, she knows how emotional and difficult the caretaker’s task can be. Arbus’s novel tells us that the objects in a museum talk back to us; they make us feel things that we could never expect.
Throughout The Caretaker, a sketch of a woman’s profile on green paper by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (likely Dürer’s 1522 drawing, “Head of a Young Woman,” currently housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art) looms over the caretaker. The clarity of the woman’s face and eyes contrasts the caretaker’s inscrutability. She seems to watch over him, both prison guard and priest, ensuring he adheres to the responsibilities of his job and goading him to confess his innermost thoughts and dark impulses. At first, the caretaker is optimistic about his new role, calling the museum a “sanctuary” where he hopes to “wrest order from disorder.” Later, he begins to feel untethered from the project of the museum, realizing that he has never wielded any kind of control over the collection. “These hapless clues bristle with false promises,” he remarks spitefully.
It’s no coincidence, I thought while reading these words, that the caretaker uses this phrase twice in the novel. His thoughts speak to a greater trend in the literature of the twenty-first century that’s concerned with how we collect, store, and classify data in the information age. The caretaker tries to keep the objects in his collection from speaking about the lives they have lived through the bureaucratic work of reducing them to a mere list of objects. The more he fights the resonance of their voices, the more they resist becoming metaphors of the past. In the end, trying to shut them up drives him mad. The caretaker can no longer tell the difference between himself and the collection of stuff that once belonged to another man. The lines blur, the boundaries merge, and the story unravels. How must items in a museum be organized? Who organizes them? Why do they do it? Who is it for? What distinguishes a museum from a house full of objects once chosen for their beauty, or their practical use, or their singular uniqueness, or a combination of all these qualities?
Arbus’s novel, overlaid with this theory of stuff and how to organize it, or whether stuff can ever be organized, ekes out a whisper, then falls silent. In the last pages, the caretaker speaks most directly to us in a sneering remark:
The strategic distance between any one thing and the next—or the way they’re poised in apposition or collusion—transforms them all. Isn’t this how society itself purports to function? For better or worse, each member is made smaller, larger, darker, lighter, rounder, flatter, richer, poorer, stronger, weaker, plainer, queerer in contrast to whatever winds up in its vicinity. As for that matter . . . as are you, my friends.
I am struck by the caretaker’s pessimism, and admittedly, my reaction is to dig my heels in against the murky interiors of his logic. In his view, stuff collapses meaning, until all that’s left is gradations of better or worse. For him, the transformation that comes with categorization is always reductive. But it’s not always so simple. Sometimes, the material world is the very thing that allows people to emphasize their differences, empower themselves with subjectivity, and form communities within societies that describe them as others. It’s not arbitrary that the caretaker mentions the words darker, lighter, richer, poorer, and queerer. In the end, his diatribes leave us with merely a list of adjectives and callous observations. As for Arbus herself, perhaps she’s not so cynical. After all, she’s spent the majority of her adult life defending her mother’s photographs and safeguarding their legacy.
When I think of the word stuff, I think of something powerful, something that can be abstract and just beyond my grasp, but also something that I could be holding in my hands right now. When the caretaker thinks of stuff, it reminds him of his so-called imprisonment, one he forced himself into, that now buries him under the weight of its ineffability. I am not convinced, as the caretaker is, that there is a teeming void—nor that there is only one, absolutely final way out of it.
Lora Maslenitsyna is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, she is pursuing a PhD in Film and Media Studies and Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University.
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