Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Wendy, Master of Art by Walter Scott

I am not young and I have never been an arts student. I was never even serious enough about writing fiction to qualify on that account.

I say that up front, since I'm not at all the expected or target audience for Wendy, Master of Art.

This is Walter Scott's [1] third book about the young artist Wendy, who is probably semi-autobiographical in ways that won't be clear to anyone who isn't Walter Scott or maybe someone really close to him. Wendy is a hot mess, in that young-artist way: unsure what she wants, unfocused, insecure, a borderline alcoholic. Her world is the world of young artists; the cast is made up of characters who are either types or, possibly, actual real people changed just enough to keep Scott from getting sued.

In this book, she goes for her MFA at the University of Hell, in a provincial Ontario city. (Scott himself got his MFA in 2018 at the University of Guelph, which is pronounced not a million miles away from "hell," though with a G up front and a swallowed "fah" at the end.) There, she makes art, interacts with the other oddballs in the MFA program, is "mentored" and taught by a clearly burned-out professor, and teaches undergrads, but mostly avoids working on her art to drink and bitch and have a semi-doomed relationship with a guy back in Toronto who already has one girlfriend. (But that girlfriend also has a girlfriend, so it's polyamorously OK, we readers assume, even though Wendy and this guy Xav never actually talk about that part of their relationship.)

It's all told in a loose art style, almost sketchy, with a slightly shaky line all pretty much the same weight. It works just fine for this kind of story, about messy people in messy rooms and studios, with clutter all around and the detritus of making art, like "really long string."

And it's amusing, because Scott has a good eye for human foibles. All of these people are bad company, in one way or another, except maybe Xav. They're all young and obsessive and too in love with their own passions or their own successes or just being artists and filling out their images of themselves. They would be horrible company in real life, but are fun to laugh at in a book: that type of people.

Wendy is not the worst among that company - that would probably be Maya, the tiresome globe-trotting already-successful ball of self-absorption who sweeps in and out of the story as she name-drops every trendy city in the world - but Wendy would be pretty annoying in real life nonetheless, a needy mess unsure of every important thing in her life.

Frankly, the lesson I take from Wendy, Master of Art is that my vague stereotype of art students and the art world in general - formed at Vassar over thirty years ago, out of minimal materials and a dislike for the kind of people who smoke above eye level - is basically correct, and I have been right to avoid both since then. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

Otherwise, this is funny, but it's mostly for people who live in this world and get all of the references. There are several scenes where outsiders come to Hell and are clearly on the outside while Wendy and her fellow students chat deeply about art stuff: Wendy, Master of Art is a book for the people who come to Hell and understand that talk, who can give it back as fast as they hear it.

[1] Yes, that seems to be his real name, and it can't have been easy. He's even Canadian, so there's an off-chance he could be knighted at some point and legitimately claim to be Sir Walter Scott.

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