“Time after time my mother traded privacy, square footage, countertops, and a decent bathroom for darkroom space.”
While the way in which Feast Your Eyes is framed makes for an undoubtedly interesting technique (telling the story of a fictional photographer Lillian Preston through the catalogue notes for an exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art) Myla Goldberg’s execution left me wanting more (out of her story, her characters, and her style).
The novel’s catalogue structure, however innovating, is limiting: although we have Lillian’s diary entries and letters, for the most part it is her daughter Samantha who tries to describe Lillian’s photos. Her suppositions and observations were monotonous and left me wanting more.
I can’t help but compare this novel to two of favourites of mine, and Self-Portrait with Boy and
generation Loss, both of which also happen to be centred around female photographers. Whereas those two novels gave a clear impression of what the protagonists’ photos looked like and their significance to them, in Feast Your Eyes we get a few lines from Samantha summarising her mother’s photos. Only the photo entitled ‘Mommy is sick’ gets a more detailed description.
Lillian herself remains a puzzle. Although we get to read her letters and diaries, as well as the testimonies of her roommates/sort of friends, her character never really came together. In fact, I would go as far as to say that what we do get is a rather disjointed portrait. T
o begin with Lillian’s was made to seem as this rebel, a pioneer, a feminist, the type of person who wanted to speak out against the oppressive social norms and injustices occurring in her society. As the story progresses however I realised that she was a half-formed & mostly self-absorbed individual who was too interested in her own notions of what is ‘art’ than of helping out her friends (for example I hated the patronising way she would correct one her friends, telling her that she wasn’t a weaver but an artist).
Maybe if Lillian spoke more about her own photos or creative process I could have felt something more towards her…but her passion for photography comes across only when other characters comment on the time Lillian spent developing her photos. We are told that photography was everything for Lillian but it is her daughter Samantha who tries to imbue her photographs with some sort of meaning…and because of that I wasn’t able to buy into this image of Lillian as this passionate photographer.
The various characters speak of Lillian as if she was some sort of philanthropist or activist…but she acts anything but. Heck, she doesn’t even help her closest friend when she’s in need. Speaking of Lillian’s friends…these women sounded far too similar to one another. I understand that they would utilise the same language given that they are around the same age but they also happen to have exactly the same tone. Their names were as forgettable as their personalities and it seemed that they were mere accessories to Lillian’s story.
The mother-daughter relationship that is at the centre of Feast Your Eyes is fairly nuanced. However, given that I wasn’t invested in Lillian or Samantha’s lives, I can’t say that I felt very moved by it. And some of their arguments/misunderstanding struck me as unnecessarily clichéd.
Lastly…I questioned whether catalogue notes from an exhibition would really be as long-winded as the ones for Lillian’s show. These accounts have less to do with Lillian photos than New York in the 1950s-1960s. This focus on this particular time and place did result in a very detailed and vivid setting, so I can’t say that I didn’t find their descriptions about the various neighbourhoods etc. fascinating.
Most of Lillian’s diary entries and letters, as well as Samantha’s notes, have this cheesy obsession with the ‘body’ (“My arms and legs are like so much lunch meat wrapped around drinking straws and covered in waxed paper”), a penchant for unpleasant metaphors and imagery (“ the final word flew out like a broken tooth”), and for transcendental or purely abstract statements and declarations (“I’m reduced to a mote of pure awareness”) which seemed mere navel-gazing.
Although Lillian’s story deals with many different themes and subjects (abortion, ambition, motherhood, being a female artist and a single mother in in the 1950s, the degrading and inhumane conditions in the “Women’s House of Detention”) it does so at a swift pace. Because of this it seemed that many things were left unexplored.
Overall, while the idea behind Feast Your Eyes is undoubtedly creative, I’m unsure of the way in which Myla Goldberg handled this structure.
Perhaps a bit of more variety (such as including interviews, articles, actual photos etc.) would have given Lillian biography’s (her childhood, career, and relationships) more depth and nuance.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars