Death, fashion and politics – an interview with Benjamin Law

I forgot to post this at the time – so here it is. I’d still say the same things … so this is what happened when Ben rolled the dice 

‘What I’ve seen of death, someone – or something – comes to get us’

Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we’re told to keep private by getting them to roll a dice. The numbers they land on are the topics they’re given.

The Hobart-based author won both the Stella and Christina Stead prizes in 2017 for her seventh novel, The Museum of Modern Love.

Heather Rose.
Heather Rose.CREDIT:SIMON SCHLUTER

POLITICS

How would you describe yourself politically?

I’d say I’m a Blue Green.

What’s a Blue Green?

Green is someone who cares passionately about the environment, social justice and for the long-term good of humanity and the planet. Blue is for the old-fashioned liberal values of egalitarianism, economic growth – not, however, at the expense of the quality of human life.

What party represents those values?

There isn’t one. I always find myself appalled by how we seem to have arrived in the 21st century with a world that is so deeply unjust to the great majority.

Does it make it hard for you as a voter?

Completely, but I always vote Green. You have to vote for the planet and human rights.

Where do you think you get your politics from?

My father is a Labor voter and my mother is a Liberal voter. Bizarrely, I grew up in Hobart equidistant between neighbours who’ve gone on to both become senators: one in the Greens, one in the Liberal Party. I’ve ended up in a world where I’m much closer to my Green colleagues, but I’m not a pure socialist: I think everybody deserves to benefit from personal endeavour.

Could you date someone with fundamentally different politics to yours?

[Laughs.] Maybe not.

MONEY

Was money a fraught thing for you, growing up?

Both my parents worked to put my sister and I through private school. No one in my family had ever got a degree, so education was really important. However, it was tight. My parents were really smart about caring for money. We didn’t go on holidays – we didn’t have that kind of income – so we lived very simply. My grandparents built a shack for us on the Tasman Peninsula, so we spent holidays there. Other than that, we went camping. Camping is my idea of money well spent.

Do you feel like you’ve been good with money?

I’m good at making money and making a business profitable. [As well as penning seven novels, Rose has run advertising agencies, sat on arts and corporate boards in her home state and founded a luxury accommodation business in Hobart.] In my personal life, I’m very good at saving. But I’m also very good at spending; I really love beautiful clothes.

What do you consider a waste of money?

Nights you never remember! A lot of designer stuff to me is excess, in a world where we need to have better priorities. There’s a gluttony to the world of the designer that I find really abhorrent.

What constitutes the “beautiful clothes” you like, then?

Beautifully designed, beautiful fabrics. It doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. I have one designer I absolutely love: Alistair Trung. He’s my absolute go-to. His designs are magnificent, his fabrics beautiful.

You have three children. Have you ever sat down with them and said, “This is how you save money”?

I’ve given each of them a copy of George S. Clason’s The Richest Man in Babylon. It’s all about being respectful of your money, making sure some of it is saved, some of it is put away for everything you need to live on. So with my kids, when they got pocket money, I would say, “Even if you’re getting $10, $1 of that you have to save.” Great: you’re teaching them fractions at the same time. Indeed!

DEATH

You’re 53. How would you like to die?

I want to die very old, in a really warm chair, with a good blanket. My hair is white. My children …

You’ve thought about this!

I have! I saw it recently: my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are somewhere about. I’m in a house with glass windows and the sun’s coming in. Someone in the house really loves me, especially, particularly and deeply. It’s afternoon, and we’ve just had some beautiful celebration. Possibly my 104th birthday. And I close my eyes.

And that’s it.

Yep. That’s a pretty great death.

Do you fear death?

Not at all.

Why not?

I’ve nearly died several times.

Really? How?

Heart problems. And I’ve been quite reckless as well, in my life, when I was younger.

In what ways? Or, in what ways can you share?

It’s going in the memoir. [Laughs.]

What happens to us when we die?

I think we go on. My sense is we have a soul. I know Christopher Hitchens would be cross with me for that.

Does that matter?

Yes! I feel like he’s still out there.

Well, if what you’re saying is true, he is.

I feel there is some mystery that is absolutely evident to all of us on this planet. It’s either that we get recycled and we come back in another life. Or that we live all these lives at once because time is completely an illusion, like physicists remind us. Or we get reabsorbed into the magnificence. I don’t know. But from what I’ve seen of death, someone – or something – comes to get us. And if something comes to get us, then there’s something beyond.

Benjamin Law
Benjamin Law

Writer, author of The Family Law and Gaysia.

https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/stella-prize-winning-author-heather-rose-what-ive-seen-of-death-someone–or-something–comes-to-get-us-20180124-h0njuo.html

The year of wonder

Published in The Good Weekend magazine – The Age/ Sydney morning Herald

10 stories by 10 big Authors

14 December 2018 — 12:19pm

At the beginning of the year, I wrote in gold pen “The Year of Wonder” on a white piece of card. I had been meditating and it was a feeling that bubbled up. The Year of Wonder. I had to write it down and put it somewhere obvious, so I stuck it on the fridge.

The definition of wonder, I discovered, is “something admirable or amazing caused by something beautiful, remarkable or unfamiliar”. I wondered, as I looked at those words, what would happen if I claimed a whole year of it.

“I want this weaving of fact and fiction. I want the story to come home to its heartland, to the very place the novel is set.”

On Wednesday, November 29, 2017, I was in New York, meeting
for the first time with Giuliano Argenziano, Marina Abramovic’s director.
Abramovic is the performance artist at the heart of my seventh novel, The
Museum of Modern Love. Giuliano has been the lovely voice in the emails I’ve been receiving since I first approached Abramovic to appear as a character in my novel. She agreed to that invitation via Giuliano. It was Giuliano who received my updates, the drafts of the novel, and finally, years later, the news of publication. He had been unfailingly generous, kind and supportive. When I met him at the Abramovic offices in Greenwich Street for the first time, I was armed with 24 yellow roses. He was vibrant, handsome, Italian and delighted with the flowers.

During the course of our meeting, we discussed the launch of the novel in New York. I was also in New York to meet my US publisher. That, in itself, is a story of wonder. Some months before, I was introduced to a German publisher in Sydney. I spoke to him for less than four minutes. I learnt later that he obtained a copy and read my novel on the plane back to Germany but was unable to convince his publishing firm to take the novel on. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, a month or so later, he saw a New York colleague. He took her by the arm, walked her to my book, put it in her hands and said, “This is for you.” It turned out he was right. My New York publisher, in another twist, lived in the same location as Arky, the lead character in The Museum of Modern Love. In all of Manhattan, the same location with the exact same view over Washington Square.

So there really was going to be a US launch. It wasn’t just a possibility that Giuliano and I had discussed from time to time as the years went by, and the book was rejected, then eventually bought in Australia, then in Greece, Israel, China, Thailand, Catalonia and the UK. The book was coming home to New York. So when Giuliano asked me my ideas for the launch, I said that my dream was to have it at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was the
home of Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective and seminal performance piece, The
Artist Is Present. That is the artwork that unfolds throughout the novel –
Abramovic’s 75-day ordeal sitting opposite strangers and meeting their gaze.
Abramovic is herself in the novel and there is a cast of fictional characters,
including a ghost. The book, as you may be gathering, is a strange blend of
fact and fiction.

At my words, Giuliano in his delightful Italian accent, with his hands gesticulating, said, “Darling, that is a very big dream.” Then he paused and smiled. “But you keep your dream, because we do not know what is possible.” He suggested I ask Abramovic to be part of the launch. “She loves the book,” he said. “We all love the book. Ask.” Then he shrugged. “And we will see.”

I write an email. I write an email to the very famous, very busy, on-the-road Marina Abramovic, asking her to be part of a book launch. She responds a few days later. She would like to be part of the launch. But she has a big international schedule. Her diary and the US publisher’s dates have to align. The publishers want November … We are waiting on an
international biennale to confirm Abramovic’s dates, too …

How are we going to get MoMA? For a book launch? It’s like asking to be on Richard Branson’s first flight into space. But I keep seeing the launch there, in the atrium. One night in June, I’m at dinner in Melbourne with a group of old and new friends. One of the new friends is a big fan of the book. She is very excited when she hears Abramovic may be launching the book. “I think it’s going to happen,” she says. She asks me about the venue. I say it’s not decided. I say I would really like it to be in the atrium at MoMA. It would be a homecoming for the book. “I’m going to help make that happen,” she says, explaining that she’s a friend of the director at MoMA. She sends him a copy of the novel.

I receive confirmation that the international biennale dates are not a clash. Abramovic will be available for November 28. And she will bein New York. She is a yes to the launch.

We learn that MoMA bookstores do not stock novels. They do not stock any fiction. Even if my book is set in the gallery? Even if it was launched at MoMA? No, no, no.

MoMA’s director writes and says he will look into the possibility of having the launch at the museum. July, August and September go by. August is my birthday. I have lunch with four girlfriends at a Japanese restaurant in Hobart. They make me write my wish list for the launch. I write who I want as the MC. I write that the launch happens in the atrium at MoMA. I take this piece of paper home and prop it on a shelf where I keep other things that are sacred to me. Photos of my children, an Aboriginal bark painting, a small ivory netsuke of a man reading.

No news from MoMA. The publishers are getting anxious. Do we
have a back-up plan if MoMA doesn’t come through? Am I sure Abramovic is confirmed? Famous people cancel, apparently, all the time. I assure them that if Abramovic has said yes, she is a yes. After 11 years of research, I feel it is something I can be certain about.

We have only met once, me and Marina Abramovic, and it was over in seconds. But I have written hundreds of thousands of words about her. I have more than 300 individual pieces of research about her work and her life in my files. This is over and above the collection of books I have, and all that I have read about her. I hadn’t wanted to meet her. To me she is a character in my book. Writing is a strange enough thing to do each day without your characters coming to life.

Time is running out. There is talk of alternative launch venues – the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library. Or simply McNally Jackson, the bookstore in SoHo. But Abramovic is confirmed and a book store doesn’t seem big enough for her presence. Since The Artist Is Present, her absence from the atrium has haunted me on every subsequent visit to MoMA.

I want this weaving of fact and fiction. I want the story to come home to its heartland, to the very place the novel is set. Abramovic spent 75 days of her life in the atrium. I spent three weeks there researching the book, then five years or so imagining that performance almost every day while completing the novel. But the MoMA atrium is one of the most desired locations in New York. It’s a place for high-end fundraisers and black-tie charity events.

An email arrives. The director expresses his affection for Abramovic, for our mutual friend, for the book, and for making it happen at MoMA. He’s sure, however, that the atrium will be booked. (It’s booked months and years in advance.) But he will get back to us with an alternative location for the launch. Three days pass. Then an email arrives: “looks like the atrium will be free!!!” Those three exclamation points are the moment of truth.

My publishers seem genuinely shocked that an obscure writer from
Tasmania has pulled off a launch at MoMA, sponsored by MoMA, and in
conversation with the artist (and character) Marina Abramovic. I am a little
shocked, too. I tell friends and colleagues. I advise them that an official
invitation from the publishers will be forthcoming. Twenty-eight friends
confirm they will be flying from Australia for the launch of the novel. I would have been surprised if eight friends had wanted to come. But 28?

Abramovic agrees that we will do an in conversation. Via email we discuss the format. I need someone to make the opening remarks. I would like it to be someone Australian, with a connection to the book. Someone who can hold her own at MoMA with a world of international people amassed for a book launch with Marina Abramovic. I ask someone I deeply admire who has recently returned to New York. She says yes. When I pass that piece of paper from my August birthday lunch on the shelf, I see that I had written her name on the paper as preferred MC. I had completely forgotten.

My three children are flying to New York from their various homes in Australia and the US. My 84-year-old father is coming from Australia, chaperoned by my sister.

When I arrive in New York, Giuliano calls me from London. Abramovic
is very unwell. She was due to travel to New York on Tuesday for the launch but instead is to be transferred to a medical facility in Austria. Giuliano flies
to New York to be with me for the launch and Abramovic sends an audio message. She sounds exhausted.

“Good evening everybody. I’m so sorry I can’t be there but the doctor has forbidden me to fly to New York,” she says. She goes on to explain that she’s having high blood pressure caused by Lyme disease. I know her condition is erratic and dangerous.

“I’d like to tell you a little story about this book and me,” she says, recounting how she met me briefly some years ago. She knew I was writing a book, and then one day, the book arrived, dedicated to her. “It was so overwhelming. It lies on my office table and later next to my bed for a long time. I didn’t really have the courage to open it and see what I would find there. I also always believe that right time, right place, right situation is the best.

“So soon I am leaving for India and the only book I take with me is that one. And India was the right place, right situation, when I can read with ease and full concentration. I was so touched by this book. It’s not just that it was about me and The Artist Is Present … but much more important than all that, is the way it was written. It’s a really, really, great piece of literature. I hope you enjoy this evening and I’m so sorry I am not with you tonight.”

Image by Jim Rice for Fairfax Media

And so, on Wednesday, November 28, at a private event at MoMA, Marina Abramovic and I were not in conversation. Instead Anne Summers stepped in to conduct the interview. She is a fan of the book and a consummate interviewer. She had just returned home to New York after her Australian tour following the launch of her memoir, Unfettered and Alive.

She makes the evening look as if it was always meant to be this way. We discuss the book, and the writing of it, and the life of being a writer, while faces from The Artist Is Present appear huge on a screen behind us. Faces that include that of Abramovic, who is a very large, very still presence throughout the evening. Like the character within the pages of the novel, she remains silent, enigmatic and quietly powerful.

Perhaps it’s strange to say it, but I’m not disappointed. I was deeply saddened to hear of Abramovic’s health challenges. I understand well the challenges of illness. And like her, I am a great believer that there is a flow of right action in the world. Whatever unfolded, this too was as it should be. She has already made enormous contributions to both the book and my life. And she has done all that from a great distance. That is what artists do.

In 2010, I sat opposite Abramovic four times in the centre of the atrium during The Artist Is Present. I was just one of 850,000 people who attended that performance. Eight years later, I sat in the centre of the atrium and Abramovic’s image watched over the launch of a story drawn from that event. Perhaps one day Abramovic and I will get to have a conversation. Perhaps it will be far from an art gallery with wine, food and good health. For now, we remain creator and character, author and artist, author and muse.

A novel born of an idea first realised at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), written largely in Tasmania, and published in Australia, has arrived in the United States. A book that took 11 years to write, and was rejected many times over, has had its US launch at one of the most famous art galleries in the world. It is the first novel to be launched at MoMA and the first and only novel to be stocked in its bookstores.

It’s hard to explain how much wonder has happened since 2005, when I first saw a photograph in the NGV that made me consider Abramovic as a character for a book. This was before she was the world-famous artist she is now. Before she became a household name. In 2010 when I sat opposite Abramovic at MoMA in New York, she had already been sitting at that table for years in my mind. (That’s another story.) But it was at MoMA that I realised I couldn’t fictionalise her any longer. She was too magnetic, her story too real. That’s when I asked and received permission to include her as herself.

In 2015, the very same day I got the phone call telling me
the book had finally been accepted for publication here in Australia, Marina
Abramovic flew into Hobart for the launch of her retrospective
at The Museum of Old and New Art
. She hadn’t been to Hobart in 40
years. That was where we met, in that brief moment she referred to in her audio message.

When I looked for a venue for a post-book-launch gathering for 28 Australians in Manhattan, everything was prohibitively expensive or booked out. I tried numerous options and came up short. Then someone recommended a bar. I called and they were helpful, inexpensive, welcoming. Great food. It is in the street right behind MoMA. This is where we Australians and New Yorkers gathered after the launch to celebrate late into the Manhattan night. The pub was called Characters. Of course the pub was called Characters. That is what writing a novel is all about. It is about those elusive, ephemeral and powerful creatures who come to our writing minds as characters.

Writing is a long road and overnight success can take decades. I began my life as a paid writer at 17 for the Hobart Mercury. I’ve written millions of words learning my craft and I’m still learning every day. If I am lucky, I’ll be learning to be a better writer until the day I die.

My seventh novel is taking flight around the world. I don’t
know how readers will respond to The Museum of Modern Love in
America. I do know, however, that the book was launched at MoMA exactly one year to the day since I first expressed my dream to Giuliano. I also know that when we gathered for the event, with the image of Abramovic watching over us all, it was a dream come true. It was “something admirable or amazing caused by something beautiful, remarkable or unfamiliar”. It was a wonder.

Heather Rose has published seven novels. The Museum of
Modern Love (Allen & Unwin, $20) won the 2017 Stella Prize.

To read more of Good Weekend’s 10 short stories by 10 big
authors, visit this page.

 

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The New York Times profiles Heather Rose

An Artist Who Explores Emotional Pain Inspires a Novel That Does the Same

Heather Rose’s novel, “The Museum of Modern Love,” is a part-fact, part-fiction tale of art, love, grief and convergence.

By Tacey Rychter

Nov. 26, 2018

Credit Joe Wigdahl for The New York Times

SYDNEY, Australia — Heather Rose checked into the Chelsea Hotel after a long-haul flight from Hobart, Australia, flung her bag in her room and sped to the Museum of Modern Art.

This was the spring of 2010, and Rose had a mission: to stare into the eyes of Marina Abramovic, the Serbian-born performance artist, in the atrium of the gallery.

“I thought I could just walk up and be the next person,” said Rose, the novelist whose new book, “The Museum of Modern Love,” will be published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing, in the United States on Nov. 27.

“I’d never seen people running for art,” said Rose, 54, who remembers people racing to get to the front of the line.

Rose was one of 850,000 people who attended Abramovic’s 75-day performance, “The Artist Is Present,” in which visitors waited for hours to take a chair opposite the then 63-year-old artist and share a meditative gaze with her for any length of time. People described transformative experiences. Many wept through their mute encounters.

Marina Abramovic’s art performance, “The Artist Is Present,” is where the lonely characters of “The Museum of Modern Love” all independently arrive.

Marina Abramovic’s art performance, “The Artist Is Present,” is where the lonely characters of “The Museum of Modern Love” all independently arrive.

Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

“It was as if they were seen in a way they’re not normally seen,” Rose said. She returned every day for three weeks. She watched the crowds and saw others came back, too.

This atrium and this exhibition, with the silent Abramovic at its heart, is where the lonely characters of “The Museum of Modern Love” all independently arrive. Just as Rose was, they are inexplicably drawn to this refuge of unspoken, intimate connection and stillness in Midtown Manhattan.

This part-fact, part-fiction tale of art, love, grief and convergence is Rose’s fourth adult novel (she is also a co-author of the “Tuesday McGillicuddy” children’s series under the pen name Angelica Banks) and won Australia’s Stella Prize in 2017.

The characters — including Arky Levin, a film composer who hasn’t visited his ill wife in months; a widow taking the vacation she and her husband always meant to take together; and a grieving art critic finding solace in an affair with a married man — move through New York yearning to be seen.

In one desolate moment, Arky believes his estranged wife has left her toothbrush on the sink and searches high and low for his own, realizing days later it was his toothbrush he had seen and that he “only recognized it in relation to Lydia’s.”

Questions of loss appear throughout the book, but Rose doesn’t feel the need to resolve them. “It’s not trying to be definitive,” Professor Brenda Walker, the chairwoman of the 2017 Stella Prize judging panel, told me. “It’s trying to be open and thoughtful.”

CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

The book is narrated by an unnamed artist’s “muse,” an incorporeal angel-like being that’s assigned to watch over artists. Different muses have visited Rose for each of her books, she told me recently over dinner at a Sydney restaurant. This one was patient, thankfully, as the novel took her 11 years to write. (Other times, she said, it’s a little old woman with a bamboo stick whacking her on the back, saying: “Write harder! Write longer!”)

She had become used to writing “around the edges of the days,” juggling family and running an advertising agency she co-founded in 1999. Thanks to various book prizes and a grant from the Australia Council in 2017, Rose is now writing full time.

As a proud sixth-generation Tasmanian, Rose orders the Tasmanian pinot noir with our meal, and effuses to me about the landscape: “We have the best clouds in the world!”

This novel is her first not set in Tasmania, but she spies unlikely connections between Manhattan — another island, she points out — and her home state.

Island culture “gives us a sense of identity, and maybe that makes us more robust in our creative output,” she said. “Big Apple, little apple,” she affectionately calls Manhattan and Hobart, the capital of Tasmania.

The spark of the book came five years before “The Artist Is Present.” Rose had never heard of Abramovic until she encountered photographs of the artist’s previous performance works at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, in 2005. She saw images from the 1988 work, “The Lovers,” in which Abramovic and her partner, Ulay, each walked more than a thousand miles from different ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle and end their relationship.

Heather Rose was deeply moved by Marina Abramovic’s 1988 work, “The Lovers,” in which Abramovic and her partner, Ulay, each walked more that a thousand miles from different ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle and end their relationship.CreditThe Marina Abramovic Archives

“Instantly I thought, there’s a character for a novel,” Rose said. How could someone be so brave and courageous, she wondered, yet so vulnerable and romantic?

She tinkered with the idea for years (she published her third novel, “The River Wife,” in the meantime). But it wasn’t until she sat opposite Abramovic in MoMA that she realized she couldn’t fictionalize her.

“She’s too powerful, she’s too magnetic,” Rose said. “Nothing I could imagine would be more interesting than what she’s done with her life.”

Rose nervously wrote to the Sean Kelly Gallery, which represents Abramovic, and got the artist’s blessing. Rather than relief, it brought a fresh wave of anxiety for Rose. “I didn’t want to let her down in any way,” she said.

Abramovic was not let down. “I really loved the story,” she told me recently, and she wrote a glowing blurb that appears on the back of the book.

Rose never interviewed Abramovic for the book (“It’s a bit like breaking the fourth wall,” she said), but researched her life meticulously, thanks largely to the collection of materials belonging to David Walsh, the owner of the MONA gallery in Hobart.

While immersed in Abramovic’s four-decade career, Rose understood another reason she was drawn to the woman who had made an art out of enduring extreme pain.

Rose has had an inherited arthritic condition since childhood, which has, many times, left her unable to walk for weeks. She’s never talked about it publicly.

“So actually, writing is really painful for me,” she said. “And so pain is one of those things I’ve had to befriend. I think of it as a house guest that’s stayed way too long.”

She ponders how much of herself she poured into the book without even realizing it. Rose’s marriage ended six months before the novel’s release in Australia, yet she had instinctively populated her book with resilient female characters rising above grief, suffering and recurring illness.

“I feel in retrospect that what I was writing was a kind of blueprint for the sort of life I needed to live beyond the marriage, even though I had no idea the marriage was failing at the time.”

The book is launching with an event this week where it all began: at the atrium in the Museum of Modern Art, with Abramovic herself.

“I couldn’t quite believe that, honestly. I thought, she has a huge life, and this is just a little novel written by a Tasmanian,” Rose said.

“I’m still nervous to meet her,” she said, laughing. “I’m a huge fan. The funny thing is, I wasn’t a fan when I first started. I was just curious.”

Follow Tacey Rychter on Twitter: @taceyrychter.

NPR Reviews “The Museum of Modern Love”

Art Restores The Soul In ‘Museum Of Modern Love’

December 10, 201812:00 PM ET

HELLER MCALPIN

The Museum of Modern Love

by Heather Rose

Paperback, 286 pages

My guess is that you’ve never read a book quite like Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. I know I haven’t. This is the Australian author’s seventh novel, though it’s her first published in the United States, and it’s a real find. Rose celebrates the transformative power of art with an artful construct of her own — the profound response of a handful of fictional characters to Marina Abramovic’s performance piece, The Artist is Present, in which the Serbian artist sat perfectly still and silent at a table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a total of 736 hours over the course of the performance.

Between March 14 and May 31, 2010, more than 1000 people took turns sitting in a chair opposite Abramovic and meeting her gaze, while thousands more came to observe from the sidelines. Rose places her characters among them as the exhibit’s time clock ticks down. Most are at a painful crossroads in their lives, which heightens their susceptibility to Abramovic’s performance.

Even if you’ve never cottoned to Abramovic’s transgressive, self-flagellating body of work and regard the lengths she has gone in her explorations of physical endurance and the relationship between the artist and her audience as more stunt than art, Rose’s passionate take on it opens readers up to a fresh look. That said, the knife slashes, razor blades, and Great Wall of China trek make for sensational reading, but The Museum of Modern Love wouldn’t work if Rose’s characters and their stories weren’t as compelling as her appreciative assessment of this controversial artist whose “metier [is] to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration.”

Central among the novel’s cast is Arky Levin, a composer of movie soundtracks and an “immensely sad” and limited — but sympathetic — human being who “didn’t know how to solve anything but music.” Rose writes, “It’s hard to imagine a man more capable of living in his own cocoon than Levin.” He loves solitude and “didn’t even like living on this planet particularly.”

But until 2010, Arky thought he was happily married. That’s one of many assumptions he has to reassess after his beloved wife, starchitect Lydia Fiorentino, becomes gravely ill. Shortly before we meet him, Arky has learned that Lydia made advanced legal arrangements to sequester herself in a nursing home, with a court order to keep him from visiting — having long doubted his ability to care for her should her congenital illness turn critical. But their daughter and friends question Arky’s willingness to abide by draconian arrangements Lydia is no longer capable of overturning. At a loss, he finds himself drawn repeatedly to Abramovic’s MoMA performance.

Other characters converge with Arky as they, too, are mesmerized by Abramovic’s MoMA show. Jane Miller is a recently widowed middle school art history teacher from Georgia. Brittica van der Sar is a pink-haired Chinese doctoral student from Amsterdam who is writing her dissertation on Abramovic. Healayas Breen, a beautiful black art critic and singer raised Muslim in Paris, was a former girlfriend of Arky’s former musical partner — who disappointed them both when he moved on to younger composers and girlfriends. Abramovic’s performance teaches each of them lessons about time and stirs a desire to catch some of her courage, daring, and resolve.

Rose clearly believes in the redemptive, transformative power of art for artist and audience, writer and reader.

Rose, who lives on the island of Tasmania, displays a deep appreciation of art and a deft ability to blend fact, fiction, abstract ideas, and sentiment that recalls Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. So, too, does her willingness to venture beyond the confines of reality with an omniscient, incorporeal first person narrator — a sort of art-angel muse who spans centuries. An offbeat exploration of Abramovic’s difficult relationship with her mother, whose ghost haunts the MoMA show, also evokes Smith’s novel.

Rose clearly believes in the redemptive, transformative power of art for artist and audience, writer and reader. Her narrator remarks, “There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work. They are as waterfalls shot with sunshine.” The widowed art teacher explains great art’s ability to touch deeply and expose something “indescribable … A kind of access to universal wisdom.”

Amid searching but never tedious discussions about what constitutes art, and reflections on Abramovic’s grueling performance, Rose posits, “Perhaps art was evolving into something to remind us of the power of reflection, even stillness.” Her viewpoint is best summed up in an epigraph from Stella Adler, one of many inspirational quotes that punctuate The Museum of Modern Love: “Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.”