Reading Nancy Reisman’s Trompe l’Oeil felt like walking a long, stringently guided path through a meticulously arranged art museum collection. This feeling is very much in keeping with the themes of Reisman’s novel, which describes how its characters act as both artists and curators of their own life experiences. The text builds its collections of figurative paintings around a single family—the Murphys—and their individual perspectives of a tragic family event. The characters view their memories of this tragedy as multiple still images, memories that they frame and revisit in cyclical succession. The book is, at turns, both a narrated tour and a pausing, reflective “art history” lecture, deconstructing the methods and modes of arrangement for each familial “artist.”
If this summary sounds a bit wooden to you, you’ll likely feel the same way toward the novel, with its carefully articulated symbols and occasionally didactic tone. Admittedly, this was my general reception toward the book, which was a digression from the messier, more self-exposing narrative structures I tend to prefer. However, there are a number of compelling meta-narrative moments wherein the text reveals an awareness of its own didacticism. These moments of meta-narration can be read as tiny compendiums of the text, brief flashes wherein Reisman shows us the novel itself is all trompe l’oeil, a trick of the eye.
The novel establishes its museum tour structure with simple, label-like chapter titles which categorize significant spaces: Rome, Rome I, Rome II, House I, House II. Some textual spaces are labeled with a certain character’s name, such as the chapters entitled, Nora’s places, Katy’s places. In other words, these labels indicate to whom each space belongs, both in terms of the place that’s described and the textual space where the character’s thoughts are expressed. With these labels, Reisman establishes a sense of order, a sense that these places are frozen in memory. They are always there to be revisited, reimagined again and again. Summer journeys to Rome feel symbolic of a second, separate family life, as does the Blue Rock family summer home on the Massachusetts coast. Significantly, this Blue Rock home transitions from summer home to full time family home (though its chapter label, “House,” remains the same.) She writes, “For the Murphys, there was always the house and the idea of the house, one relatively more stable than the other,” insinuating the foggy world of thought residing in between these labels.
Initially, the characters seem to feel confident that they define their lives, their past, present, and potential selves. In the beginning, the mother of the Murphy family, Nora, projects her own possible future onto a neighborhood friend. As her close friend divorces from her partner and moves to another nearby house, Nora imagines herself separating from her husband, James. She imagines her home and her life with a kind of naive flippancy, a sense of optimistic self-assurance and self-possession:
Over time Nora began to envision herself there too, say, in a place nearby, a rehabbed Victorian, or a smaller house with a brick-lined garden and a redbrick walk. Or a place identical to Lydia’s, where she could live and study for another degree, maybe curatorial, maybe art restoration, and she could talk to Lydia over breakfast.
This sense of possession is shattered on a Murphy family trip to Rome when the youngest daughter, Molly, dies in a tragic car accident. Each family member recalls and recounts the death in different ways, emphasizing different aspects of the scene, blurring, heightening, focusing separate elements. The labeling of chapters continues in the same way, but the content that they frame becomes less stable. In many ways, the death of Molly seems to freeze the family’s development as grief makes many possibilities impossible. Instead, each family member returns continually to their self-curated memory museum of labeled spaces. They approach their memories as a stable set of spaces, gradually recognizing their inability to organize this shattered environment. Reisman writes, “Later, when they knew the praying hadn’t worked, [Nora] imagined the first of several pacts has begun: her children would not believe in her answers, only in her need to explain.”
In other words, the tragedy accentuates their distance, the ineffectuality of these attempts to organize experience. These labels are no longer explanations, merely indications of an unknown space: a question mark of what exactly happened on that day, what could’ve happened, could’ve been, a “need to explain.” The Murphys revisit the memory of Molly’s accident just as they’d otherwise revisit their vacation spots in Rome. In these memorialized imagined spaces:
It’s still that brimming gold moment, outdoor cafe tables filling. Perhaps they’re at a cafe then, the Murphys…James, Nora, Theo, Katy, Molly: the Murphys as they were one day in Rome, and at adjoining tables the various incarnations of them since, taking chairs for awhile before returning to the respective moments they’ve stepped out of, hollowed from their lives in and beyond Blue Rock.
Considering the Murphys and their potential, unlived lives, it feels apt that Reisman’s most striking reflective passages do not directly address the family. Their memories—experienced and imagined—are interspersed with beautifully intricate studies of classic paintings. These paintings function as suggestions of the family’s interior life, though Reisman never asserts these projections or aligns them with specific characters, just as she refrains from describing the thoughts of the figures in the paintings. For example, she writes of the Magdalen Reading, painted by an anonymous follower of Piero di Cosimo:
Her face is a kind of moon, a thin copper halo above, hair blond, partly braided, threaded with pearls. She’s seated, facing the viewer, her attention riveted to the book she holds. Here is the clean edge of a table, here peripheral views of the surrounding garden, the scene—the garden, her dress—painted with brilliant color.
We do not need these feelings and ideas spelled out for us; it is enough to know an unknown lingers in the atmosphere of the subjects’ thoughts. However, Reisman uses these sequences to play with the our expectations of an explanation, providing instructions, directions for where to look in the manner of a gallery tour guide: “the close-up reveals emotional distance—her fixed concentration, that set mouth? Might she prefer to be alone? She is what we have of the moment: an unknown woman painted by an unknown painter. All the violet, the green, the gold. A color dream. But step back.”
Of course, these directives are ineffectual. Just as the Murphys attempt to reconcile their foggy recollections with memories that never happened, the reader finds themselves squinting into the unviewable, looking at a painting they cannot actually see. In place of explanations, the text is filled with the “need to explain”: invisible narratives “painted with brilliant color.”