My father, a painter and filmmaker, told me this: Any frame from a good movie should be a good photograph, and any square inch of a good painting should also be a good painting.
I was sitting on the bench seat at the kitchen table. He was at the refrigerator, about to open its door. It was evening, and we had both emerged, as was our habit, from our workplaces — for him, the basement, where he was editing film, and for me, my bedroom, where I was reading — for a snack and conversation.
Dad wasn’t one to pontificate. He was more a listener than a talker. Most evenings when we met in the kitchen, he patiently allowed me (I was the pontificator in the family) to talk about the book I was reading, and he would nod and offer confirming responses. When Dad did make an observation, he did so casually, as though the observation were an idea that had come to him just that moment. For me, his casual tone gave weight and trustworthiness to his rare statements of belief.
That evening in the kitchen, I was 12 years old. Dad was 46 and would be dead in six years.
In his remark, Dad did not mean that when looking at a work of art which succeeds within one set of conventions — say, a those of a novel — that a subset of that work succeeds within another set of conventions — say, those of a short story or poem. What Dad had in mind, I am sure, was something far more liberating: that the same impulses and habits and talents and conventions that send one in pursuit of creating a fine work of art also produce many unintended pieces that succeed on their own terms, a byproduct of, but simultaneously transcending, the forces that shape the intended work.
Were we to meet today, Dad returning to the kitchen table with a fork and a plate covered with cellophane, I would remind him of his statement about a good piece of art and its pieces. But, I would ask him this: what about the pieces of a mediocre work, or even a bad work of art?
He would lift the cellophane, nodding for me to continue.
I would cite as an example The French Connection, the book not the movie. I would tell Dad that I read it when the family visited Brooklyn one year, that I found it on a bookshelf in Grandma and Grandpa’s house on West Street, that I read it before falling asleep at night on the day bed in the front room, the room where we watched Lawrence Welk on TV.
Dad would smile.
I would tell him I loved reading the book while listening to the cars passing outside. I would tell him that I loved the book’s heavy, black cover, the maps of Brooklyn and Manhattan on the endpapers, the squarish, stolid, grownup font.
Dad would nod.
I would tell him that I am reading the book again, and that by any traditional standard, it’s pretty bad. (I would be tempted to complain that the book is not available on Kindle, but Dad would not know anything about Kindle.) I would mention the ham-handed foreshadowing (“The detectives were unaware that they were entering an odyssey of intrigue and conspiracy that would obsess them night and day for the next four-and-a-half months”). I would mention the plodding prose. I would tell Dad that the content is largely a turgid recitation of people walking or driving up one street and down another, and entering and leaving hotel and restaurants.
Dad would swallow a bite of chicken and take a sip of water. No fancy snacks for my dad.
The point, I would tell Dad, is that I love the book — not so much as a book, but for its pieces.
Dad would raise his eyebrows.
I would pick up the book from beside me on the bench seat, set it on the table, riffle the dented, deckle-edged pages, and read the first sentence my eyes land on:
“The Frenchmen walked west on 14th two blocks to Union Square and there, by Klein’s department store, with the frigid wind gusting mercilessly across the broad, deserted square, they turned right on Park Avenue South (Fourth Avenue), and started back uptown.”
Dad would cock his head.
See? I would say. Nothing special, I would say. The merciless wind is hokey, and the insistence on explaining that Park Avenue South was the equivalent of Fourth Avenue silly, if charming. But, unable to explain why, I would insist I would insist on the perfection of this random passage, the joy it gives me. I would push my case further, saying I don’t need typical trappings of drama like a merciless wind or a deserted Union Square. Something else there is the root of my delight.
Dad would take a drink of water.
Again, I would flip pages and read: “At Second Avenue, the blue compact made a sharp right and raced downtown.”
More flipping. “He left his room, going out of the Waldorf at the Lexington Avenue entrance, across the street and down a block to the Summit Hotel.”
More flipping. “Patsy went another block to 81st, where he turned right and walked the block to a modern apartment house on the northeast corner of 81st and East End.”
Dad would rock his head once to the left, once to the right, his version of shrugging.
I would insist on my love for these sentences. These sentences without the context of the larger work.
Dad would smile, his lips not parting.
I would insist to Dad that I would happily read these sentences for the rest of my life.
He would rest his cheek on his palm.
I would, I say to Dad, happily just read the names: Klein’s department store, Lexington Avenue, Summit Hotel, 81st Street, East End Avenue. And just read the simple actions interacting with those names: turn, walk, pass.
Dad would seem to be fading; perhaps he is sleepy.
I would speak even louder. I would tell Dad that this is the ultimate proof of his thesis, of his insistence on the beauty and value of the parts, of their worth outside any need for context or reason.
Dad would be nearing sleep now, his mind full of drifting images of boyhood strolls up MacDonald Avenue and Avenue U and Ocean Parkway.
I would be left at the kitchen table, my ideas half-formed and my joy unresolved.
Robert Fromberg's prose has appeared in Indiana Review, Colorado Review, Bellingham Review, and many other journals. His memoir, How to Walk with Steve, is forthcoming from Latah Books. On Twitter and IG, he is @robfromberg.