Lucy Ives’s cool and bracing new novel, Impossible Views of the World, is a perfect summer pleasure. Set at the fictional CeMArt, a museum on the Upper East Side that’s remarkably similar to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—where the author’s mother ran a department for many years, and about which Ives wrote an essay for Vogue—the book offers access to one of the world’s most well-oiled cultural institutions, functioning as something of a From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for grown-ups. An accomplished poet, Ives also knows how to delight sentence by sentence, with turns of phrase that cry to be underlined or Tweeted (hors d’oeuvres at a museum fundraiser are “micro-tizers”; the denizens of Williamsburg are “proofreaders dressed as majorettes, anorexics in suspenders, rich women in artisanal clogs”).
The narrative spans a single week, during which the cleverly named 30-something Stella Krakus (whose life is cracking up—get it?) contends with a harassing soon-to-be ex-husband, an ill-fated affair with one show pony of a colleague, and the mysterious death of another. Part send-up of the Manhattan art world, part elaborate literary mystery, the novel is bound together by a voice that is at turns deadpan and warm, shot through with a crisp irony that makes it tempting to declare it the literary equivalent of an Alex Katz painting. “I am not tall. In fact I am short, with highly regular features,” our narrator relays in the opening pages. “I despise makeup, though I wear lipstick, and, to further frustrate my appearance, I smoke.” It’s a singular work, worthy of a place in any world-class collection. Below, an interview with Ives, 37, a poet and academic who teaches writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Why isn’t the book set at the Met? Did it start out there and then you changed the name for legal reasons?It was never the Met. It’s really important that it’s not the Met. All unhappy families are different, and so are all unhappy institutions. This way the museum has its own concerns. Everything in the novel that is an artwork or text is completely made up. Dreaming up artworks and satirizing the discipline of research was fun for me; they’re two of the greatest pleasures I can think of.
What was the spark of the book?I was supposed to be finishing my dissertation at NYU when this strange scenario popped into my head. It was the idea of a woman going up the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I knew she was having difficulty in her romantic life and there were men who were not treating her with respect. The voice of the narrator was just there, and just available to me. So I started writing things down about her and her life, trying to see the humor in the ridiculousness in the men’s behavior that contrasted with her determination, and it became this world.
What was your mother’s job at the Metropolitan Museum?My mother was the illustrious director of a department whose purview has changed over time. It focused on works on paper—handmade things like drawings and prints and photographs. She is an expert in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist prints and drawings.
What was it like to be a pet of the Met as a child?[Laughs.] A lot of the objects of the museum were like members of the family. We would go to visit them regularly. I spent a lot of time in museums and in galleries as a child. Over time it’s become clear to me how much I’ve learned from this. I don’t have the training but I learned a lot about how to think about and relate to art. And for that I am eternally grateful.
You write about your mother in your Vogue Nostalgia. Stella’s mother, Caro, is also a less-than-snuggly art-world professional. How would you compare the experiences of writing about your mother in fiction and nonfiction?Stella’s mother, Caro, is probably a way I am dealing with some of the challenges in relating to a parent who you respect but is quite capable of tough love. Writing about my mother for Vogue was easier because I know who my mother is and I know what my experience being her daughter is like. The part that was difficult was I felt I needed to come to some kind of conclusion. My relationship with my mother is not going to end. Even after death we keep having relationships with our parents. In a novel you get to create endings that have meaning. In real life you don’t. That’s one of the hardest things about being a human.
Have you ever worked at a museum?Not apart from one summer as a teenager when I was a tour guide at the Met. I learned that small children really like to touch art.
The book is extremely funny about the cohort of young women who work in the art world and wear high heels and excel at writing thank-you notes. This bit reminded me of that wonderful short-lived reality show Gallery Girls: “The ‘girl’ who works at the museum is very pretty and exceedingly neat. She is a fan of social networking in all its protean forms, and not in an ironic way.” Did you have real-life exposure to what they call “gallery girls”?For five years I was an editor at Triple Canopy, an interdisciplinary magazine with a lovely website. One of our aims was to bring artwork into a digital realm in a more innovative way than simply presenting a JPEG. During that time I encountered curators and gallerists and gallery managers and interns and desk workers and fact checkers. So I’m going to say yes, I did.
The novel grapples with the seemingly impossible lot of being a woman, and balancing professional ambition and dreams of romantic love. Is this a tension you struggle with? Are you more of a worker or a lover?I am a worker [laughs]. But I think I’m curious abut this quandary because the workplace that I came to in my late 20s and early 30s—academia and publishing—was not the workplace I was promised when I was a child. It was a place that didn’t just see me as an intellect or a creative but saw me first as a woman, and then those things later. This was a huge surprise to me and I’m still reeling about that. I was at an art book fair a few years ago and I met a powerful man in the art world. We shook hands. When my companion, an older influential woman, looked away, he reached out and took my breast in his hand. I don’t know where we find ourselves—are women’s lives better than they once were? Or are they not?
This interview has been condensed and edited.