Composed of sixty-three petite fictions, Color Plates combines excellent prose with a unique organizing principle, making this a volume unlike any other. The stories are sorted into four books, each book containing prose relating to an artist: Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Mary Cassatt. Each of these books contains more than a dozen stories, which take their titles from the names of paintings by the artists – “Woman Fixing Her Stocking,” “The Boating Party,” or “The Dance Class,” for instance. Each title is accompanied by a brief description of the paintings while the stories that follow respond to, recreate, inhabit, and expand the world of these pictures.
Some of the stories simply animate the picture, setting the static images in motion. “Luncheon in the Studio,” for example, has the narrator walk into Manet’s painting. The items in the story are consistent with the items in the painting: “On the table was a plate of oysters over ice, a lemon—curl of peel dangling—a wine goblet, and tea cup.” The people, however, are transformed. Or, not transformed, because they look the same, “dressed in yellow pants, a black velvet jacket, and a yellow hat,” but given identity. The men in the painting are now publishers, the narrator there to see them for an appointment. The fiction that follows brings the painting to life, reads into and over everything that Manet put there originally.
Other stories offer commentary on art. The creation, the style, the inspiration, the method of making paintings all figure into the fiction. Some of the more subtle aspects of artistic commentary were positively beguiling. For instance, in “Claude Monet in his ‘Studio,’” a painting that depicts the artist at work in a little boat with a woman on board with him, Golaski crafts a dialogue between the artist and the woman – the woman talking and the artist painting. In fact, the artist is painting the woman: “he dips the tip of his brush onto her skin...swirls the boar bristles around and again.” She takes shape and form under his artistry, which is a lovely enough image. But then Golaski lifts it even farther, when the artist suggests that the woman go for a swim and “she strips. Beneath her clothes, there is nothing for her to be modest about—there is nothing.” The fiction asks what is art, what is subject, what is perception. At its best, this collection makes the reader reconsider both visual art and fiction writing.
When I first sat down to read this collection, I approached it as I would any other short story collection. But soon I found myself wanting to see the paintings that were being written about. I set up my laptop and found an online image for each painting that Golaski writes about. Though this slowed down the reading process, it enriched it tremendously. I found myself switching between book and image, studying the painting for the detail referred to in the story. Some were easy to find, as in “Breakfast after the Bath” where “the floor is covered with carpets: strewn,” while other details were more evasive. In the same story, the bather dries off and “puts on a blue, flannel, shapeless dress.” Does she? Is that the rag of blue hanging in the background? Or is this fiction, an invention of Golaski’s? The interplay between the real paintings and the fictional world added a unique dynamic to the reading experience.
Many moments in this volume are breath-taking and original. The sheer number of pieces, coupled with my desire to study the paintings on which they are based, made reading a lengthy process, but an enjoyable one. This is a collection certain to delight those who delight in short form fiction and those who delight in the visual.