The Suicide of Claire Bishop
(Dzanc Books, 2015)
In her debut novel The Suicide of Claire Bishop, Carmiel Banasky does “crazy” as well as anyone now writing. Admittedly, my use of the word “crazy” might ring readers’ sensitivity bells since one of the principal characters in her novel suffers from schizophrenia. Perhaps it’s more to the point anyway to use the word adverbially and call Banasky’s novel crazy inventive.
The Suicide of Claire Bishop opens in 1959 with Claire Bishop, a thirty-five-year-old woman living in New York City, sitting for a portrait that her husband, Freddie, has commissioned. She is, we’re told, a “woman of restraint, respect for rules and boundaries.” She indulges unhealthy obsessions, namely in the notion that she will soon inherit a debilitating mental illness. This fear has dissolved not only her self-confidence, if she ever possessed it, but also her intimate relationships.
Claire soon discovers that, in her portrait, the artist, Nicolette, has depicted her suicide. After contemplating the portrait and Nicolette’s motivation for painting it, Claire “wanted, with a sudden and foreign fury, to hit herself.”
Nicolette develops into a key figure in the novel—but more as a shadow from the past, a mystery hanging over the characters’ lives, as we never see her again after Claire kicks her out of her apartment, the portrait unfinished. But Nicolette leaves a deep impression on Claire and, more than anyone in Claire’s life, seems to understand her. “You lived your life afraid you’d go mad,” Nicolette tells her. “And now you’re disappointed.” When Claire confronts Nicolette with the “insult” of her portrait, the latter defends herself:
“Try to understand […] I only painted what I saw. I took this notion of your death—your suicide—and I gave it to the work. So it can’t happen. Do you see?”
“Suicide!” Claire tried very hard to laugh, but it came out like twigs breaking underfoot. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The first of the novel’s eleven sections ends with Claire splitting with her husband of seventeen years—a smart decision, probably, if she’s right about the extramarital affairs she suspects he’s been having, but we can see that she’s not prepared to be on her own, especially in such a poor mental state. Before she makes Freddie leave, she persuades the building superintendent to burn Nicolette’s portrait of her.
The next section launches us forward forty-five years and into the narrative hands of a thirty-two-year-old man named West Butler, whose observations and thoughts are bound up in some pretty intense schizophrenia. West immediately shares that he’s not interested in objective truth, but in truth that is “subjective and hairy.” We also learn that he’s from Port Townsend, Washington, and for the last decade he’s “worked as a data miner and network engineer in New York City.”
West claims to have been in love with an artist named Nicolette. This Nicolette, too, is a portrait artist, and she painted portraits of West when he was being treated in a mental hospital. While she painted him they talked, and he told her about his past, including the time he saw a girl jump off a cliff into Puget Sound.
After leaving the mental hospital, they continued their portrait sessions, and he became her best but also most difficult model. He suggests that without him she never would have become such a successful artist.
Soon he explains that he doesn’t know Nicolette as well as he’s led us to believe. He doesn’t know where she’s from or how old she is, and yet: “I loved her so much I could rip out my collarbone.” He said that she had wanted to save him, and in the end she fell in love with him—“a boy who went schizo on her.”
At an art installation by “his” Nicolette, he meets a group of Hasidim. He imagines them throwing him to the ground and kicking him. “Their beards,” he imagines, “shift and move, made up of a thousand black, vibrating bees.” But rather than attack, they invite him to their gallery which houses a mysterious piece of art they hope can be attributed to Nicolette. He takes three of their business cards, turns, and runs away.
Later he concludes that the Hasidim are interested in Nicolette because they, like him, have learned that she has the power to travel through time—that must be how different portraits can be attributed to “Nicolette” across decades. He believes she also has the ability to paint things out of existence, including people’s troubles, and that the Hasidim know this, too. Since the Hasidim’s numbers are declining, surely they would want her to paint out their extinction and help them “time travel to who knows where!” The painting he obsesses over is their only tangible link to her. “The Hasidim,” he anxiously suggests, “will stop at nothing to track down Nicolette.”
West meets a man named Jill in a gallery elevator. By coincidence, he’s the same man who fell in love with Claire in the 1960s, when he was the leader of a small, anti-war group. He stole Claire’s portrait—the one “her” Nicolette painted—the day she kicked him out of her apartment. Jill gives West a magazine with a cover photo of bees—an overused symbol of loss in the novel—and they get to talking about Nicolette’s work.
Despite West’s schizophrenia-imbued narrative (or perhaps because of it), what he describes of the world is often captivating in a way that the first section, Claire’s, isn’t. We’re brought deeper into his madness, partly because Banasky employs first-person in his sections, and partly because he admits his madness and isn’t afraid to talk about it. We see him walking down Eighth Avenue “until the sky is the color of the street,” pausing,
“as a few notes drift out of a lit-up shopfront, trumpeting the sidewalk, looping in and out as if the night were at moments muting the music, at moments inviting it to move in and rise, like a fellow player at a jazz club, taking a solo, giving one. The repeated phrase takes a turn and it’s coming for me, violent for a moment, but the crescendo relaxes, sinks a bit in on itself. And there, in the display case of that shop window, is a large vase, and the design on that vase is exactly the visual representation of the song being played.”
West’s observations are often brilliantly imagined. But as his mental state degenerates, he sees the world as more fearful; his observations turn darker as perceived threats begin shadowing him—as he reduces and then stops his meds regimen.
The novel’s eleven sections (plus a short manifesto and an epilogue) alternate between Claire’s life and West’s. Time becomes central to the story as we weave in and out of their lives, most conspicuously in the events West narrates. He links Nicolette’s paintings of him to her painting of Claire, concluding that “Nicolette uses the energy she captures from painting to travel through time.” He obsesses not only about Nicolette, but increasingly, too, about questions of space and time.
Returning to Claire’s story, we watch her divorce Freddie, have various affairs, get jilted by Mary, her lover and the most important person in her life, which sends her to a new low—one that forces her finally to look deeply inward.
The novel soars when Banasky gives Claire the chance to confront her demons head-on—something frustratingly uncommon until late in the book. The most moving part of Claire’s story is when she returns home to care for her aging, infirm mother, Elsa. This proves to be not only a way out of her own troubled life, but also a way to know herself better and heal from a lifetime of hurt. Elsa, recently widowed, suffers from Alzheimer’s and hardly recognizes Claire. When she does, she’s not happy to see her; Claire’s presence triggers memories of a daughter she feels was disloyal and whom she didn’t always want to be a mother to. But Claire persists with her in ways we haven’t seen before—more sympathetic, more human than elsewhere in the novel. In a relatively short space, with a character we barely know, we experience a level of emotion that Claire hasn’t come close to taking us to before. It’s beautiful.
For all the novel’s main successes, certain aspects of the narration lack clarity. Despite our knowing that Claire and West are connected both by the painting and by Nicolette (a confusing figure herself), the relationship between the two stories can be hard to fully grasp. Is Nicolette the time traveler West suggests? Was he simply confusing two artists named Nicolette? Was his relationship with her only imagined?
But overall the novel impresses, especially in the early sections narrated by West. Although the stakes for him grow as the novel progresses, one feels his suffering, and sympathizes with him earlier on, despite a schizophrenia-imbued narrative that’s sometimes hard to relate to. Readers are fortunate to have such a skilled writer as Banasky to portray “crazy” convincingly and sensitively. It’s later in the book, when West steals Nicolette’s portrait of Claire and goes on the lam, that he becomes less believable and the story veers at times into melodrama. We are given a glimpse of West’s long-absent and unsupportive father, but when West comes face to face with him the encounter lasts barely a page—a third of which is devoted to whether or not West keeps the toilet seat down in his apartment. Five minutes after meeting his father, West leaves him, and only after he drives off do we see him blurt out what he couldn’t communicate to his father’s face: “Shove it.” But it comes too late, after a scene that’s too much of a non-scene (in a section in which too little of consequence happens). His anger at his father goes nowhere, and even then, when he releases it, it’s too muted to be convincing.
As the sections advance, the years do, too, until at the end of the novel West and Claire finally meet, brought together by Nicolette’s portrait of Claire. Finding Nicolette, as well as the time portal he thinks she’s using, is West’s driving force in the novel. Claire entertains no such fanciful thoughts, and remembers Nicolette only vaguely by the novel’s end.
But there’s no such vagueness in the reader’s mind. Banasky’s vivid writing doesn’t allow for it. The Suicide of Claire Bishop is not the kind of story the title (or cover) implies. She gives us a story that is about more than just loss and madness—though it bears repeating that this is one of the better portrayals of “crazy” in recent memory. Banasky shows us a familiar world in unfamiliar colors and brushstrokes. One might even say that she gives readers a different way of understanding what a novel can be.