As in the classic, unscrubbed fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Idra Novey’s “Take What You Need” does not skirt gritty subjects. Concerned with characters who fall outside easily defined categories, it tackles big questions — like what qualifies as art — as well as the aching human need to be seen.
Novey’s new novel is narrated by Jean, a woman in her 60s who spends her later years making outsider art; and by her stepdaughter Leah, who lives in New York City with her husband and small son.
Leah receives a call from Elliott, who reports, to her surprise, that he has been living with her stepmother. Elliott says that Jean has died, slipping from a ladder while working on sculptural metal towers in her living room while he was at a hardware store. These structures — Jean calls them Manglements — are sculpted of discarded, refurbished sheet metal embedded with small capsules that contain such things as plastic soldiers with acorn heads, and photos of women’s feet in dingy work boots.
Leah has distanced herself from her southern Allegheny Mountain hometown, as well as her “complicated” stepmother. Jean married Leah’s father partly because she admired “his devotion to his tiny daughter.” But after nine years of his anger and belittling, Jean left. She didn’t reckon that he would forbid his 10-year-old daughter from seeing or contacting her.
The overeager Jean makes a clumsy attempt at connection during Leah’s first year of college, sending a homemade birthday card that crosses boundaries of taste and judgment. Leah buries the card in the dorm garbage can. Upon graduation, she moves to Peru, where she meets her husband.
After a decade in Lima, Leah returns to the States. Feeling adult, she arranges a meeting with Jean, who wants to take her to a cliff that overlooks the town. An explosive confrontation between them, sparked by a group of blustering young men arriving in an ATV, cements her belief that Jean, excusing their crude slurs, conforms to all the Rust Belt stereotypes.
Given that dismissal, Leah finds herself unexpectedly crushed at the news of her stepmother’s death. Elliott tells her she has inherited the massive sculptures that fill Jean’s little house. Leah feels uneasy about this young man, and devastated when she recognizes him as one of the drunk gang from the night on the cliff. Elliott was the skinny one that Jean seemed to know and have some history with.
When Leah brings her family into Jean’s house, she confronts the limits of her own suppositions: “Despite everything I’ve revisited about her, all her years subscribing to art magazines, I can’t stop expecting her towers to be woefully amateurish, to be junk.”
But the towers her stepmother created, assisted by Elliott over the last few years, leave Leah awestruck. She recognizes the meticulous attention to detail that lifts art from the specific to the universal. She is particularly moved by a message painted on a structure: “WHAT’S A STEPMOTHER ANYHOW” and a capsule “that is not a woman’s foot but a hand, clutching the pudgy fingers of a toddler . . .” Leah feels seen in these expressions, and realizes that Jean is not only an artist in her own right, but someone who never stopped caring for her.
Her own narrative moves from suspicion and resentment toward her “former” stepmother — a role Jean has referred to as “a non-position, with no reliable shape whatsoever” — to a fairy-tale ending, framed as a “what if,” where she manages to find a place for some of her stepmother’s Manglements in a museum for visionary outsider artists.
Leah reflects: “Why didn’t it occur to me that she might be crafting a fairy tale of her own, a realm as utterly unclassifiable as Jean herself?”
The last word belongs to the gruff, profane, colorful Jean, who read fairy tales to Leah as a child, insisting that unlike the stepmother in “Snow White,” she only wanted Leah’s heart; and to the art she created, inspired by Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois, whose words she quoted to Elliott as she doggedly pursued her art with his able-bodied help. Jean taught herself — from YouTube videos — to mount her visions, Leah learns from Elliott, who seems surprised that she has to be informed by him, the young man with no education and a criminal record, about the influence of the female artists on her stepmother.
Idra Novey’s magical debut, “Ways to Disappear,” was set in Brazil; her second propulsive novel, “Those Who Knew,” on an unnamed island country in the Southern Hemisphere. This is the first novel by the poet and translator to be set in the United States, in the region where Novey grew up, and the first with first-person narration.
Taking on political prejudices in the conservative Rust Belt — Leah is heckled at a gas station for speaking Spanish with her linguist husband — is not an easy task, even with the lively Jean repurposing rusty sheet metal into art. If the politics and the fairy tale scaffolding seem at times heavy-handed, “Take What You Need” is still a compelling piece of work.
Reflecting Novey’s title — “Take What You Need” — Jean makes what she needs out of her place and circumstances, and she positions Leah to take what she needs from her difficult past. With these raw materials, Novey has fashioned an insightful work of art about art.
TAKE WHAT YOU NEED
By Idra Novey
Viking, 242 pages, $28
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book critic.