Stacey D'Erasmo captures an artist's transformation in a magic-infused New York.
Mon Jan 5 2009
Photo: Nina Subin
When Stacey D’Erasmo began writing The Sky Below about five years ago, an economic crisis was the last thing on her mind. New York was still recovering from 9/11, and she was thinking about the effects of unexpected change. But while her latest book is as much a 9/11 novel as Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, it also feels spookily current. Gabriel, the young, mostly gay artist at the center of the book, is obsessed with money, and he doesn’t hesitate to screw over other people to get it. Until the bottom falls out of his own clogged, corrupt economy, he can’t become a better person. “Looking back, it seems like I knew something I didn’t know,” D’Erasmo, 47, says over tea in Union Square.
The analogies between D’Erasmo’s book and the present economic woes go even further: Gabriel’s central crisis is a sort of cosmic foreclosure. As a young child, he lives with his family in a charmingly ramshackle, magic-infused house in Massachusetts where his mother reads to him from Ovid’s Metamorphoses every night. Then his father disappears, his mother moves the family to a painfully nonmagical motel in Florida, and the Ovid readings cease, leaving Gabriel with an eternal longing for his lost home.
As a teenager, he distracts himself with petty kleptomania, drug dealing and truck-stop-bathroom blow jobs. None of these hobbies help assuage his attempts to reclaim his childhood, but they do convince him that if he can amass enough cash, everything will be fine. He carries this belief with him through college in Arizona, where he makes Joseph Cornell--inspired diorama boxes, to his life in New York, where he writes newspaper obituaries, moonlights as a ghostwriter for a romance novelist and hoards money in the hopes of buying a house in Brooklyn Heights. When he’s diagnosed with cancer, Gabriel flees to a commune in Mexico, where his ultimate metamorphosis takes place.
Charming and blithely amoral, Gabriel is a recognizable New York type—the self-declared artist for whom art is mostly an excuse for misbehavior. “Every day, you’re offered the temptation to do shitty things and say that it’s for your art,” says D’Erasmo. “I was really riveted by the idea of someone who buys his own self-justifications.”
For a book about money and Manhattan, The Sky Below is hugely fanciful, frequently riffing on Ovid’s visions of human transformation. Mythos suffuses D’Erasmo’s language: Bob Dylan sounds “like a sarcastic tree stump,” drafts “skitter” around a chilly Greenpoint apartment “like ice fairies.” In some of the story’s more surreal moments, Gabriel himself seems to be turning into a bird.
Then again, maybe those are cancer symptoms. The novel consistently fudges the line between the fantastical and the quotidian: A literalist could read Gabriel as a victim of illness-induced hallucinations, whereas to a fan of Greek myths or Marvel Comics, he could literally be a bird-man. D’Erasmo followed Ovid’s lead there. “In The Metamorphoses,” she says, “these things happen—someone turns into a tree, or someone turns into a bird—but it happens in this world, with these bodies, and you feel the flesh of it, and you feel the bark of it, and you feel the mortality of it. I wanted everything in the book that was slightly magical or transformative to have that feeling.”
Still, D’Erasmo is at her best when she’s inventing her own myths. Gabriel works in the Financial District, and in D’Erasmo’s description, the neighborhood turns into the Kingdom of the Dead, a graveyard of old banks with Ionic columns and classical statues: “It was a tumbled mausoleum before the towers went down, and it was a tumbled mausoleum where the dead burned for weeks afterward.”
The author points out that her character’s changes reflect the radical alterations taking place around him. “When something happens when you really can’t go back—the Twin Towers are gone, the job is gone, whatever it is that happens—people will sometimes undergo extraordinary changes. There’s loss, and there’s also gain.”
If this sounds depressing, it isn’t. D’Erasmo, much like Ovid, has a salty sense of humor. Some of the novel’s best sections involve Fleur, the romance novelist who hires Gabriel to write her bodice-rippers, and Carston, a comically drawn German Conceptual artist. Both get described with satirical overtones (Carston all but announces “Now is the time in Sprockets when we dance”), but they remain human even in their absurdities.
Ultimately, this is D’Erasmo’s real feat in the book. Hard-nosed but lyrical, unsentimental but moving, mythical but modern, The Sky Below is a precisely calibrated balancing act. It tells the story of a man who must stop living in a fantasy world, yet it never loses touch with the value of art and magic.
The Sky Below (Houghton Mifflin, $24) is out now. Buy it now from bn.com.