Fun, Fantasy, and Fine Art: The Fine Art of Fucking Up by Cate Dicharry

“I am sitting behind my desk watching the downpour when I catch the scent of bacon,” begins Cate Dicharry’s The Fine Art of Fucking Up from Unnamed Press, “Dunbar is in the building again, despite the restraining order.” Thus we are introduced to a quirky, kooky cast of educators, the odd pairing of artists with academia. Dicharry’s novel is a dark and funny mix of slapstick, observational humor and institutional satire. Ultimately, this is a caper, and Dicharry’s ability to write humor into tragedy, into her main character’s unspooling, makes for an entertaining read.

Full disclosure: Dicharry and I were both students at the UCR Palm Desert MFA several years apart. We have many mutual friends, but do not know each other well.

The Fine Art begins with its main character, Nina Lanning, administrative coordinator of the School of Visual Arts, in crisis. Her boss, Ramona, who should be running the school, has lost herself in a fantasy world of romance novel obsession — so much so that she ignores all human interaction. The professors of her school, each a talented and self-obsessed artist, only come running to her when it serves their personal needs. One of the professors, Don Dunbar, has been sneaking back into the building in violation of his restraining order, frying up bacon in protest. At home, Nina’s husband, Ethan, decides he wants a baby, now. As a “test”, he brings home an international student that they can care for and use for practice. He tells Nina:

“He showed up in class this afternoon, distraught, I mean literally in tears. He’s just figured out they’re closing his dorm for the summer. He hadn’t been able to understand the email notifications or fliers. He had no idea. Nobody told him. Can you believe that? Nobody checked that he had made arrangements. He can’t go home because his visa is for one entry per year, so if he leaves he won’t be able to get back in time for the fall semester. He has nowhere to go.”

Nina doesn’t want a baby and she certainly doesn’t want an undergrad. That’s only the beginning. One of the joys of Dicharry’s tale is how many crises are happening at once. All of them, dire. Nina Lanning is juggling one bad thing after another, and seeing her drop the ball is funny. Dicharry understands timing and writes with wit.

Nina’s biggest problem — more than squabbling professors and procreating husbands — is an impending flood, poised to fill the architectural wonder of an arts building with sludge from the river, destroying the archives and a priceless Jackson Pollock painting. With Ramona indisposed, it’s up to Nina to coordinate the evacuation.

It occurs to me this will not be possible. We will be unable to evacuate everything in time for the river cresting. Things will be lost. Equipment. Furniture. Art. We’ll have to prioritize, decide what to save and what to sacrifice, designations over which there will no doubt be disagreement. Panic sets in, and I feel my chest constrict.

The scrutiny on Nina makes for great comedy, and Dicharry knows when to release the pressure valve for laughs. What makes this more than a light romp, though, is the way Dicharry underscores her main character’s frustrations with real dilemmas. Her marriage — which seems happy and genial from the outside — is in crisis precisely because she and her husband are not talking about it. Her reluctance to have a baby is rooted in an earlier decision to have an abortion. She wonders about what happened to her identity as an artist after becoming an administrator. Dicharry defines Nina’s rich inner life, and thus gives weight to her struggles rather than using them for cheap laughs.

But laughs are plenty and often priceless. Dicharry writes Nina with keen awareness about just how funny this tragedy is, even as it’s happening. During a spirited break-in to save the Pollock painting, she falls out of a canoe and into the rising floodwaters.

Never could I have imagined such circumstance: the building underwater, Ramona trapped inside, the Pollock in peril, Suzanne and James in love in a kayak, Ethan at home playacting fatherhood with an international exchange student, and me, wanted by campus police staggering around in sewage, a chipmunk carcass thumping against my breastbone as I try to keep myself from throwing up.

“I note, with all possible connotation and entirely of my own doing,” Nina tells us, “that I am immersed to the chin in shit.” In fact, Nina gets into so much of it that readers will revel in trying to figure out how she gets herself out. When it seems that no more terrible things can happen, Dicharry pushes harder.

The Fine Art of Fucking Up is a remarkable debut novel. Dicharry creates a complex cast of characters that are each so driven by ego that they’re unable to play well with others. Nina, the book’s “vaudevillian straight man”, remains calm while her life crumbles around her. When she inevitably takes hold of the reins, she ends up creating even more of a mess. Dicharry uses Nina’s plight to highlight the absurdities and absurd personalities that anyone who has worked in a school will recognize. The Fine Art of Fucking Up is a strong debut, a light but literary course in bureaucratic nonsense.

To purchase Cate Dicharry’s The Fine Art of Fucking Up, click here to visit the Unnamed Press site.

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