Outsider art

Kellerman's 3rd novel is the story of a New York art dealer who lives in "four layers of irony."

the genius book 88 (photo credit: )
the genius book 88
(photo credit: )
The Genius By Jesse Kellerman Penguin 384 pages; $24.95 Jesse Kellerman's The Genius is the story of Ethan Muller, a New York art dealer who lives in a world of artwork encased in "four layers of irony" and dealers who care more about taking advantage of billionaires striving to appear cutting edge than displaying anything worthwhile. However, all this changes when Muller is led to thousands of sketches left in one of his family's apartments by a reclusive missing tenant called Victor Cracke. Cracke's identity remains a mystery, but his art gives a disturbing glimpse into his mind. Its grotesque caricatures hint at somebody deeply unstable, yet the scope of the art, which Muller discovers to be mapped out across thousands of pieces of paper, suggests that he has the qualities of a genius. The Genius is Kellerman's third novel, and he has described it as a query into what might happen if you co-opt an artist's work. It is the novel with which he will distinguish himself from his famous, mystery-writing parents, Faye and Jonathan. In the book, Muller knows that he has found an artist who is too pure and lacking in self-consciousness to be categorized. Meanwhile, any moral doubts about giving an audience such an intimate glimpse into the artist's mind without his permission Muller brushes off as a nasty bourgeois construction. But things start to go wrong when an ex-policeman sees one of the pictures in The New York Times and recognizes in it the face of a young boy whose rape and murder he had investigated over 40 years earlier. As the rumors of just who Cracke is set the art world aflame, the pictures begin to sell for huge amounts of money and Cracke becomes the ultimate "outsider artist." At the same time Muller begins to receive letters in Cracke's scrawling handwriting warning him to take down the exhibit. So, Muller and the ex-cop set about trying to solve the murder and find out the truth about Cracke. Interwoven with Muller's narrative is a third-person account of the history of the Muller family, from their beginnings as poor Jewish-German immigrants and their rise to becoming one of New York's wealthiest families. Kellerman brings them to life as people who become ever more cold and ruthless as their exalted position demands they cover up any imperfections in their public image. However, the family has a dirty secret, one that continues to have an effect on its progeny right down to Ethan. The Muller family members of the past are created with a deftness and subtlety that makes you abhor and sympathize with them in equal measure. The character of Cracke too, when he is finally introduced, does not disappoint and his pathetic yet pitiable personality is developed in scenes that cannot help but twist the pit of your stomach. Unfortunately, the long-winded prose Kellerman resorts to in relation to Muller means that the protagonist never takes off as a character. It is here that the book's main flaw is exposed: It tries - and ultimately fails - to be at the same time realistic and a fast-paced crime novel. After a series of twists that hold the reader's attention, at least in parts, the ending is anticlimactic, as loose ends that have been built up to over 350 pages are tied up unsatisfactorily in a couple of short chapters.