A man bored with his life and marriage discovers, in the least likely place, an outlet for new possibilities of love and excitement. It’s a path he jumps for immediately, a path where madness and fantasy collide, and the consequences are all too real. The Lady in the Paint is a psychological thriller that delves into reality and fantasy, madness and cognitive dissonance, and how, depending on who you ask, things are more real than we know. —From Amazon
David Xavier’s The Lady in the Paint has staked a surefooted answer to the question of whether love is madness. For John, the narrator, it is certainly so. Love is madness in various ways: delusion, paranoia, anger, vengeance. As a character, John exhibits a brand of middle-aged disdain we often see in the bored, cynical men of literature and television. He seems to have no particular affection for his wife, and though his interaction with others in the story is limited, he’s an equal-opportunity backbiter.
As the story opens, he’s loitering around the punch bowl at an estate sale while his wife shops. His attitude:
Usually I couldn’t stand those things, estate sales. Buzzards going from room to room of old furniture that smelled of warm dust, digging through junk and trinkets, the owner of which was recently put under. It was all old and used, last handled by arthritic hands that had handled their last.
(Last handled by arthritic hands that had handled their last. I had to re-read it to recognize its deliberateness.)
He is repulsed by the worn-out and desires something fresh. With his character set thus, Xavier works quickly to upset his expectations. At the estate sale, John finds and falls in love with the Lady in the Paint—an oil-painted portrait in a frame, leaned against the wall in a stack of other art. From the story’s first paragraph, it’s obvious that John doesn’t see the Lady as a work of art, but as a real person.
But she had the mischievous look of a hidden secret and she directed it right at me, she froze me in place. My eyes went to her repeatedly and we kept catching each other’s glances until it didn’t matter anymore, there was no hiding it, and we stared without apology.
Three paragraphs in, we realize she is not in fact a real person, but a painting.
The moment their eyes first “meet,” an obsession begins. John hangs the painting in his office, and, at first, tries to keep his fixation secret from his wife, Sylvia. Once the Lady descends from the frame and into his real world and their interaction becomes physical, he abandons subterfuge. It takes a while for Sylvia to comprehend the nature of the change in her husband. Before long, she gets fed up with him and takes action.
As narrator, John employs language that emphasizes how his possession of the Lady is as important as her possession of him. Possibly, it is this element that matters most because it is clear he does not possess Sylvia. They may live in the same house, but they occupy entirely different worlds.
Interestingly, Xavier dispenses with any description of his characters. “John” is a stand-in name for Everyman, and I’ll add, the pseudonym of a man who picks up prostitutes. I determined based on context that John was middle aged. Nowhere do we get an image of John or Sylvia. More notably, John, the obsessor, doesn’t describe the object of his obsession. It would seem a most natural thing to detail exactly what makes the Lady so desirable. She is, after all, a depiction of a woman, not a real one. Her existence is entirely within her details. How is she composed? Does he see only her face? Does he see her torso? Her body? Is she young? Blonde? Within a setting? Against a solid backdrop? By declining to describe these things, Xavier is stressing how little they matter. Her relationship with John begins and ends in her gaze, which follows him everywhere like the old haunted house trope.
The Lady in the Paint has obvious parallels with Bax Foxbite’s Every Little Death, which I point out only because I find it intriguing that out of eleven stories I’ve reviewed, two share a fantasy of an unhappy husband who’s obsession with an image of a woman turns her to reality. Both men have wives that do not conform to the ideal. Both stories end in violence.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence. Or maybe this fantasy is all-too common.
- Writing: 4
- Plot: 3
- Technical: 3