Still, Life: Intimacies by Katie Kitamura
What is it about an art exhibition in a novel? My favorites spark in my mind: the party scene in Bel Ami that reveals the Hungarian painting “Christ Walking on the Water,” whose subject looks like the (sexy) protagonist; the explosive disaster in Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things; the bees following the honeyed runway model in Jean Philippe Toussaint’s Naked; the Salon des Refusés and later the Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Zola’s The Masterpiece; The Institute of Totaled Art in 10:04.
I enjoy a good old Künstlerroman, but I most love an art show that is slightly peripheral to a novel’s plot. These high-wire sequences—be they created from scratch or based on a real show—can show a writer at their very best, as they construct a system that serves as a microcosm of their greater project. But if the show doesn’t feel plausible, if it wouldn’t work as described, I begin to question the capacity of the author to create an organic world.
Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies has a fabulous art show. It’s called “Slow Food,” and takes place in The Hague’s Mauritshuis Museum. “Slow Food” was exhibited in reality in 2017, but Kitamura takes things a step further. The unnamed narrator’s friend, Jana, is the museum’s curator, and has put together an assemblage from the collection’s still lifes of food. All well and good—but after viewing the art at the opening reception, the guests are led downstairs to dine. There, long banquet tables arranged by a culinary artist feature food in perfect simulation of the paintings in the exhibition. Happy partygoers throng to the lobster. The narrator and her friend “join the line and then reached through the frame to cut slices of cheese.”
“Even the wreckage is somehow funny and interesting, you never get to see paintings in this state,” a character says about the event. Intimacies was one of my favorite books of the past year, and what makes it so good is hard to define. As with the “Slow Food” reception, it disassembles the familiar plot structure of a novel (a complicated love triangle, an intensifying job conflict) while simultaneously utilizing it. This is a plot-filled book constructed from a sequence of bite-sized interactions with our narrator. That her friend is the curator and not an artist speaks to something essential about this novel of peripheral witnessing and behind-the-scenes importance.
I’ve seen Intimacies described as chilly, which I suppose I understand because its characters’ reactions to major drama are often understated and delayed. But beneath the surface of Kitamura’s prose thrums emotion, despair, and a sequence of complex ethical questions: is it appropriate to help someone who has done horrific things; should we look the other way if something amoral is happening; do we take people at their word or trust our own intuition? The text itself is linguistically funky, a watercolor of shadows whose dialogue sometimes melds into the narrator’s thoughts.
The narrator is a new translator—your readerly ears should already be perking—in the International Court of Justice. She’s also in a newish relationship with a handsome man named Adriaan, who is separated-but-not-yet-divorced from the mother of his children. Kees, a swaggering defense lawyer, is lurking around random corners waiting to be obnoxious about his friendship with Adriaan’s wife. There is also a report of an act of violence in Jana’s gentrifying neighborhood: a wealthy book dealer, Anton, who at first seems completely separate from the plot, has been mugged. This fascinates the narrator, though it’s not quite clear why. She becomes intrigued by the bookseller, and goes to his shop, “hardly knowing” why she ventured in. When, later, she meets Anton through his sister, she is “conscious” of him “like a pricking in the skin.” In all of this action, the narrator is at once crucial and de-centered.
Speaking of, this is certainly the only book I’ve read where the ethnic cleansing trial of a former president of an African country is a subplot. I found this unusual gambit to be one of the accomplishments of the book. When the narrator first started working as a translator, she was “looking for something,” though she was “not sure of what.” “Now, six months in,” the narrator thinks of her incredibly unusual job, “it was merely the place of my employment: everything grows normal after a time.” The president’s intensity disrupts this natural evolution, but even during his trial, the narrator remains all-too aware of her own dramas.
I’m particularly fascinated by how Intimacies often shrinks major beats down to infinitesimal size. Take the radical compression of the first paragraph, as a lifetime of plot is boiled down to an expository vignette that flavors the entire book:
It is never easy to move to a new country, but in truth I was happy to be away from New York. That city had become disorienting to me, after my father’s death and my mother’s sudden retreat to Singapore. For the first time, I understood how much my parents had anchored me to this place none of us were from. It was my father’s long illness that had kept me there, and with this unhappy resolution I was suddenly free to go. I applied for the position of staff interpreter at the Court on impulse, but once I had accepted the job and moved to The Hague, I realized that I had no intention of returning to New York, I no longer knew how to be at home there.
As the narrator progresses through The Hague, a place so antiseptic that it has a special machine for picking up cigarette butts, she repeatedly finds herself witnessing distorted versions of what she’s going through with Adriaan, which I read as unconscious efforts at translation. Has he really left his wife for good—and is his relationship with the narrator actually meaningful to him? They date publicly, constantly monitored by a small city full of high-level gossips. And the narrator does the same. At a friend’s house, she looks out a window: “On the street below… at the far end, I could see the outline of a man and a woman. They were leaning into each other as they walked, moving a little and then stopping, moving a little and then stopping. At one point the woman turned her head and glance around them. I leaned forward, pressing my face to the glass.”
There’s also voyeurism in the narrator’s inadvertent surveillance of Anton, the mugged book dealer. She sees him on an illicit date in a restaurant (it’s a terrific set-piece, advancing two plots at once), and that status realignment allows her to perceive him differently. Could this be the backstory that explains his assault? Previously, she had difficulty even understanding his appearance. Now, “As I watched them, I understood that Anton was attractive.”
The work of the narrator throughout is also the work of the reader—she, like us, tries to assemble the seemingly disparate threads of the novel into a cohesive whole that will centralize her and let her reckon with what she is going through with Adriaan. Kitamura’s achievement is that one leaves the novel with a sense of completion, though a traditional dénouement is not quite in the offing.
A particularly amazing scene, one that has stayed with me since finishing Intimacies, occurs when Adriaan’s wife, Gaby, returns to her apartment and has an encounter with the narrator. “We don’t know each other, she said at last. I’m Gaby.” It’s a moment of simultaneous recognition and mistranslation, as Gaby misses something fundamental to the situation. “You’ve been looking after the apartment,” she says, not knowing that the narrator moved back to her own house long ago, and was just stopping through. She lets the narrator keep the keys to the apartment (“They mean nothing to me”), keys she no longer needs. Because interpretation isn’t available to the characters—because the social barrier between them, ironically, lacks a translator—the meaning of this exchange is lost.
“We interpreters were only extras passing behind the central cast,” the narrator thinks of her work. These interpreters “had mere fragments of the narrative, and yet they would assemble those fragments into a story like any other story, a story with the appearance of unity.” Fragments becoming a whole—a reversal of “Slow Food.” Like that exhibition, Intimacies might look like a two-dimensional beauty from the comfortable distance of a back jacket. But what is really here is something far more sensual, brimming with intense flavor. I’ll never see Kitamura’s exhibition in real life, but I’m still grateful to have been invited to the opening.