THERE IS A SET of pendant paintings by Giovanni Paulo Panini, Ancient Rome at the Met and Modern Rome in the Louvre, in which the artist depicts dozens of other paintings of Rome’s most famous architectural ruins, classical sculptures, and works of High Renaissance art. I have always been transfixed by Panini’s works, though not for the quality of these canvases as paintings themselves. Instead, I am drawn to the paintings within the paintings, ignoring the larger works in favor of the smaller, less detailed canvases they contain. It fascinates me that a painter would choose paintings as his subject, turning the gaze back on himself in a way that seems at once clever and crazy.
David Samuel Levinson’s debut novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, is a literary equivalent of Panini’s pendant paintings. It’s a novel that is about novels (and some of those novels are also about novels.) Compounding this hall-of-mirrors quality is the fact that Levinson’s novel Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence frames itself as a novel entitled Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, written by one of the characters within the novel Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, who withholds his or her true identity until the novel’s end.
Don’t worry, it’s less confusing than it sounds.
The novel, which takes place in the quaint, upstate New York college town of Winslow, is a work of true literary suspense — literary in this case not referring to genre but to subject matter. It’s a fantasy world, and not an entirely unpleasant one, in which books reign supreme in the pantheon of the arts, and the sort of status and renown afforded the few Franzens of this world is within reach of several novice writers. Nearly every character in the book is enthralled or enslaved by the written word — bookstore clerks, critics, students of literature, memoirists, and novelists living, dead, and aspiring.
The story revolves around Catherine Strayed, ABD in literature — the title of her incomplete dissertation, “Deconstructing Williams: Eschatological Anticipation in the Novels of Gass and Gaddis,” confirms that Levinson’s novel is skewed toward the academic and literary insider. Catherine is mourning the death of her husband, novelist Wyatt Strayed, who died under somewhat, but not entirely, mysterious circumstances, shortly after his debut novel was savaged by the literary critic Henry Swallow.
Swallow is a critic of mythic proportions and a degree of influence that Levinson exaggerates ad absurdum. With one review he was able to derail Wyatt’s career, relegating his novel The Last Cigarette to remainder bins nationwide. Now Swallow, fired from a more prestigious teaching post in New York City (in part due to an affair he had with Catherine while she was his graduate student many years earlier) has relocated to Winslow and, despite his having ruined her husband’s career and quite possibly his life, Catherine permits him to move into her guesthouse. In his wake comes his newest protégé and lover, 23-year-old literary it-girl Antonia Lively, whose debut novel is set to catapult her into the publishing stratosphere.
Henry has staked much of his reputation on a single rather inflexible literary principle: that fiction be entirely devoid of even a hint of biography or autobiography. (The basis of his epic takedown of Wyatt’s book is that he caught a whiff of Wyatt’s actual father in its pages. It seems unlikely at best that literary critics go sniffing around in authors’ family trees for source material for their reviews, but then again, Henry is as ruthless as he is thorough.) Needless to say, Henry is less than pleased when Antonia’s criminally insane uncle Royal rolls into Winslow, literally hunting Antonia down in order to exact revenge on her for stealing a story he once told her and reshaping it into her novel — a novel that Royal wished to write himself. The moment Henry suspects that there might be a kernel of real life in Antonia’s literary debut he is compelled to distance himself from her, and he does so in grand fashion.
What follows is a complex and convoluted web of literary espionage, petty crime, gun violence, and revenge in which writers write for purposes much deeper and darker than simply telling stories. Levinson’s characters are sharply and viciously drawn and his pacing is crisp and clean. The book manages to move swiftly through the perplexing intricacies of its plot while (mostly) navigating the pitfalls of the in-the-know writerly jargon that is smattered across its pages.
No one will fault Levinson for lack of imagination — his characters have skeletons to spare in their closets and bottomless capacities for barbarous behavior — yet since books about writers are few and far between, it’s difficult not to be reminded of another novel of literary suspense, retribution, and murder set in a bucolic college town: Pale Fire. But unlike Nabokov’s darkly comic masterpiece, which is a delicious puzzle box of interpretation and wit that presents at core an honest criticism of criticism and academia, Levinson’s world feels at times cramped, didactic, and exaggerated.
There are too many writers, critics, and careful readers crammed into a tiny town, most of whom muse a little too seriously on the Purpose of Fiction. This, according to Wyatt, is, “to shine some light through the dark,” while Antonia, wise beyond her 23 years, posits that it is her obligation as a writer to give “voices to those who can’t speak.” Levinson, thankfully, doesn’t write with the heavy-handed purpose of his characters who have no truck with the light-hearted, imaginative facets of the craft, the fun stuff of writing, the ability of a novelist not to wallow in the darkness of humanity and the voiceless dead, but instead to invent the living.
When you write about novelists and critics you’re fixing to draw fire from your peers. And Levinson has certainly given us a bleak outlook on the craft of the novel. The art of fiction lies in the transformation — the elevation of a simple fact into an elaborate lie. Try telling that to the writers in Levinson’s book. For them writing is an exercise in co-opting, in re-presenting someone else’s story. Success for the writers in Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence comes only when they rely on the misfortunes of others for their stories. Writing, as Levinson would apparently have us believe, is mimesis — barely fictional representations of real-world people and real-world events.
“Fiction is always pressed up against some truth,” the mysterious author of the novel within a novel writes. If this is true, I’m praying Levinson’s truth is not one that reveals novelists to be ruthless and relentless, desperate and opportunistic, or, even worse, lacking in imagination. Because Levinson himself seems to be none of these.