Doon Arbus’s debut novel, The Caretaker, feels both firmly grounded and strangely out of time. It’s textured, densely, with brick and cloth, with an overabundance of artifactual detritus, furtively character-driven, and yet one could easily forget what century it’s from. Arbus embraces a slightly awkward distance from her subjects, enough to leave the distinction between tragedy and comedy unsettled: as though a dusty velvet rope, a pair of unsteady stanchions, holds us back just enough to make us squint to read the label.
After learning of the death of Charles Morgan, a wealthy collector and writer, the book’s nameless protagonist writes to Morgan’s widow, and soon finds himself employed as the primary employee of the newly-established Morgan museum. As a young scholar, Morgan wrote a treatise, Stuff, on categorizing systems, and it’s this approach that the caretaker has used to organize the contents of the museum. We’re told—by an obituary, so: couched in prevaricating effusiveness and euphemism—that Morgan’s theory of stuff was immensely influential, transforming library and museum cataloging systems, but we’re shown none of this taxonomy. It just looks like a lot of…stuff, juxtaposed for no express reason.
The Morgan Museum promises an almost-occult system of organization, one which reveals a deeper level of connections between objects in the world. It promises something almost sinister, almost evangelical. Yet it looks, by all the evidence we’re given, very much like a bunch of knick-knacks and mementos from a thoroughly (if not unusually) self-centered millionaire. One thinks of the main character of High Fidelity organizing his records according to autobiography—it’s a fascinating idea, a rich one for personal use, but as a schema for others it amounts to no more than narcissism, and it’s not clear that Morgan’s “system” has truly taken in anyone except the caretaker himself.
The caretaker is a strange figure—oddly compelling, but oddly opaque. The climax, such as it is, revolves around a series of monologues delivered to an unimpressed group of visitors, as the caretaker tries to express his interpretation of Morgan’s philosophy, one which sees in objects’ mere persistence a promise of personal preservation, and which again claims their deep interconnectedness, “the terrible pull they exert on one another.” All of this is shaded by the caretaker’s decision to dress in the dead man’s clothes, and by the revelation—after the visitors leave—that he is playing out a deeper and stranger impersonation of his intellectual lodestar. It’s a very weird ending, seemingly a critique of a very specific condition, and one which calls to mind Melville’s Bartleby and Sartre’s Roquentin: an almost pathological privacy, and a reaction to the quotidian stuff of the world that may be confusing psychology for philosophy.
It’s very tempting to read The Caretaker through a lens of object-oriented ontology (“OOO” or “triple-O”, as the cool kids call it)—a philosophical project to rethink “stuff” accounting for, as one of its founders puts it, “some hidden surplus in the things that never becomes present”. One of OOO’s approaches is to resist both “undermining” (reducing things to merely sums of smaller things or forces) and “overmining” (reducing things to symptoms or facets of larger systems), and one can read The Caretaker—or, at least, its titular character’s obsession—as a tragic and perhaps unavoidable failure of overmining.
Which is not to say this is a failure of The Caretaker, the book, though it is a book of and about subtle failures. Sprinkled with dry wit and flashes of intriguing observation, it also turns a certain kind of labored prose description into a reflection of the caretaker’s myopia. Action is ascribed to strangely discrete components of a scene, or strangely agglomerated ones, as when the caretaker views his visitors as a “small amorphous blob of humanity…A shoulder is in danger of brushing up against a powdered cheek, a finger must contort itself to avoid an unprovoked encounter with a stranger’s thigh.”
Textually, the effect is a bit like watching an amateur actor who doesn’t know what to do with their hands: it draws unnatural attention to what should be subordinated to a larger organizing whole. Arbus is quietly skilled at using this kind of writing to suffuse the work with an only mildly claustrophobic sense of clutter, of the world being full of things that oppress not through their size, but through their resistance to being reduced to categories. The caretaker himself—the only character we spend any significant time with—seems like someone deep in category mistakes, missing both the forest for the trees and the trees for the forest, in pursuit of some deeper theory that neither he nor the story itself can quite express.
And yet, he’s a gentle character, and Arbus is gentle with him. His isolation and monofocus are concerningly extreme—one of the stranger notes of the novel is the recurring subtle reminders that this is all taking place in New York, which throws his hermitic life into stark if implied contrast—and yet he also feels like an homage to the quiet and disparate legion of collectors, docents, museum guides and librarians straightening up the annexes and appendices of material culture. For all its odd obsessions and its unexpectedly dark ending, The Caretaker is a strangely charming little book, packed with interesting if seemingly unrelated insights—rather like the museum itself.
by Doon Arbus
New Directions Publishing Corporation
Published on February 07, 2023
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.