The Fine Art of Fucking Up by Cate Dicharry

Reviewed By

Cate Dicharry’s excellent debut novel, The Fine Art of Fucking Up, weaves humor and humanity to explore one woman’s personal and professional dissatisfaction and to suggest how we all might be able to cleave past our setbacks to find our own joy.

Dicharry assembles a delightfully absurd cast of characters. The protagonist, Nina Lanning, is the administrative coordinator at the School of Visual Arts and she appears to be the calm eye at the center of both bureaucratic and personal storms. Her boss has retreated from any professional duties to indulge her obsession with romance novels, and the professors Nina now finds herself in charge of are behaving like grade school students with a substitute teacher. Meanwhile, Nina’s marriage is strained by her husband’s baby fever. This set of circumstances would be enough to set a nice story in motion, but Dicharry ups the ante.

An impending flood is threatening the School of Visual Arts building and the prized Jackson Pollock within. While facing her other problems, Nina must spearhead a mission to rescue the priceless Pollock from natural disaster, raising questions about what we save for the ages, what we let go, and what is the cost of those choices. I could almost hear Dylan singing “Inside the museum infinity goes up on trial.”

As the title indicates, Nina does not handle these concurrent challenges with aplomb. Rather, she begins to slowly, methodically, hilariously unravel. During the rescue attempt she describes how far off track her situation had become, “the building underwater, Ramona trapped inside, the Pollock in peril, Suzanne and James in love in a kayak, Ethan at home playacting fatherhood with an international exchange student, and me, wanted by campus police, staggering around in sewage, a chipmunk carcass thumping against my breastbone as I try to keep from throwing up.”

Dicharry sets Nina up as the proverbial plate spinner. It is tremendously fun to watch Nina rush from stick to stick attempting to keep all her various dishes in the air. It is even more engaging when she fails and they come crashing down. Nina grows increasingly frustrated as each situation wobbles further out of control. This leads her to make some questionable decisions, but, more importantly for the reader, it also reveals her humanity.

Dicharry intersperses the humor with Nina’s very human concerns. Her marriage is in trouble. She has doubts about having a child. She questions her career path and professional choices. In describing her mother’s insistence on telling people who ask that her daughter is an artist, Nina explains that, “my mother continues to presume my position as administrative coordinator, as compared to say, associate professor, indicates subversion. I was screwed. There’s no other explanation. It never ceases to amaze me how oppressive maternal love and support can be.” It is precisely this kind of insight that makes this novel about the wacky escapades of a bunch of eccentric folks also a thoughtful study of that unwieldy storm, the human condition. “Fucking Up”  does not just refer to making a bad situation worse. It also relates to how Nina, and all of us, have frailties and flaws and could easily be described as fucked up. “We are all in the gutter,” said Oscar Wilde, who went on to remind us that some of us were “looking at the stars.” Dicharry’s rendering of Nina glimmers with resonant echoes of this commonality.

Like the multilayered title, the mission to rescue the Jackson Pollock also serves a dual purpose. On the surface, the effort to save the priceless work of art from the impending flood adds a ticking clock against which Nina must race. This increases the stress as well as the opportunities for comically bad decisions. In Dicharry’s skilled hands it also serves as a metaphor for Nina’s attempt to save her identity as an artist amidst the flood of troubles in her world and expands beyond that to a meditation on what it means for each of us to save a spot for beauty and creativity within our hectic lives.

The juxtaposition of comedy and insight make The Fine Art of Fucking Up a delightful read. Dicharry does a masterful job of using humor to reflect on Nina’s humanity even as that humanity makes Nina’s predicament even more absurd. The novel succeeds both in being a fun, lighthearted exploration of how things can go awry and a more thoughtful look at what we must discard to get past our own troubles as well as the role art can and can’t play in that transformation.


Anna March’s writing appears regularly in Salon and here at the Rumpus and her work has been widely published including in The New York Times' Modern Love Column, New York Magazine, VQR, Hip Mama and Tin House. Her essay collection, Feminist Killjoy, and novel, The Diary of Suzanne Frank, are both forthcoming and she is at work on two new books. She teaches writing workshops, mentors writers, is active in promoting literary community and is the co-founder of LITFOLKS in LA and DC. She lives in Rehoboth Beach and Los Angeles. Sometimes she has pink hair. Follow her on Twitter @ANNAMARCH or learn more about her at ANNAMARCH.COM. More from this author →