Yaddo. MacDowell. Loci of longing and feverish endeavor, reservoirs of growth and doubt and wild energies. The names of these artists' colonies evoke exclusivity and at the same time a presumably egalitarian, takes-all-types welcome. Where convention is razed, a sort of clearing appears, and in that clearing individuals adopt the mantle of artist. Whatever comes of the artistic work, be it fame or emulation or oblivion, the places themselves retain their native air of mystery.
"What would we do without this place?" asks a sculptress toward the conclusion of Rebecca Makkai's puzzle-like second novel The Hundred-Year House. "What sort of world would this be, without refuges?" Laurelfield, Makkai's invented colony, is the retreat in question, located on a sprawling Illinois estate built by a wealthy merchant for his emotionally elusive wife.
The conclusion of Makkai's novel marks its point of chronological origin; The Hundred-Year House slips backward by bounds, playing effectively as three novellas. Each narrative of roughly equal length informs the others. Ironies rise to the surface. The novel moves from 1999 to 1955 to 1929 to a turn-of-the-century prologue, five pages long, that finds stifling husband Augustus Devohr surveying his "virgin land." It is tough to finish reading without turning to the first page and leafing forward again.
In this volume, evocative of the gothic classics whose conventions Makkai both emulates and spoofs (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Citizen Kane), many of the secrets lie — surprise, surprise — in the attic. For a novel that appears on its face to be easy sailing, The Hundred-Year House offers more than a few subtle connections for the reader to complete. It also has its fair share of ludicrous plot turns. "The Devohr history," one character reads, "...is one of scandal, Diaspora, insanity." A momentous storm descends at a critical plot juncture. Characters decline to ask obvious questions of each other, preferring instead the escalating misunderstandings on which novelists have long thrived. Not everyone is who he or she claims to be.
In the novel's 1999 section, the focus toggles between a married pair, the closet young-adult-series author Doug, whose true obsession, little-known poet Edwin Parfitt, was once a Laurelfield poet-in-residence; and Zilla, a Marxist professor at the local college who intends to get her husband a job there by almost any means possible. The artists' colony at Laurelfield, to which Zilla has a familial claim, has been closed for almost 50 years. Doug and Zilla, aka Zee, have recently moved to a guest room there to lessen the pressure caused by Doug's less-than-robust earnings.
The estate in its present form is watched over by Grace and Bruce, Zee's mother and stepfather, plus a single housekeeper. When Bruce's son, Case, and his wife, Miriam, show up, predictable complications ensue in a less-than-predictable fashion. With encouragement from Miriam — but not from his own wife — Doug kindles suspicion that he will gain insight into the poet Parfitt's life and eventual suicide in the locked attic. Y2K, Al Gore, the death of JFK Jr. and dial-up internet loom large in the proceedings. All this makes for breezy, smart comedy, a caper tale by turns sharp and absurd.
The novel's 1955 section dramatizes the abusive relationship between heiress Grace and her first husband, George — the father whom Zilla of 1999 remembers only in glowing terms. What happened between these events and Zilla's conception is an open question: How did the George who was an up-from-nowhere, hard-drinking gadabout and well-married cad become the quiet, cultivated father and critic whose work won admiration in art circles? This section plays more in the vein of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. The colony has only recently shut its doors, and the estate at Laurelfield bustles with full-time help.
In the somewhat shorter 1929 section, Makkai treats the reader via textual collage to the colony in its heyday: the gang all there, living wildly, furiously generative, engaging in shenanigans. Yes, two of the residents harbor a doomed love for each other ("If there were no wall, if there were no cloth, she'd be painting the same air he is dancing in"). And, yes, Eddie Parfitt, the young poet ("He published two collections at Princeton, and everyone's talking about him") is feeling pretty blue about life. And, right, the entire colony is under threat of extinction, as its benefactor Gamaliel Devohr, aka "Gammy," will soon arrive to shut down the place.
And yet, isn't this always how art has come into being — under threat of extinction? Dependent on the artist's presence at one place on one day instead of somewhere else? How quickly might a full reckoning with the frangibility of ambition — an artist celebrated one decade, forgotten the next — drive a questioner toward madness? Aren't human ties all that we have in the end, our reservoirs of individual understanding?
In her zeal to find employment for her husband, Zilla of 1999 sees "a vaguely Doug-shaped hole." "Was there much distance between rooting for someone and loving him?" she wonders.
"Listen, Grace," pleads a caretaker in 1955 on behalf of a recently arrived cook whose culinary skills leave something to be desired. "This has always been a place for strays."
"It's an asylum," says the author of a novel called Jack in the Woods in 1929, "for people who think they're artists."
Makkai, who summers at Fern Lake in Leicester, is a graduate of the colony-like Bread Loaf School of English; her use of the name "Gamaliel" is almost certainly nabbed from Gamaliel Painter, whose generosity factored in the history of Middlebury College.
Whatever an artists' colony is or might be, whatever possibility for human empathy such a locale invites, Makkai has crafted a stir of echoes, a saga of wayward love and restless creativity. If a true sense of Laurelfield as a place, a lived-in home, remains curiously absent from the novel (think Gertrude Stein's phrase "no there there"), it is not for lack of compelling dynamics among the generation-spanning cast.
"Yes," muses a painter named Zilla in 1929. "We're awfully lucky to do what we do."