THE ELECTRIC MICHELANGELO (2008)
Harper, 368 pp.
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Yes, this is an older book–one that that would have escaped my attention had I not gone to the wonderful Hartford Wadsworth Museum show on Coney Island last winter, where it showed up on a list of memorable books about Coney Island. As it so happened, I had already been reading Alice Hoffman's wonderful The Museum of ExtraordinaryThings, and through the years have wended my way through fine works such as Dreamland (Kevin Baker), Requiem for a Dream (Hubert Selby, Jr.), and John Kasson's Amusing the Million, a non-fiction work I routinely assign to my classes. I also reckon just about everyone my age has read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetic collection A Coney Island of the Mind, or laughed at Alvy Singer growing up under the Thunderbolt in Annie Hall. Oddly, though, I had never heard of Sarah Hall, though The Electric Michelangelo was nominated for a Man Booker Prize back in 2004. The fact that it didn't make it to the U.S. until four years later might be why.
If you too missed out on Hall's book, let me encourage you to seek it through your local library, bookshop, used bookstore, or Web search. (I bought my copy from Half.com for 75 cents.) Though parts of it are on the gruesome side, it's an eccentric pleaser. Hall gives us Cyril Parks, who grows up in the English seaside destination of Morecambe on the eve of World War One. Although parts of Morecambe are fashionable, that isn't the case for Cy, whose mother runs a hotel for consumptives. Among Cy's boyhood duties is to empty the vile fluids deposited by guests in their bedpans and spittoons. Small wonder that Cy finds himself attracted to a misanthropic "scraper," Eliot Riley, who agrees to take on Cy as his apprentice. Riley has loads of dark secrets, but he schools Cy in the art of tattooing and teaches him quite a lot about the fine arts in the process.
Move the clock forward. After losing both his mentor and his mother, Cy shows up in Coney Island, where he establishes himself at The Electric Michelangelo—often to the envy and occasional ire of competitors. No one seems to know much about this upstart, but it's clear that he's an artist, not just a mere scraper. Cy stays to himself mostly–until he encounters Grace, a daredevil bareback rider. She's among the scores of sideshow performers, freaks, and hustlers that populated Coney Island between the two world wars, but she is like Cy in that she harbors secrets and unexorcised demons from her past. Cy falls in love with her before he even knows her. How will he honor her macabre request: to be tattooed over her entire body with a repeating motif of a black-framed green eye? Will her skin be Cy's greatest canvass, or will his needles puncture his final chance for hope and happiness?
An odd book? Yes indeed. It's also a heartbreaking one. The skin we inhabit is the body's largest organ, so what better setting to explore themes of art and desire, or flesh and pain? Is tattooing an art, a science, or a trade? One might naturally think it's all three, but don't be so sure. Another question Hall probes is whether we revel in the things that disgust. She does not turn her back on cruelty, nor does she glamorize pain. Many of Hall's descriptions are vivid and lurid, but they are never gratuitous or sensationalized. If I might, she pricks holes into quite a few assumptions, especially notions of why we choose to endure unpleasant things. She even dares suggest that self-chosen pain has less to do with compulsion or fashion, and quite a lot to do with psychological compensation. Hipsters beware!