PRINT September 1996


Obscene Bodies

“IN THE BESTSELLING TRADITION established by Michael Chabon, Bret Easton Ellis, and Donna Tartt, Kim Benabib examines the moral dilemmas and social pressures of his generation in a striking debut novel set in New York’s beguiling art world.” So reads the cover copy on Obscene Bodies, a largely unbeguiling effort by someone whose bio mentions painter mother, dealer dad, unspecified work at CBS, and a research job on The Charlie Rose Show. Note that the pantheon into which Benabib’s publicist inserts him is basically one of well-off college kids who met the right editor, collected a big paycheck, and were promptly forgotten by anyone who takes literature seriously, though such writers still serve as exemplars of “the younger generation” for the sclerotic mandarins of The New York Review of Books and similar publications. While one can credit an Ellis, or a Tartt, with a measure of novelistic skill, Benabib has little more going for him than academic intelligence, a decidedly unuseful quality for a writer of fiction. Obscene Bodies wants to be read as a scandalous roman à clef about a painter very like Ross Bleckner, and at first, because Benabib has a distinct gift for putting ideas in people’s mouths in a plausible way—we believe we’re about to get the skinny on the motivations that drive the art world’s murkier narratives. But something goes awry when the Bleckneroid character shapes up as an evil foil to Benabib’s bland, straight, earnest narrator, whose bittersweet coming of age this novel is meant to bittersweetly commemorate. Unintentionally, the book also begins to reveal, not the art world’s dark secrets, but its middle-class banality. By chapter three the reader is no longer wondering What happens next? but Why on earth am I reading this?

The notion of a burnt-out Conceptual artist hiring a bright young thing to invent and execute his work might, on a slow day, sound provocative to art-world outsiders, particularly those laboring in regions of the culture industry such as, say, The Charlie Rose Show. It might also be soothing to someone like Hilton Kramer to imagine such an artist driving said bright young thing to a fatal spill down an elevator shaft. But these melodramatic touches can only cause yawns in those who are drearily familiar with the art world, emanating as they obviously do from what used to be called, in the ’80s, replacement envy—i.e., your success is my failure, your publicity means my obscurity, etc., etc. Envy is the urtext of Obscene Bodies, sometimes dissembled, sometimes partially copped to. By his own lights Benabib does his best to undermine this raison d’être by revealing his narrator’s mentor, and hence his narrator’s superior certainties, as criminally fraudulent. Alas, as we used to say about Lyndon Johnson, his lights are none too bright and his best is none too good.

Gary Indiana is a staff writer for The Village Voice.


Obscene Bodies, By Kim Benabib. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. 256 pp. $22.