cover image The Caretaker

The Caretaker

Doon Arbus. New Directions, $19.95 (144p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2949-4

Arbus’s sly debut novel (after Diane Arbus: A Chronology, a coauthored collection of her mother’s diary entries) explores the insular world of the late Dr. Charles Alexander Morgan—collector, chemist, philosopher, philanthropist, and all-around eccentric—whose legacy, consisting of hundreds of items ranging from seashells and coat hangers to a portrait by Albrecht Dürer and Morgan’s seminal masterpiece entitled simply Stuff, is overseen by a devoted and unnamed caretaker. The labyrinthine Morgan Foundation is a repository of strange and unusual objects, through which the slavishly devoted caretaker leads curious tourists and would-be specialists. When the crown of Morgan’s collection—a black plinth forged by a crashed meteorite—is damaged by a guest and the caretaker’s lectures begin to take on a devious, increasingly unbalanced subtext, the reader begins to wonder whether the Foundation’s visitors really are the caretaker’s charges—or are they his prisoners? Arbus brilliantly describes the caretaker’s distorted sense of the museum as a living, breathing organism (“the whole place has come alive again and has found its voice and is chattering away in its native language to the solitary listener”), and flirts just enough with gothic tropes to dramatize his existential dilemma. Taking cues from tales by Kafka and Robert Walser, Arbus pulls off an unnerving feat of contemporary postmodernism. (Sept.)