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Empty vessels.

June 4, 2012

Art and advertising may seem unlikely bedfellows to some—but are they mutually exclusive, or do they feed off one another? In Palladio, American novelist Jonathan Dee explores this concept against a backdrop of poignant human drama; the result is both a finely crafted love story and a challenging exploration of the artifice that shrouds contemporary Western culture.

Dee’s most recent novel, The Privileges, a dark tale of wealth and ambition, was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; but I think Palladio, published in 2002 and only just released in Australia, is the more accomplished and satisfying work. While it may not come as news to anyone that we live in an age of irony and cynicism, Dee’s narrative situates our very modern condition—our self-aware interaction with surface over depth, appearance over reality—in the complex and conflicted context of the human heart.

Palladio is the story of two lovers, but Dee approaches his protagonists from different points in time, until their parallel narratives eventually converge in present-day Virginia. In the 1980s, teenager Molly Howe is a quiet beauty, desperate to escape the emotional constriction of her parents’ disastrous marriage and their dull small town life. When she’s involved in a scandal in her final year of high school, she flees to Berkeley, where she begins a relationship with a young art student named John Wheelwright. But Molly’s emotional fragility eventually derails this cautious new stability in her life; it’s not long before she walks out on John and disappears from his life.

But when we first meet John, it’s in the late 1990s, 10 years after the curious end of his affair with Molly—an end he never understood, but nonetheless moved on from. Now a commercial artist working at a major New York advertising firm, he gets swept up in a curious new venture spearheaded by Mal Osbourne, a wealthy eccentric with a revolutionary approach to art as a form of publicity. When John relocates to Virginia to work for Mal, he unexpectedly crosses paths with Molly once more; but John’s reconnection with his first love comes at a cost.

This is another fascinating and thoughtful work of fiction from Dee, and while it offers no solutions to the familiar conundrum it presents us with—our rampant consumerism and obsession with image—it asks some pertinent questions about the nature of love and the quest for authenticity. Dee skilfully blends the personal and political, as his broader commentary on the collision between art and commerce begins to mirror the nature of Molly and John’s relationship: what’s real seems always just beyond reach, too obscured and compromised to effect true change.

But this isn’t for want of trying, at least in the realm of advertising. Mal Osbourne names his revolutionary new agency Palladio, after Andrea Palladio, the most influential figure in the history of Western architecture. Fittingly, this avant-garde institution operates out of a grand antebellum mansion in Charlottesville, and its philosophy—Mal’s philosophy—is to free advertising from ‘the idea that the commercial world may function only as a place where real artists, quote unquote, come to whore themselves’. His approach is to hire artists—‘real artists’—and ask them to create works of art in lieu of advertising campaigns, pieces that bear no relation to the product or company they purportedly represent. Palladio’s work quickly becomes a phenomenon—within months, corporations and governments are clamouring to raise their profiles by paying for works of art that are free from logos, slogans, or any other discernible symbols of marketing.

But it’s a love affair that can’t last. Inevitably, as Palladio’s star rises, Mal’s reputation becomes commodified in its own way. While he refuses to make public appearances or take credit for Palladio’s creations, he can’t avoid becoming a kind of mythic figure in the public imagination. Even as he and John strive to maintain the principles of their operation, Molly’s reappearance changes everything; as John is once again faced with the allure of his first love, Palladio’s power begins to falter. The question of what is truly authentic—Palladio’s vision, John’s rekindled love for Molly, and the feelings she provokes in the other men in her life—becomes a question of what can survive, and of whether we can ever really have what we most desire: a problem that advertising thrusts on us every day.

Molly is the most interesting and frustrating character in Palladio, perhaps because she embodies the moral ambiguities at the novel’s core. She’s irrevocably damaged by her parents’ destructive and loveless marriage—from a young age, Molly is keenly aware of the gap between appearance and reality, of the public and private self, or ‘that space where something private might theoretically exist’. This is no more aptly demonstrated than in her own home, where her mother’s bitterness and her father’s apathy simmer constantly beneath the surface, warping Molly’s sense of self and her understanding of relationships. After the doomed affair with a married man that drives her away to California at 18, Molly is set on a path of destruction—her fear of intimacy and awareness of her sexual power make her ‘the kind of woman a certain kind of man will want to wreck himself against’.

Palladio is an elegantly crafted and contemplative portrait of contemporary American life. Dee, like Jonathan Franzen, is able to create subtle social commentary on an intricate canvas of finely wrought characters and intimate human drama. And for all its gravity, Palladio, in the end, is strangely optimistic; it shows us that what’s real, or what we believe is real, is always worth fighting for, even if the consequences are not what we expect.

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