I don’t read a lot of fiction, but when I learned that a former Metropolitan Museum of Art employee recently released a novel about her experiences at the museum, I ordered a copy right away.
Christine Coulson’s Metropolitan Stories: A Novel is a set of vignettes about life at one of the world’s most significant art museums. It’s a beautiful, whimsical, poetic ode to the museum. The stories showcase the inner lives of employees and artworks alike, as well as the personality of the museum as a whole. All are equally alive and vibrant. There are stories about curators competing over exhibition spaces, inter-office romances, and fundraising galas, alongside recollections of an eighteenth-century chair, stealth movements by painted and sculpted figures, and everything in between. Much is clearly invented, but Coulson gives the sense that everything is based in some kind of fact, whether a real event or just a real feeling inspired by years of working in the museum. Early chapters initially seem unrelated to each other but start to connect after a while.
One of my favorite vignettes is a perfect example of what makes Metropolitan Stories so enjoyable. It involves the museum’s director trying to pick a personal muse. His assistant puts out a casting call to the departments, and a selection of artworks are sent up for him to evaluate. Let’s just say that interviews with these painted, sculpted, and photographed female figures are fully two-way conversations with lots of personality on both sides of the table.
I’m still trying to guess which aspects of the stories are based in truth, particularly when it comes to the hilarious antics of a lovesick night guard. But as much as I’m curious about the real situations and people behind Coulson’s book, I think the mystery and ambiguity are probably more compelling, since they encourage me to imagine what essential Met truths each episode might contain.
Metropolitan Stories contains a great mixture of grounded anecdotes and whimsical flights of fancy. There are real museum details, believable situations, and relatable human psychology amongst ghosts, time travel, and moving statues – sometimes in the same vignette. In Coulson’s hands, it feels wholly unnecessary to separate the realistic from the make believe. When she describes the museum’s lamplighters as dispensing balls of pure light, for example, only the hard-hearted could be bothered by this symbolic rather than literal truth in the midst of an otherwise realistic scene.
I also love the suggestion that artworks have feelings, personalities, and memories. Imagine what the stories they could tell! This idea has occurred to me on occasion, but I’ve never let my imagination run with it. But Coulson certainly does. She is obviously a true art lover who deeply appreciates every single object in an art museum, and her book speaks strongly to the like minded reader. I highly recommend it.
Metropolitan Stories: A Novel by Christine Coulson was released by Other Press in early October 2019. You can buy it from major booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.