The Thing Itself: Art and Ekphrasis in Thomas Van Essen’s Debut Novel

September 19, 2013   •   By Alana Shilling

The Center of the World

Thomas Van Essen

All women are not Helen,
I know that,
But have Helen in their hearts

            — “Asphodel that Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams

YEARNING, INEXPLICABLE and perennially unsatisfied, permeates The Center of the World, Thomas Van Essen’s debut novel. It resonates in the voices of multiple narrators, speaking from a variety of settings and across nearly two centuries. This yearning tints characters with a melancholy cast and inspires an often impassive prose style to kindle and flicker with devastating existential epiphanies. 

The Center of the World is fired by the premise that a secret masterpiece by the revered J.M.W. Turner, hidden for decades, has been rediscovered, thanks to a series of accidents, deaths, and debts that spread across decades. The painting portrays the mythical Helen looking over the battlements of Troy, surveying the aceldama below; those who gaze upon it inevitably experience a kind of transcendence, and describe the composition in terms that range from the spiritual to the Sardanapalian.

The painting, “The Center of the World,” links the novel’s four main narrators — an insignificant writer in 1830 England; a painfully average American everyman in 2003; his contemporary, a wealthy, amoral owner of a New York “fine arts consultancy”; and an early 20th-century American financier.

Van Essen’s narrative construction is highly sophisticated, and from chapter to chapter he moves deftly between disparate narrative strands to reveal the story of the painting’s conception, realization, acquisition, disappearance, and rediscovery. In early chapters, The Center of the World ranges across all four frames sounding a modified literary octave. As the story gains momentum and the disparate characters come ever closer as if obeying a magnetic force, that octave becomes an oscillation — at one point bringing contemporaneous narratives to collision. On occasion, this movement between characters and their varying milieux becomes problematic — at times, for example, the 1830s narrative sounds incongruously modern — but such flaws are minor.

And in one delicate, difficult area, Van Essen strikes just the right tone: this novel can careen towards the erotic — and even the faintly pornographic — but it retains a tasteful reticence. Even when recounting orgiastic romps — and there are more than a few in this voluptuous work — The Center of the World savors more of the boudoir than the bordello. This discretion suits it, for, elaborate plotting and sensual content notwithstanding, The Center of the World is ultimately a cerebral work, and the drama of the missing masterpiece that drives the plot is ultimately the occasion for a meditation on art, possession, and desire.


The novel opens in October 1830 at Petworth House, the mansion of the aging libertine and prominent patron of the arts, Lord Egremont. It is here that Turner will conceive of and execute his tremendous painting. From the majesty of Petworth the narrative leaps forward to July 2003 and introduces an “estate” of quite a different nature — a dilapidated cabin in the Adirondacks presided over by the quotidian Henry Leiden. Ambitionless, depressed, overweight, Henry drinks too much and aspires to nothing. But the fortuitous discovery of “The Center of the World” catapults Henry to importance. Leiden’s first words to the reader admit his mediocrity as he blandly states, “I am not a remarkable person, but I have had a glimpse into the heart of things.” That “glimpse” will insinuate itself into Henry’s very marrow — and introduce muted chaos into his personal life. It will reveal the disquieting fragility of his marriage, and betray the flimsy security of his bourgeois life. Meanwhile, Arthur Bryce, the director of Madison Partners, an “arts consultancy firm,” is searching for the purloined Turner with fiendish persistence, moving across continents and archives, unfettered by checks either financial or ethical. A narrative set in the 1920s bridges Petworth and New York, 1830 and 2003. It chronicles the history of wealthy American financier Cornelius Rhinebeck’s possession of “The Center of the World” from the moment he acquires it from an unsavory, insolvent collector, agreeing to terms “monstrous and outrageous” to possess it. 


And yet, to attempt a summary of The Center of the World is foolish. This is a small irony of all well-wrought plots: they are clever storytellers, but make others poor ones. To expose the details with which these Scherazades enchant their audiences is to abuse their charms. Consequently, the reader shoulders a responsibility that more linear narratives spare them. In an early chapter Bryce muses, “Each life, each thing, leaves some trace … These traces — broken hearts, idle gossip, scraps of paper can lead us to the thing itself.” Of course, the “thing itself” conceived of by Bryce’s ambition-fevered mind is Turner’s lost masterpiece. But the power of those nearly invisible “traces” of things and people that Bryce imagines could also serve as a model for the novel’s own operational precepts: The Center of the World reticulates a series of fragments, scattered across centuries, continents and sources. Though the most intimate moments of grand historical figures are revealed, the “footprints” left by the past can resurrect the kinds of people time seems to forget — a desperate prostitute, an obscure writer, an inconvenient mistress — suggesting a conception of the world, of existence as a vast, perfect palimpsest in which not even the most inconsequential details are lost.

And as The Center of the World slips from one narrator and time to the next, revelations do not simply unwind themselves before readers; at the moment a truth is revealed, more complexity is introduced to the plot, not less.

Still, the most poignant aspect of The Center of the World lies with those traces that simultaneously connect to their source — the painting itself — yet reveal nothing. True, images have eluded mastery by words for centuries.

In fact, the fiction of the missing painting inherits a tradition that can be traced to classical antiquity. Painting practically governs a principality in that hinterland of history where myth looks a lot like possibility. In the fifth century BCE, ancient Greece was a grand age of tragedians and great philosophers, the epoch of Euripides and Sophocles, Socrates and Plato. It was also an age of legendary painters: Zeuxis — a painter so famous that he reputedly wore cloaks starred with his name embroidered in gold — rendered Odysseus’ steadfast Penelope so perfectly that his painting was said to give human form to morality. Meanwhile, his contemporary Parrahasius was celebrated for the humanity of his subject’s expressions. Parrahasius’s work excited emotion as surely as it depicted it; his “High Priest of Cybele” inspired such passion in the Roman emperor Tiberius that he demanded it be installed in his bedchamber.

Those ancient Greeks were credited with having cultivated painting, elevating it from a crude craft to an art form. Or so we are told. None of the ancient masters’ works remain. They survive only in words, in descriptions by Pausanius (110-180 CE) and, earlier, by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Naturalis Historia XXXV. Ekphrasis — descriptions of works of art (often imaginary) in words — has always been a solution to the problem of illustrating a painting that no longer has a physical presence. Words step in where material existence has slipped away.

And so ekphrasis surfaces continually in The Center of the World, at once seductive and unsatisfying. Often, narrators across the centuries linger over the same elements of the painting. At other times the addition of singular details in the composition — such as a kitten or a jeweled cup from Helen’s marriage to Menelaus, which overflows with shells from Troy’s shores — is startling. Though so many secondary elements  in the painting (as, for example, a merchant ship on the sea) are reiterated by every narrator, some details appear only once, dispelling the illusion that “The Center of the World” can ever be rendered adequately in words.

Ironically, the object that most eludes description is the one all eyes seek: Helen. We know of the gold diaphanous film that reveals rather than conceals her flesh, her jeweled sandals, her discarded lyre, a shoulder, a thigh … strain though they might to capture her, though, the woman eludes possession even in words.


There is an old, oft-repeated anecdote about Zeuxis and his commission to paint Helen in commemoration of a temple to Hera at Croton. Like all stories told a thousand times over, this one varies in the particulars, but the essential tale remains the same. Zeuxis, unable to find a model for the incomparable Helen, assembles the comeliest maidens of Croton and chooses his models for various parts of the legendary beauty. The unannounced punch line is that in scattering Helen between a dozen models, Zeuxis makes her more than any living woman and simultaneously nothing at all — she becomes a series of fragments: an ear, eyes, or a throat. Cicero recalls the story of Zeuxis in his manual on rhetoric, De Inventione; Cicero upholds Zeuxis’ method of representing Helen as a model for orators who must take inspiration not from one authority but from many. With Cicero, Helen’s physical reality fades further, and physical form is replaced by rhetorical figure, a metaphor for how to use words.

Incomplete Helens are scattered throughout Van Essen’s work. Nearly every female character in the novel is a shard of Helen — embodied in the curve of a lip or a leg. Yet “The Center of the World” does not simply represent Helen; the painting is a second Helen — and inspires a series of domesticated Iliads throughout the novel. In a desperate bid to possess the painting, men and women turn dissemblers, intimacies are lost, and even innocence grows guileful.

This is not a work, then, about a painting, but about the desire that art engenders or evokes, a study in the incalculable yearning that crouches hidden and inexplicable in every heart. Like Helen herself, “The Center of the World” is a screen for this unrepresentable desire; in The Center of the World Van Essen manages to capture its traces — and that is a Homeric feat.


Since 2003, Alana Shilling has contributed critical essays on the arts and humanities to publications including The Brooklyn Rail, Art in America and The Fortnightly Review: The New Series.