PRINT January 1986


History of the Universe

Jennifer Bartlett, History Of The Universe (New York: Moyer Bell Limited/Nimbus Books, 1985), 197 pages, 12 black and white photographs.

Jennifer Bartlett’s first published novel, History of the Universe, has many remarkable qualities, the least being that it is one of the few autobiographical fictions, a roman à clef, by a practicing American artist. But Bartlett’s novel is remarkable neither for this reason nor for its being an artist’s fiction—a place it shares with fictions of such other artist writers as André Breton, Wyndham Lewis, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. History of the Universe is simply in and of itself a striking, mature literary work.

This story of the artist as a child, adolescent (growing up in Long Beach, California), and young, sometimes childish adult is told from objective and subjective points of view. The portrayals are both unsparing and comical in their depiction of the narrator and her circle of friends, family, and lovers. For example, of herself as an adolescent the narrator confesses:

I’m so ugly. . . . I have pimples on my chin . . . I have also been fat. . . . I am superior. I am conceited. I have bad posture.

Bartlett’s central writing strategies are the list and inventory, the piling up of sketches of many characters and events, the telling of stories of suicides, illnesses, love affairs, artists’ struggles—all in a voice deadpan and nonjudgmental. (Such strategies are similar to those of her painting—the serial format and the objective presentation of a variety of painterly styles.) One of the wonderful qualities of this novel is the mood created by this dry incantation—a sense of wry sadness. It’s a feeling you might recognize should you find yourself alone in the kitchen reading the texts of cereal boxes at four in the morning.

Some of the characters in History of the Universe could be confused with notable figures in the New York art world, but this is simply an incidental allure of the book, its temporal and journalistic feature. For the accumulated weight of the stories of the many characters in the novel—characters brave and loony and lost—gives an epic heft to a work otherwise compressed. Intercutting the novel are twelve photographs taken by the author of pools, sheds, lawns, and trees—emblematic images which appear in her paintings and installations, and which are as deadpan as Bartlett’s presentation of her characters’ lives.

Frederic Tuten