Mini-Review: Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

Tuesday Nights in 1980 [2016] – ★★★★

I would like to thank Cathy at 746books for recommending this book to me after I compiled list 7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art. Tuesday Nights in 1980 presents New York City’s art scene of 1980. At the centre are three people whose destinies collide in the background of creative bohemia filled with liberties of all kinds, boundless artistic inspiration and ambition, and spurs of unusual creativity: James Bennett is a misunderstood person and a renowned art critic who has synaesthesia, a condition which means that he experiences ideas, people and objects as colours or a combination of colours; Raul Engales is a “free spirit” and up-and-coming Argentinean artist who left behind in his country one past better not recalled; and Lucy Olliason is a girl from Idaho who has just recently arrived to NYC and is open to everything and anything. Evocatively, even if exaggeratedly, Molly Prentiss captures in her story the thrill of being young and artistic in NYC, which itself starts to undergo many changes. Amidst obsessive art-making and pleasures of falling in love, there are also a transitory nature of success, creative doubts and personal tragedies.

Prentiss introduces each character in turn, including their background stories, before focusing on instances that tie them together. New York is portrayed in the most flamboyant colours, a city that has just embarked on a new decade and is full of hope, awaiting changes. It is also that New York of the early 1980s which Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities [1987] described as being populated by reckless “masters of the universe” and permeated with sky-high levels of ambition and optimism. The art scene is also seen as rapidly changing: “The world, especially the art world, was changing…The city was handing out promises, dangling fame in front of even the most radical artists’ noses; in turn, a sharpness was being dulled. The brilliant bohemia he’d discovered when he’d moved to the Village had been ratcheted up a notch; pop had paved the way for commercialism and plastic and shine; there was a new air of possibility and a new wave of capital coming in, which gave the scene a new edge; There was the notion, now, that one could make it [Prentiss, 2016: 42-43]. In fact, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988), who was a real artist from humble origins specialising in street/neo-expressionist art in New York, made his name internationally famous virtually overnight. The three increasingly inter-dependent characters in Prentiss’s story are all striving for recognition and validation, but their precise aims and methods are all slightly different.

The downside of the book is that loose threads (both character and story-wise) do not come together in a satisfactory fashion towards the end and there is a fair share of “forced” tragedies happening. The three characters are immensely interesting, but also quite stereotypical, and, in its second half, the story is full of generalisations and banalities. There are elements of exaggeration and unreality, and the already done-to-death theme of a love triangle hardly helps.

Although Tuesday Nights in 1980 is not a perfect novel, it is a memorable debut which captures astutely both New York’s hectic art scene of 1980 and the all-consuming, uncertain nature of art-creation. Besides, it is written with a punch, rhyme and directness which I absolutely love in contemporary literary fiction.

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