Encountering C. Maxwell is an ode to adventure, to the thrill of the road, to the possibility of discovery, and to the ecstasies of creative expression. It is also a rarely sung ode to solitude in which Celia Maxwell, armed with a Nikon and a sense of humor, criss-crosses Latin America chasing another C. Maxwell, whom she believes to be her intellectual and spiritual doppelganger. The novel is written in a unique style that perfectly reflects Celia’s complex inner life as an outsider, an artist and a high-functioning neurotic. As her journey ends, Celia is forced to confront the reality that the happy ending she imagined will not quite match the happy ending she can have.
Excerpts from ENCOUNTERING C. MAXWELL
All excerpts copyright©2010 by Montana Kane
After jotting down her thoughts, Celia flipped through the glossy pages of a women’s magazine she had purchased for the sole reason that it featured a nice eight-page spread of photos from Annie Liebovitz’s highly acclaimed series of women’s portraits years ago. All the good ideas were taken, Celia mused bitterly. If she had started collecting all the stuff she wrote, all the photographic portraits she had taken over the years and never done anything with, all the miscellaneous items in her life, she could easily have become Annette Messager or Sophie Calle or any other world famous artist who incorporated her daily life into her artwork. That second self-pitying thought led to a third one: just when you think there’s nothing new under the sun, some idiot comes up with a brilliant idea you had ten years ago, or that you’ve been doing for ten years, dares to publish produce exhibit it, and suddenly, it’s Art.
To wit: the exhibit she saw the last time she was in New York, where an artist had taped a bunch of little notes and memos to the museum wall. Notes? Notes?? She was the crowned queen of notes! She had been writing notes since she was ten! On refrigerators, on walls, on doors tables mirrors desks, to friends parents roommates boyfriends, colleagues bosses herself. Witty creative clever little notes, that brought humor good cheer and a hearty chuckle to their recipients. Why the hell couldn’t she have come up with the idea of slapping them onto a museum wall?
To wit: Bridget Jones’s Diary. Celia had been writing a journal (she much preferred that term to the word “diary,” which conjured up images of a pimply plump schoolgirl confessing her crush on the star jock in a pink notebook fastened with a pink bow and a delicate golden lock) for years, often times in a much more clever, witty and humorous way than whatsherface. But whatsherface did something with it, and was now a multi-millionaire.
When would she become a whatsherface? As she had countless times before, Celia filled with utter panic at the realization that she had better come up with something and come up with it fast, before some moron somewhere shot out from obscurity and into the limelight with another idea that she, Celia, had mulled over in her head for years and never acted on.
She walked over to her desk drawer and grabbed a file entitled Misc. Ideas. She flipped through the mess of notes (see!), consisting largely of short cryptic messages hastily scribbled down on restaurant napkins, matchbooks, post-its, telephone bills electric bills gas bills, book covers, torn out corners of the Chicago Tribune Chicago Reader New York Times, business cards and small actual pages ripped out of small actual notebooks.
Idea for humorous collection of words and images: shoot a series of scenes, objects and situations that are always described in a specific arrangement of words. For example:
That was kind of a clever idea. Not very profound, but an interesting reflection on words and their tendency to be composed in highly unoriginal ways by their composers, without a second thought. If someone is trying, it is always desperately; if someone is apologizing, it is always profusely; if someone is murdered, it is always brutally; if someone fails, it is always miserably. There could even be a whole series on restaurant menus: soups are always hearty, fries are always golden, omelets always fluffy.
Next: three whole pages of notebook paper with ideas descriptions sketches for two inventions: an elegant piece of home furniture “specially designed” to enhance lovemaking; and funky, colorful waterproof wristbands that could hold a key, an ID and a few dollar bills, perfect for runners rollerbladers surfers. Provided these ideas weren’t already out there, they definitely seemed to have potential. But how to proceed? Inventions required what, lawyers, start up money, patents, manufacturers? It sounded a little involved.
Next: a book about a conversation. The book is one long conversation between two people. Just dialogue. Or, even better: instead of fiction, an authentic, real as they come, straight from the guts, e-mail correspondence between two artists. About art love life sex, loneliness depression, everything. With no editing, all typos included, funny painful vulgar real.
Maybe. But the second scenario required another artist, preferably another woman, to better achieve the intimacy of riveting unbridled girl-talk, and preferably one of her friends overseas, to allow for cross cultural topics. Who could she ask? Definitely something to think about, to mull over some more. She reached for a black magic marker and wrote THINK ABOUT IT on the piece of paper, along with the date, which she added parenthetically. Then she underlined the whole thing twice in two swift strokes. This would enable her to establish quick visual hierarchy in her notes the next time she riffled through them.
Next: a visual art piece that is about the artistic process, including the rejection process. Collect and save anything and everything about the process of creating a piece of art, from its very conception to its finish: record date time place, number of minutes hours spent thinking about it and working on it; keep any rough drafts, any little notes taken down hurriedly on a bus or in a cab; keep all scrap paper, keep all receipts --from ink cartridges, film, camera batteries, Fedex shipments, etc. Keep all submission letters, all portfolios, all rejection letters, all phone records, all e-mails. Keep everything even remotely associated with the process involved. Have one-woman show that could document the work like this: the creation of this piece took x amount of ink and paper, x number of rejection letters, x number of hours in the dark room, x tubes of paint, x number of all-nighters, etc.
NOT BAD. A little self-indulgent but not bad. But it was hard to break into a new career with a one-woman show, just like that. She grabbed the marker and wrote: “consider group show.”
Next: produce a series of portraits of people consisting of collages made from pieces of their lives. For example, select for display things they have chosen to keep in their lives, which is a reflection of who they are. Example: a corny movie stub from a first date, a note left by a roommate, pictures, etc., all of which are assembled artistically in a multimedia collage. Every portrait will be drastically different, as the artist is allowed free reign in the subject’s house and is given permission to take objects and use them for the portrait. What we keep, what we value, becomes the portrait of who we are.
Next: an exhibition of text and images consisting of a day in the life. An account of one day in a woman’s life in real time, that logs every single minute of each of the twenty-four hours. She gets up, she spends fifteen minutes in the shower, twenty minutes dressing, forty-five minutes on the bus, thinking about this and looking at that, etc. The photos provide a visual record of the activities, while the accompanying text breaks the day into time units and provides intimate information such as the content of the woman’s thoughts. OR: perhaps better as a video installation. Think about it.
Not bad either. Let’s face it, it was clear that Celia Natalie Maxwell could become a highly successful multi-disciplinary artist if she would just put her mind to it once and for all.
The order she had just given herself had the immediate effect of making Celia want to take a nap. Which she did.
When she awoke one hour and thirty-three minutes later, the butterfly in Japan had mysteriously caused her Misc. Ideas file to fall off the desk. Celia knelt down and began to clean up the mess of scattered paper. Reaching under a chair, she found a note she had missed the first time around. On the back of a crumpled cocktail napkin stained with red wine, and with some difficulty, she read:
“take a long trip and record everything via photographs and writing. Promote it as a sort of travel essay book. Don’t mess with the historical and geographical information, which has already been done better than you could ever hope to do, but make it an internal voyage. Don’t make it a corny quest, either, simply a journey of (hopefully) self-discovery. What happens to a person when taken out of familiar setting and faced with time, solitude, etc.
Definitely dangerous to let that thought linger. Once thought was allowed to settle in the mind, it could lead to things. Thoughts needed to be controlled or they could get out of hand and make the thinker do things. And the knowledge of where this one particular thought could lead was frightening. Celia knew herself well enough to be sure of one thing: if this thought stayed, she would have no choice but to obey it.
She pushed the ERASE button in her mind, grabbed some film from the fridge and walked out the door.
Naturally, the thought returned. It was difficult to trick the mind that way.
-Why not? it asked.
-I can’t just go, just like that.
-Do you have your passport?
-Can you take time off work?
-Are you sure?
-Yes. Probably. No real projects after the Chicago Weekly assignment.
-What about money?
-I could do it. Sure, I have two thousand bucks in the bank. That’s plenty for a trip to cheapo countries.
-Where would you go?
-You know damn well where I would go. I would go to find C. Maxwell.
The Greenmill was packed and Celia had a hard time making her way to the front of the long narrow room. When she did, she had the unbelievable luck of walking past a small table just as a couple was standing up to leave. She nearly tripped as she shamelessly threw herself onto one of the seats, before realizing that the girl hadn’t completely cleared the booth yet. “Great timing,” she joked apologetically, as the girl yanked her purse from under Celia’s butt and shot her an acid look. Who cares, she thought. Survival of the fastest. She could feel people glaring at her as she tried to concentrate on the drink menu. Then a beefy-looking guy with a bimbo- looking girl grunted in her direction: “Is it all right if my girlfriend sits here?” It was hard to say no, not when the place was jam-packed and she was alone at a table for two. “Sure,” she said with a brave smile, wondering what the hell she was doing there.
Celia placed her order with the server, a festive vodka with pineapple in a tall glass. Right about then, the music started. She twisted her neck to get a better view of Matt. He looked good, sitting up there all in black, banging away at the keyboards and obviously lost in the music. Celia felt a brief pang of envy. When was the last time she had lost herself in her art? These assignments she had been doing lately were bogus. They paid the rent, rather well actually, but did not leave much room for artistic expression. Mostly, they were commissions from some of the magazines and papers around town. Portraits of the top fifty entrepreneurs of the year; a series on the housing projects that were being torn down; a series on cutting edge theater companies setting up camp in storefront windows. Etc, etc. Her personal projects as an artist had, so far, only brought four small group exhibitions --if you could call the one in the wine bar a real exhibition--a capsule review in a neighborhood weekly and only one actual sale. At least, though, she concluded as she took a large gulp of cocktail, she was working in her field. That was the main thing, not only good for her self-respect but excellent for the old resume as well. Plus, her assignments did provide a fair amount of variety in her work and introduced her to different milieus--not that very many of them were riveting.
Celia took back that last thought, ashamed of it, reminded of a recently and firmly made resolution to try to be less judgmental. The truth was, she had in fact met some very interesting people through her assignments. But she was always on the periphery of their universe, an outsider looking in on a world that would never be hers, with a bit of envy at times for the camaraderie she saw in some, the assurance in others, the drive and ambition in another, the passion and the guiding sense of purpose in yet another. She only intersected those worlds for the space of a shoot, for two or three days of coffees drinks take-out, quick cigarettes smoked in dirty back alleys or on shaky fire escapes, short confessions as the equipment was set up, fleeting intimacies between shots, shared jokes under the makeup brush. And then that was it. She exited their world and entered her own again, hoping the next assignment would be better than the last one, drifting from place to place and people to people, exposing bits of lives, entering leaving, walking in walking out, interrupting resuming, opening and closing doors to other lives.
So really, Celia mused, making a loud slurping sound with her straw, she was a photojournalist, if you really thought about it. Which was a wonderful and exciting thing to be, unless you happened to want to be an Artist.
Her rambling thoughts took Celia all the way through the second set. Just as she decided to start paying attention to the music, everybody began clapping and the musicians on stage rose to their feet.
Celia’s eyes followed Matt as he made his way to the bar and ordered a beer. Presently there was a small group of people around him. She watched as he smiled graciously (why did she have such a problem being gracious?) to his friends and supporters, laughed easily (was her laugh easy or strained?) and chatted with them. There were about four women in the group, all of them attractive in a difficult to hate way. Matt seemed to give each person a lot of attention, a lot of sincerely sincere attention. The last thing Celia wanted to do was walk up to him and compete with everybody else, especially since he probably wouldn’t remember who she was right away and the conversation would come to a halt just long enough to embarrass her.
She lowered her eyes to focus on her half-chewed straw. When she raised them again, Matt was looking directly at her. He excused himself from the others and walked towards her.
-Celia, he said warmly, I’m glad to see you.
-Yeah, well, I thought I’d stop by and see if you were any good.
-Did I pass?
-You did. But then again, I’m no music critic.
-Thank god for that, he laughed. So how are you?
-Good, good (sip, gulp).
-Good. How was your day, what did you do?
-Pretty much nothing. But I thought about new ideas for stuff.
-What kind of stuff?
-Exhibits, books, projects, I don’t know. I just looked at some notes I took over the past year or so.
-Sounds like a stressful day.
-Well, unless I’m on assignment, that’s pretty much what I do. Stay home and think about things.
-Waiting for the Muse.
-Yeah, I guess. Actually, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.
-Okay, I was thinking that. . .
-You mean right now? I have to go back on in a few minutes.
-Could we talk some other time?
-Yeah, sure, I guess.
-Do you have plans tomorrow around ten?
-Will you be up?
Celia laughed, slightly offended.
-I think I can manage to drag my lazy ass out of bed by then.
-Good. That’s usually when I take my dog to the lake. How does that sound?
-You have a dog? I didn’t see him the other day.
-He was sleeping over at his friend’s house.
-How cute. Did you pack him a little overnight bag?
-I did. So what do you think?
-Yeah, okay, sure. Where do you want to meet?
-How about behind the tennis courts at Addison?
-Okay. Yeah, sure.
-All right, then. I’ll see you tomorrow. I’m glad you stopped by.
-Okay, see you tomorrow.
Celia stayed for twenty more minutes or so, then squeezed her way out of the club, but not before waving discreetly at Matt, who didn’t see her gesture.