"So what makes this place a museum?" I asked the kindly looking man working the cashbox at the Cavalier County Museum. The man resembled a wise, aged Vince Vaughn with a soul patch. I had meant my question to be conspiratorial, as if we were both trying to figure this one out together, but it came out sounding more than a touch snarky and I was immediately afraid he would think I was calling his entire profession into question, which in a way, I was.
At the time, I was busy researching my first novel, wandering across northern Montana, frequenting that strange American phenomenon of the County Museum. Susan Sontag explains the vast proliferation of American museums as the cultural culmination of "an anthology country"— marked by a relatively recent historical record and settled more often than not by immigrants, the American county came to rely on its museum as the hallowed ground where historical narrative was preserved, shaped, created. You were not a county if you did not have some kind of place that was filled with objects from the county, objects bound to the memories of its inhabitants, and objects that would soon replace these memories. Yet many of these County Museums are nothing more than someone's old house. All of the objects in the house have been joined together with the detritus from other old houses until some magical tipping point is reached and the place becomes a museum. The County Museum's meandering collection tells a patchwork story about the county in question, but the story it tells is not so important as the fact that a story is being told.
This is not to say I disapprove of this practice. On the contrary, one of the reasons I find County Museums such compelling places for research is exactly because the objects on display do not always tell a coherent narrative; their amorphous jumble offers a generative playground for literary invention. By describing only part of the story, these exhibits leave room for other stories, other explanations, other possibilities. Such semi-contextualized space is rich territory for the writer, who often operates under the paradox of the discoverer—that is, you know you are looking for something but you do not know exactly what that something is. Upon entering Cavalier County's dusty repository, filled with curiously labeled photographs, a collection of hatchets, and the hulk of an ancient agricultural device lurking in the corner like a tired spider, I sensed the heartbeat of a story emanating from somewhere in the gloom, a little morsel of human detail tied to an object that might just end up sliding off the shelf and into my book.
A writer in search of heartbeats in the Cavalier County Museum
(Photo: B.T. Wood)
And thus my ill-timed question to the gentle, geriatric Vince Vaughn behind the desk. Though it had come out sounding all wrong, the question had actually arisen from a place of deep appreciation for the flexibility of his display. Even as I stood there, shamed by the insolence of my query, I was already conjuring a menagerie of potential answers: Was this place now a museum simply because a visitor was present (that is me)? Was it a museum because I had forked over the suggested donation of two dollars and fifty cents? Was it a museum because there was a rack of poorly composed postcards sitting on the desk next to the beige cashbox? Or was it a museum because of the mostly useless and often mislabeled placards hovering near (though not that near) the objects that they purported to describe?
The man's answer took me aback with its strange clarity.
"If I say it's a museum, then it's a museum," he said without a hint of bitterness in his voice. What he said was true, of course: a museum, like a piece of literature, is ultimately the product of intent. A roomful of objects or a collection of words endures primarily through the stories we tell ourselves about its origin, about the will of its creator, or curator, as the case may be.
Feeling oddly vanquished, I bought several of the disappointing postcards off the rack. I suppose it was a form of proxied self-flagellation: I wanted to remember this moment and I knew the postcards would remind me of our awkward exchange, the memory bolstered and empowered by the object. Our memories need houses, just like us.
"Come back soon," the man called cheerfully as I made my exit through the screen door. "I try to change it up as often as I can."
This last comment left me feeling awash in that particular melancholy that permeates these kinds of museums. I believe such melancholy arises, at least in part, from our inability to reconcile the apparent permanence of objects with the fluidity of our sense of self. By claiming to "change it up" he was actually underscoring the terrifying possibility that despite our best intentions, despite the numerous objects and exhibits we might display or not display, we can never really change anything in our lives.
In retrospect, I think my sense of unease also arose from a distinctly different possibility, a Borgesian possibility that I would thereafter channel into my first novel and also my next: I was not sure if this museum was actually real. I wondered if this oddly brilliant curator in his soul patch disguise had played a great trick on the world, manipulating our weakness for believing that anything mounted in a display case must somehow be inherently true. Maybe he was a disciple of that beguiling she-devil of the fictional real that is The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City California, where the presentation of mice on toast as a historical cure for bedwetting is done so beautifully and with so little context that you begin to wonder if this could possibly be the case.
Mouse Cures at the Museum of Jurassic Technology
(Photo: Museum of Jurassic Technology)
In similar fashion, had this man actually constructed a parallel Cavalier County with imported hatchets and fake agricultural equipment that looked and felt like the real thing, right down to the sloppy placards? Through the accumulation of these inconspicuous objects, had he assembled an ode to a fictional place? And if, as he claimed, intent made the museum, did the veracity of the objects even matter?
I was recalling this episode of possible curatorial deception last month as I walked into Orhan Pamuk's recently opened Museum of Innocence in Çukurcuma, Istanbul. Here, deception was ostensibly out in the open: the museum is unique in that it is the realization of the fictional museum depicted in Pamuk's 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence, in which Kemal Basmaci, the novel's protagonist, obsessively collects items from the life of his onetime lover, Füsun Keskin, eventually assembling these objects into 83 display vitrines inside her old house, which supposedly has become the Museum of Innocence within which you now find yourself. At the end of the book, Kemal asks a character named Orhan Pamuk to write a novel that will accompany the museum, with one chapter for every vitrine.
In the world of the book, novel followed museum. In reality, the origins of both were inseparably intertwined. Pamuk bought the building in the late 1990s, back when Çukurcuma was still a dilapidated neighborhood, though the idea of a twin literary project of novel and museum was still being formed. "The two ideas evolved together. It was not a case of my having written a successful book and then deciding to turn it into a museum," Pamuk said in a recent article. "I would collect objects—say, an old lottery ticket—and integrate this into the novel. Sometimes it was the other way around. I would need an object, but I didn't have an object, so I would leave a [....] and look for an appropriate object later." From acquiring all of the objects, to hiring top designers and renovating the space into a museum, Pamuk would end up dedicating years of his life and much of his Nobel prize money to the project.
Vitrines on the second floor of the Museum of Innocence
(Photo: Masumiyet Muzesi)
It is at this point that I must stop and divulge a small secret: when I stepped into The Museum of Innocence, I knew none of this. I had not yet read the book. I wonder what percentage of the museum's visitors will walk into its space equally as —ahem—innocent as I, without prior knowledge of the basic story or its characters. It felt a bit preposterous to visit a museum based upon a book I had never read, even though we often visit museums dedicated to real places which we know nothing about. This felt different, however, a bit like cheating, as if I was disrupting that slow, private magic of a novel's embrace. Yet entering the museum with little expectation, with no affinity for the objects displayed, also left me particularly open to observing the unique alchemy of curation, that is, using physical space and object as an avenue for storytelling.
Like Pamuk, I have often been drawn to the similarities between curating and writing. In her book On Exhibit: Victorians and Their Museums, Barbara Black mines this narrative parallelism between the display and the page when she writes that "like museums, novels often center on acts of intellection and representation, on knowledge— particularly the pleasure of naming and identifying — on searches for origins and relations, that is, provenance. Like museums, novels explore a certain sense of the past and the self; both depend on circumstantial evidence, on physical description of a material world constituted of many subjects and many more objects." Articulated cynically, to write fiction is to assemble such circumstantial evidence, including specific objects like hotel ashtrays and loofas but also more amorphous objects like places and even characters (which are called subjects but are in fact just another object in the writers' cabinet) into an elaborate sequence of tableaux (read: scenes) such that this sequence presents an illusion of narrative.
Much of this illusion depends upon what Black calls the "pleasure of naming and identifying." I feel this most profoundly when I am revising, for it is here where I usually push the clumsy imprecision of the first draft towards specifics. An old teacher of mine once said: "You don't know what it is until you can see it." That is: if it does not exist for you, then it does not exist. Thus I am always busy turning what languished for several drafts as "a jacket" into an "umber smoking jacket made of velvet" in draft 10. All kinds of mayhem ensue from such a change, some good, some bad, but precision with objects often seems to provide shortcuts to the emotional precision of your characters. I cannot quite explain it. This is not always true, of course, but we trust a writer who shines his or her flashlight with deliberation, with the nimble patience of a captain at the helm. We sense authority, and thus we allow ourselves to be pulled towards the next theater set, even if we are aware that the sum of this circumstantial evidence is coercing us into caring.
Bridging the Aristotelean gap, Vitrine #68: "4,213 Cigarettes"
(Photo: Jessica Lutz)
Everywhere I looked in the Museum of Innocence, I sensed a captain at the helm. The very first display case you encounter in the lobby is not from chapter 1, but a wall-sized display of chapter 68: "4,213 Cigarette Stubs." These are the 4,213 cigarettes supposedly smoked by Füsun during an eight-year period from 1976-1984, collected and catalogued by Kemal. At first I wanted to know the exhibit's origin story. How had Pamuk done this? Was there a real woman who had smoked all of these cigarettes, soiling their tips with her red lipstick? Or was it Pamuk himself, lipsticked and fuming away? (It turns out it was a vacuum cleaner.) As with the curators at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Pamuk knows that a certain poeticism arises from leaving one's sources (and intentions) ambiguous. "The Museum of Innocence—just like the novel—is about the line between fiction and reality," he said in an interview. "The whole art of a novel is about readers asking themselves did the author really live this or did he imagine this? More or less, I did the same thing with the museum."
After my initial curiosity as to the procedurals behind the display, I eventually succumbed to its narrative seduction. Though the claim that Kemal could've collected all 4,213 of Füsun's cigarettes is borderline preposterous, even in the world of the book, the curatorial presentation of such devotion—with its little date stamps beneath each, and its scrawled, almost desperate annotations in Kemal's creaky lettering—made me suspend all disbelief and fall into a similar kind of trance that is evoked by, say, a gorgeously rendered passage in a novel. The trance was all the more beguiling because I could see the cigarettes before me—they existed—and yet I was transported into a parallel world just the same.
Curating literary space, I realized, must be as precise as writing literary space: the lighting must be suggestive but not too self-conscious, the display must be limited, gestural, with hidden layers revealed only upon closer inspection, but there must also be a cautious feeling of omission, so as to allow room for the imagination to roam. In the wrong hands, such a wall of cigarettes could come off as a gimmick, but here, it read as a beautiful, flawed exploration of how we graft experience onto the inevitable passage of time. Even though I did not know the particulars of Füsun's character, I felt the orbit of her existence, and the light but insistent hand of Kemal, mapping this orbit.
As I wound my way through the narrow, three-story museum—visiting one little cabinet after another, sometimes in order, sometimes not, peering first at the main display, and then at the side panels of the box, at the little hidden photographs, at the objects obscured—it was interesting to watch my mind at work, scrapping for a story, trying to recreate the nostalgia for a book I had not yet read. I was not fondly reminiscing about the characters; I was not comparing Füsun's yellow shoe before me with the shoe in my imagination; I was not recalling my time spent reading The Museum of Innocence on a beach in Maine during the final week of summer. (Sometimes I'm convinced the proliferation of reading groups is not because we like to hash out a character's motivations or the plausibility of a scene, but because we love to recall the quiet bliss of reading the book itself.)
My fourteen matchsticks, from Vitrine #25: "The Agony of Waiting"
(Photo: Masumiyet Muzesi)
Pausing in front of Vitrine #25, "The Agony of Waiting," I found myself staring at fourteen matchsticks lined up in a row. I desperately wanted these matchsticks to elicit some memory of matchsticks in the book, but no such memory existed and so I began to invent a history that explained the trilogy of their clustering and the varying lengths of their incineration. I was creating fictional memories of the matchsticks even as I was seeing them for the first time. The object in the present was repainting the past.
In his essay "Shadow Cities," Andre Aciman explores a similar collision of real and invented memories when he writes of his fraught relationship to New York City and its mnemonic echoes of his time in Alexandria, Rome, and Paris. For Aciman, New York is
not only the shadow city of so many other cities I've known but a shadow city of itself, reminding me of an earlier New York in my own life, and before that of a New York which existed before I was born and which has nothing to do with me.
The generosity of this "analogue city" to enfold all of these places inside of it, including parallel versions of itself, was echoed in the generosity of these matchsticks, which functioned not just as props in a museum, not just the physical manifestation of a fictional character's obsession, but as a gateway for my memories, and all of the matchsticks I have ever burned, will ever burn, or imagined burning. For me, this generosity is where the title of both museum and book arises—that these objects are innocent of the great emotional load which we assign them, just as we suffer from an innocence in our belief that such static materials can possibly contain the dynamic flux of our memories.
It was only after moving through several floors of intricate, detailed tableaux, that I finally arrived at Vitrine #78, "Summer Rain," which was still enshrouded in a burgundy curtain, its contents hidden from view. Perhaps my senses simply needed a break, but I found myself lingering at this obstructed display far longer than I expected. What could be behind the curtain? Perhaps nothing. But then again, perhaps it was something extraordinary. Too extraordinary to exhibit. When asked about these "incomplete" displays, Pamuk said, "No museum can ever be finished. I will add a new episode to the story, new objects, new ideas, new little exhibitions by other artists."
After my visit, I wanted to perform my own completion of the museum. I read the novel voraciously, like a man trying to fill in the details from his own life. If nothing else, the museum is a terrific advertisement for the book, one of the most brilliant marketing campaigns in the history of literature, and like much of what Pamuk does, this would make one skeptical if not for the fact that the book itself is so damn good—at least for its first 80 chapters.
At its core, The Museum of Innocence is a hypnotic portrait of obsession, Pamuk's call and response to Lolita. Its success arises from his ability to capture unrequited desire as it smolders across decades—a pained, fragile note wondrously sustained for hundred of pages. It's extremely difficult to conjure a feeling like this and then to hold it, to caress it—like the wall of cigarettes, the novel makes the reader acutely aware of both time's passage but also the personal pain of its passage. In a chapter entitled "Time," Pamuk's protagonist Kemal muses about this exact temporal dilemma:
Aristotle makes a distinction between Time and the single moments he describes as the "present." Single moments are—like Aristotle's atoms—indivisible, unbreakable things. But Time is the line that links these indivisible moments.
Pamuk's (and Kemal's) main device for bridging the gap between the present and Aristotelean Time is through the inclusion of objects—many, many objects—for each innocent object is flexible enough to trigger a single memory but to also exist and continue to exist outside of us. We are drawn to objects because they are at once extremely personal and extremely ordinary, and so a sea of objects can tell the story of a life but also of a society in flux.
The Museum of Innocence is set against the shifting backdrop of 1970s Istanbul, a city in the midst of profound social change as it confronts itself and all of its shadow cities—Kemal's story of obsession takes place in a self-reflexive culture obsessed with its own image. The city supplies a rich palette of props, invested with varying levels of Western influence: movie posters, lottery tickets, soccer cards, Turkish soft drinks, empty cologne bottles, used lipstick tubes, half-eaten ice cream cones. Perhaps the most heavily symbolic of all is Tarik Bey's "East-West" pocket watch, which has "two faces, one in Arabic numerals and the other in Roman"—time is a different story when told in different languages.
Beyond such circumstantial evidence, Pamuk also utilizes a number of subtle literary devices to bridge the Aristotelean gap, including the intermingling of scene and summary. In a chapter entitled "Sometimes," he conjures the 1,593 visits Kemal makes to the Keskin home over eight years by repeatedly offering specific events but delivered in the form of routine, all of these constructions beginning with the word "sometimes": "Sometimes when supper was over Füsun would rise from the table, go over to Lemon's cage, and speak to him like a friend, and I would fantasize that she was really talking to me." Could this have happened more than once? Perhaps, but like the generosity of the object, which hints at a specific moment, but in doing so hints at all moments for all people, the sometimes construction points to the flexibility of time, that if Time is composed of a series of present moments, then somehow each present moment must also contain all Time.
In the last chapter of the book, Kemal describes to the character Orhan Pamuk how he wants Time to function in his museum. "In poetically well built museums, formed from the heart's compulsions," he says, "we are consoled not by finding in them old objects that we love, but by losing all sense of Time." Here I must respectfully disagree with the character of Kemal, if not Pamuk (the writer/curator) himself, for walking through those cabinets dedicated to a fictional narrative I had (as of then) not yet experienced, I did not so much lose my sense of Time as become distinctly aware of the illusion of Time. The frozen drama within each vitrine kept making me wonder how each had been constructed, how they had preserved a half-consumed glass of raki, for instance, (was it refilled each day and then sipped down to the proper level? Was it even a liquid?) even as I was being seduced by the symbolic weight of this raki. And so I was very aware of time passing even as I forgot it existed. For me this also happens in the best kind of novels—those that draw you in even as you are conscious of the mechanics of their narrative. You love these mechanics, and yet you succumb to the mechanics all the same.
Was the raki refilled each day? From Vitrine #40: "The Consolations of Life in a Yali"
(Photo: Masumiyet Muzesi)
In books, such momentous meta-awareness is always achieved on a sentence level. The sentence—even those that promote the passage or summary of time—is experienced by the reader in the moment, guided by that peculiar thirst for the present. The reader may pause, press his or her finger against the page and murmur at such stealthy wordplay or deft use of metaphor. But taken together, these sentences must create the illusion of time, of life passing, even as life is passing at a much slower rate for the reader. As readers, we are accustomed to sustaining this simultaneous passage of time—our time and the book's time. In fact, we relish such temporal multiplicity, for it is how we can come closest to realizing that most difficult of truths: that the world is a summation of all experiences and not just our own.
And this made me rethink my exchange with our friend in Cavalier County. In fact, it did not matter if this Vince Vaughn doppelgänger had created a museum dedicated to a parallel Cavalier. All the better if this was the case, for a world that can contain multiple Cavalier Counties, all of which appear genuine, is a world of shared truths. Museums gesture at such universalism by offering a stage for the collision of the material—the mundane objects of our times —with the immaterial—our ideas, longing, loves, memories, theses, fears. Through their craft of inclusion and exclusion, curators orchestrate such a collision, enabling the transformation of object into narrative, and narrative back into object. As Pamuk's museum demonstrates, the narrative itself need not be real, rather it is the act of enfolding the immaterial into the material which gives us a platform from which to view both the singularity and commonality of our experience.
In the end, it is this remarkable ability of the museum to realize the immaterial which rescues Pamuk's postmodern gamesmanship from the brink and turns an impressive failure of a novel into something transcendent. Let me explain. As Kemal's infatuation with Füsun grows over the course of the book, Pamuk begins to slip in sentences like, "I exhibit the thermos filled with tea, stuffed grape leaves, boiled eggs and some Meltem bottles to evoke our Sunday excursion that may offer the visitor some relief from the oppressive succession of interior settings, as well as my own agony." Here the use of "exhibit" is still metaphorical, akin to Humbert Humbert's report to the imaginary jury in Lolita. By leaving the context of this verb intentionally vague, Pamuk performs a lovely evocation of our mind's museum in which memory and object perform their elaborate, symbiotic dance.
Museum as Metaphor, Vitrine 27: "Don't Lean Back That Way, You Might Fall"
(Photo: Masumiyet Muzesi)
In the novel's last three chapters, however, what was until then a nuanced metaphor of obsession now becomes the actual Museum of Innocence. Kemal seeks out the fictional Orhan Pamuk to articulate his process and motives for creating his museum, and in the classic failure of the postmodern novel, the unveiling of these mechanics jams the machine. The beauty of the novel up until that point arose from the narrative momentum of longing but as soon as the metaphor was explicated, the suppleness of that long-form literary gesture hardened and lost its luster. Most of us still read fiction because we want to see how a writer will delay, supplicate, undermine, honor the vagaries of the human heart, not to see what device he will use to awkwardly justify the existence of his text.
If the story stopped there, this for me would be another beautiful novel that collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. Another glorious fiasco of the genre, to take its place alongside the other greats: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Gravity's Rainbow, Slaughterhouse-Five. But Pamuk forever shifts the rules of the game by actually materializing this museum in the flesh. In a way, he has called his own bluff. By following through on the conceit, the conceit stops being a conceit and shifts into that rare territory of the fictive-real. The invented object becomes a real object so that it may again become an invented object.
Like many of the things Pamuk does, the museum is part brilliant literary execution and part maddening self-promotional maneuver: the book contains a map to the (as of then fictional) museum in Çukurcuma as well as a ticket of admittance on p. 520, which the ticket seller at the museum will stamp and redeem. The museum shop stocks only his books in various translations. On the top floor, we see Pamuk's beautifully illustrated working manuscript, which Kemal has "requested" be displayed in the museum as well, a curatorial decision that feels more than a little like a man creating an altar to himself. Apparently, Pamuk is also releasing a catalogue to his own museum called The Innocence of Objects (due in October), an act of overkill exposition (in my mind) best left to the hands of others.
Despite the lingering presence of the all-pervasive Pamuk ego, in its entirety, this project must be viewed as groundbreaking simply because it demonstrates how a book can engage in a dynamic dialogue with its environment and in doing so, offer us a forecast as to where fiction is headed in the next fifty years. Every writer need not build a museum with the level of care (and financial investment) that Pamuk has done here, but every writer should study what he has pulled off and marvel at how beautifully he has extended the literary space on the page into actual literary space. The novel has always been a fluid form, constantly shifting to react against the needs and cultural trends of its time, and as we head swiftly towards a reality that is increasingly augmented, The Museum of Innocence will remain a beacon for how storytelling—controlled, restrained, luminous storytelling—has great promise beyond the disappearing pages of our books.