By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Tuesday Nights in 1980 opens in a Buenos Aires bakery, as Franca Engales Morales hurries to close up before attending a clandestine meeting of dissidents. Prentiss’ prologue, set in September 1980, creates the atmosphere of a political thriller, which, as the opening to a novel about artists in New York, represents one hell of a red herring. The narrative swiftly rewinds nine months to New Year’s Eve 1979, focusing on James and Marge, formerly idealistic art students, now attempting to carve out a more pragmatic grown-up future. That’s the idea, anyway. James’ synaesthesia drives him in less conventional directions, while Marge gives up her artistic ambitions for a 9-to-5 and regular income. Soon joining the busy narrative is Raul Engales, a passionate and unpredictable painter, and Lucy, who comes to Manhattan from Idaho on a whim and a prayer, dreaming of a glamorous life surrounded by artists.
Lucy didn’t want to have only one story. She wanted a whole life made out of stories: momentum, propulsion, characters, change. In a small town like this there were only so many ways to feel moved by change, and they were too subtle to be interesting.
Interweaving diverse stories into one coherent narrative is no mean feat, and it’s often the case that alternating between different perspectives fails to capture the attention sufficiently to keep track of events; Tuesday Nights in 1980 does not suffer from this problem, the strands of the story growing more compelling as they begin to interconnect. Prentiss manages to create characters who are by no means entirely sympathetic, but who manage to sustain the reader’s interest even as their actions become more selfish.
At the heart of Tuesday Nights in 1980 is the familiar trope of New York as muse, salvation, and companion; the vibrancy of the city is evident throughout, from the description of Lucy’s first, tiny apartment above a porn shop, to the artists’ squat where Raul finds kindred spirits and the galleries in which much of the action takes place. New York is vital to the story, both in its status as a mecca for artists and its conflicting images of glamor and squalor.
This is how New York began. A willingness, and then a pause. An attitude, a confidence, and then this: cracked walls and huge bugs, your first cigarette, the taste of your own fear. Fear not for what might be in store but for what might not be, that your bravery, which looked so big in your hometown, would not amount to anything, that New York City would not deliver on its promise, for something grand and glamorous, unknown and unknowable.
Art is central to the novel and tormented artists are among its main concerns. Raul Engales’ fierce creativity makes him a fascinating character. There’s something menacing about his determination to carve out a career, evident when he steals studio keys from an art student and proceeds to use her university’s space and materials to begin his planned ascent to celebrated artist status. The trajectory of Engales’ career is frenetic and dramatic, providing the novel with its most memorable moments. A great number of artworks both real and fictional are referenced in Tuesday Nights in 1980, along with artistic processes and ideas, which could have created a barrier for readers who, like me, don’t have a degree in art history. Prentiss uses these in a clever way, however, allowing the reader to visualize the paintings in James’ collection or in Engales’ apartment, while using these to add texture to our understanding of the characters.
There were some elements of the novel which didn’t quite work for me. The occasional descriptive sections, for example, which divide up details into categories like “eyes,” “hair,” and “body” added little to the more conventional narrative, while I found one of my literary pet hates in the reference to Lucy’s “small, ubiquitous breasts,” a description which I’m fairly confident is an oxymoron (I literally never feel the need to consider this particular section of the female body so I’m not sure why authors find a detailed observation so essential). These are small quibbles, however, when considering this hugely confident and exuberant debut. Prentiss’ words leap from the page, immersing you fully into the city and the story.
The books which, for me, draw the strongest comparisons with Tuesday Nights in 1980 both give a complementary reflection on the standard of this novel. In its geography, array of characters, and immersion in artistic expression, it is a far more manageable little sister to Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, while in its depiction of the struggles faced by artists, particularly in New York, it reminded me of Olivia Laing’s superb work of non-fiction, The Lonely City. Both of these works place the city that never sleeps at their hearts, bringing to life a motley collection of people. Crucially, the author tackles big questions in the context of an extremely entertaining novel. Tuesday Nights in 1980 will make you think, but a large portion of those thoughts will simply be reflecting on what a very good novel it is.
Tuesday Nights in 1980 is available now at GPL.