Cover image for The artist of the missing
The artist of the missing
LaFarge, Paul.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Physical Description:
241 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Frank, a young artist, arrives in the city hoping to unravel the mystery of his parents' disappearance. He begins working as a washer of robes at a hotel for itinerant judges. There he meets and falls in love with Prudence, a forensic photographer whose pictures reveal the secrets of the dead.

When Prudence disappears, Frank sets out in search of her, a quest that leads him into the shadowy world of a revolutionary salon, then to prison, and finally to discover the city's strange secrets and the secrets of his own heart.

A haunting novel, The Artist of the Missing is a stunning debut, both a richly imagined evocation of another world and a piercing examination of the mystery of love, and beautifully illustrated by the acclaimed artist Stephen Alcorn.

A visionary novel about love, loss, imagination, and despair.

Author Notes

Paul La Farge lives in San Francisco. The Artist of the Missing is his first novel.

Stephen Alcorn studied printmaking in Italy and illustrated the Modern Library series. He is the 1998 recipient of the Carter G. Woodson Book Award.

Reviews 1

Booklist Review

Frank, an artist, falls in love with a forensic photographer named Prudence only to lose her among the "missing," in this tale of magical realism. In his search for her, he stumbles upon a revolutionary salon, all of whose members are looking for their own missing persons. His involvement with the group causes him to be thrown into jail, where he slowly loses touch with reality and creates his own. Because of the author's narrative distance, the story is initially off-putting; but Frank's stay in jail is written in first person, and his experiences are interesting and engaging. The setting and time frame are never clear. Accessories such as cars and computers suggest current day, but the tone of the writing is formal, as if from an earlier era. In this debut novel, allegorical stories, along with beautiful woodcut illustrations, are interspersed, which makes one wonder: Is Frank searching for Prudence or himself? --Ellie Barta-Moran



Chapter One FRANK AND JAMES SHARED A ROOM AT Bellaway's, a boardinghouse for itinerant judges which accepted transients in the off-season. Their room, a garret, with walls covered in green paper that reeked of wool in the humid weather, was still inhabited by the last occupant's furniture. A botanist he had been, said Mrs. Bellaway, and unlucky in love. One night he tied his albums of pressed flowers to his chest and threw himself into the river, so that, she said, the flowers swelled with water and bloomed again; a trail of rehydrated petals followed his body all the way downstream to the harbor. Aside from the petals, the botanist had left behind a bed and sofa, a bookshelf, and a supply of the pins, weights, glues, and papers useful in the preservation of plants. --You can keep it all, if you like, Mrs. Bellaway told them; but extra blankets're a dollar each. While James negotiated with her, Frank picked the botanist's implements up, one after the other. They seemed to belong to another world, older and more complete than the one he had left: a world in which not even weeds were allowed to fade, wither, and disappear. A little frightened by the power such a world must possess, he let the brass mountings and gummed labels fall from his hands, and turned to the window, a dormer with a deep sill and small panes. When he sat on the sill and curled his neck under the eaves, the window formed a sort of room all its own. From this vantage he could see the beginning of the city: the dull brick backs and tarpaper roofs of the row houses opposite and the top branches of some gangly and leafless trees which suggested a garden and a courtyard below. Beyond the first rank of houses a second rose up, and beyond that a third, with crenellations of white stone. Above their tops he could make out spires and squat water tanks and the parallel lines of the towers of glass which, he had heard, rose above the winter fogs and summer storms to glitter in perpetual sunlight. Beyond the towers was only haze, the chestnut smoke of the factories on the riverbanks, factories he had hitherto known only as names stamped on objects, tools, pots and plates, all of which had been sold off what already seemed a long time ago. Turning from the window, Frank took a photograph from his bag. It showed a man and a woman walking arm in arm up a street which might have been the one next to Bellaway's. When he held the photograph to the window, however, he saw that the real street was brighter and far wider than the pictured one. He put the photo back in his bag and went to see how James was getting on with Mrs. Bellaway.     Between James's savings and the money Frank had made from the auction, there was no pressing need for them to work. They spent their days walking from monument to monument, stopping in the shade of a café when the midafternoon heat clotted the air. They followed a guidebook which had once belonged to Frank's father, but the book must have been old, or else the city had recently changed. The guidebook urged them: Be sure to pay your respects to the bears who have their own island in the zoo. They will swim to you if you hold out a fish, and take it from your hand as gently as you please --but of the bears they could find no trace. Instead, they spent an afternoon admiring the puffins, magnificent birds with white bellies and the faces of clowns. After a day at the zoo you're sure to be tired , the guidebook said, so why not stop in Wardens' Square for some tea? Wardens' Square turned out to be a dingy court covered with netting to keep out flies and sun; there was no tea to be found there, though the shop windows displayed a variety of elegant, slightly used machines. It was the same everywhere: in place of great wonders they found small marvels, and vice versa, so that they were never sure where they had gone or what they had seen, though it always seemed to them that they saw more than they'd expected. Long after it became clear that the guidebook was of no practical use, Frank insisted on bringing it with him. When they stopped before one monument, he read the description of another, demolished long ago, which had stood in the same spot, as though he could not stand to see the city only as it was, but must double its real sights with imaginary ones.     Frank decided to teach himself to draw. He bought a sketchbook from a stationer's near the bus terminal, a place that sold blank books of all descriptions. In the late afternoon, when the light turned copper-red and the shadows blue, he sat in the window of their room at Bellaway's and copied the city onto one page after another. He began with buildings, because they were large and did not move. Slowly, the apartment house opposite grew clotheslines and chimney pots; its red-brick rear appeared first as a texture of smudges; then cornices revealed their curves to Frank's hand, and the windows arranged themselves in floors and columns. Evening rose, erasing detail, until all that remained were the lit rectangles, near and distant, where other lives took place. A man opened letters; a woman stirred a pot; an old gentleman talked on the telephone. Blinds rose and fell; shadows crossed the rooms, embraced, parted; lights went off and came on again. In a yellow room opposite and a little below his own, a naked woman combed her hair. She turned, and Frank saw the minuscule profile of her breast, the sweep of her hip half hidden by her long black hair. She left the window's yellow frame and came back, turned toward him and raised her arms to secure her hair with an invisible pin. The room went dark soon after. Frank tried to draw her, but his hand could not make her out; his sketches were a jumble of black hair, yellow walls, a pale arm, a vase on a table. He threw them away, but continued to watch her window. Her hours were irregular. Some nights she came home early, others at dawn; sometimes her window was dark for nights on end.     Her half-seen figure chased the familiar faces from Frank's dreams. He woke feeling light-headed, as though a space were being cleared in the clutter of his old affections. Traffic groaned around a distant roundabout; the air reeked of pollen and Bellaway's bitter coffee; the country seemed as far-off as the city in the guidebook. In his sketches, the spires caught the sun; the clocks struck the hour; line by line the city came to life. The woman in the window was still too far away to draw, but Frank had other occasions to study the human figure. While he sat upstairs sketching buildings, James had been downstairs in Bellaway's parlor, teaching the transients one lurching rustic dance after another. James unpacked his guitar and sang for them the long songs, almost like stories, with which country dwellers entertained themselves at night. He was good-looking in a babyish sort of way; there was a roundness to his chin and lips which suggested that his face had not lost all that men's faces lose between boyhood and the age of twenty-five or thirty. He danced confidently, and had a clear voice. The transients applauded and called for more; even the Great Evan, a magician who made a seasonal living pulling scarves from tourists' sleeves, was enchanted. James introduced Frank to Charles, Bellaway's hunchbacked caretaker, who had been a signals clerk in the Navy and had three daughters by a foreign wife, Glenda, now deceased. The daughters came to Bellaway's each week to help their father with the housekeeping. They were taken with the handsome stranger who could begin one song without, it seemed, ending the last, so that his voice played on for hours, turning the parlor into a windy plain, the couches into horses, and the mantel into mountains. The daughters' names were Rosalyn, Evelyn, and Carolyn, a consonance which none of them appreciated as much as had their late mother, who had been some sort of poet overseas. When they had done folding and dusting, scrubbing the tureens and plucking weeds from the garden, they rested in the parlor, the three of them in a row on the longest of Mrs. Bellaway's sofas.     Carolyn was the most beautiful: her doll's face and heating-coil curls looked as though they were molded fresh every morning. Her slender figure promised immunity to the wear of time and chores. Not so Evelyn, the youngest, who perused the world as though it were a book, and one printed small besides, so that she had to stoop and squint to make any sense of it. When she relaxed, as she did when James sang, her eyes opened wide and her face took on an air of perfect incomprehension. Rosalyn, the middle daughter, was beautiful only in her hands, which were long, slender, and rose-white. She knew it, too, and made every effort to keep them from being worn down, avoiding heavy chores, though she wasn't averse to kneeling in the garden and snipping with long shears at the rosebushes. Rosalyn never squinted at the world as Evelyn did, nor did she watch it, like Carolyn, with wide-open doll's eyes. Drifting half in and half out of attentiveness, she was the one whom James's singing moved the most; his wonderful stories became more wonderful still in her spotty attention, as she filled in the parts she'd missed with dreams of her own. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Paul LaFarge. All rights reserved.