(Yorkshire, UK: Leaky Boot Press, 2019)
Elizabeth A. I. Powell’s debut novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J. Crew Catalogues, is a slow-paced, image-driven story focused on the lives of J. Crew catalogue models and their photographer, Wolfgang Ackerbloom. Wolfgang’s nostalgia for a time of simplicity and perfection is shown through all of the small yet significant choices he makes with his camera, framing and blurring the beautiful and mysterious J. Crew models at a beach house on the east coast. He takes his work very seriously despite it being used for crass advertising. It is 1998, but Wolfgang tries to bring his subjects back to 1964, a year of personal discovery during which he learned to be a critical observer of his own family life:
When Wolfgang shouted, ‘Jesus Christ! Make it feel like 1964,’ he was appealing to the realm of the irretrievable, he was really asking for a second chance at desire. The images Wolfgang wanted for the layout spoke to sustaining in the present what no longer was, and making that the elixir for being in the unfathomable moment. Wolfgang wanted the mystery of why 1964 no longer existed shown to him, and this was another aspect of his desire for life. For somewhere in him, he knew that to recapture the image of the past in the present was the nectar of the gods, the taste of no longer needing the mystery of desire and time, but living simultaneously in and about it without fear or regret or necessity… he was, almost, asking for the world to stop.
At the start of his career, Wolfgang was a photographer in Vietnam during the War because he thought it would make him a man, but the images that he saw there have haunted him the rest of his life. Every touch of detail in Wolfgang’s photos is representative of some larger idea or emotion, and aims to bring to light the mix of perfection and spontaneity that he wishes to see in the world.
His models are young and were not alive in the 1960s to understand the memories he is trying to create for his ‘90s audience. One of the J. Crew models, Mindy, pretends to be her mother in order to embody the mood and era that Wolfgang wants, allowing readers to gain insight into Mindy’s family. Powell paints a portrait of each character while bringing to life the scene in the photo shoot:
Mindy was lying on the old metal bed, on top of cream-colored bedspreads. She was wearing a pinstriped oxford men’s shirt in blue and white. The cotton on the bed was soft. The male models from page forty-two were playing a trumpet off in the backyard of the house where the stylist had set up laundry hanging, and had agonized over which underwear, which socks, which vintage house-dresses to put on the old rope line. Mindy looked at Wolfgang and smiled. Inside the porch of the easy white cape, Wolfgang’s assistant adjusted the lights yet again, and sunlight came in through the honeysuckled trellis and onto the bed. It made the shapes of shadow puppets and shamrocks over Mindy’s body. Underneath her extra rib, Mindy felt the place that the light could not touch, not because there was impenetrable sadness there, but because it was a place that moved the feelings of memory through her body.
Like a great photographer and poet, Powell savors mundane moments and adds poetic language and biblical imagery and ideas while revealing stories of human desire.
Powell’s unlikely narrator, the Holy Ghost, has an omniscient presence that feels fresh in today’s literary landscape. This all-knowing presence bounces from character to character within the same moment, creating distance and intimacy between the characters and the reader. Powell helps readers see the intricacies of these characters lives and how their interwoven stories create layers of confusion as well as love and romance in a world that values consumerism. Powell slowly allows readers to see and understand the complexities of the models’ inner lives during the slow-motion photography sessions. Powell’s writing often feels like one is reading a photograph, a poem, and a story all at once.
Wolfgang’s perfectionism highlights the maneuvering and organizing of props, and the facial expressions and cosmetics on the models create sensuality and longing. Wolfgang believes that the “past was somehow richer than what existed right now… he couldn’t see that the past was woven into each thing in the present…” There is a dance of bodies, clothing, and props as different angles and attitudes are captured in Wolfgang’s camera. This dance leads to sexual affairs and drunken behavior later in the book.
The book is sectioned by the seasons of J. Crew Catalogues: Spring/Summer Catalogue 1998; Fall/Winter 1998; Back to School Issue, Autumn 1999; etc. The teenage models, Mindy and Helene, interact with Wolfgang’s imagined scenes and both girls lust for Wolfgang’s view of the world. Wolfgang’s symbolism is an intimacy that suggests desire and daydreaming. He is an artist who is not bothered by the fact that he is only creating images for a consumer culture. He does not see his role as insignificant or less worthy than other types of photographers, and Powell never lets the reader think that the value of his photo shoots is not of the highest importance to Wolfgang. More than an artist, Wolfgang’s aim is to bring modern culture back to a more beautiful, simple, and youthful time. He spends significant time staging his photography sessions and creating experiences and metaphors that evoke memory for the viewer. Wolfgang hides behind his camera and finds it difficult to socialize with others without thinking of them as subjects for his art.
Eventually, the reader meets viewers of the J. Crew catalogue who yearn for innocence and youth, which are evoked in the photos, and therefore, they purchase the clothing that the models are wearing:
And it was this woman, who could see the ocean not very far at all from her Westport home, who looked instead at the catalogue, staring at Mindy and Helene as they drove by the ocean in their beautiful clothes toward an unknown destination. This woman was moved and thus decided to buy the plaid dress for eighty-eight dollars, because somehow the picture reminded her of the time before she was married…
These passages, while poking fun at the workings of advertisements and consumerism, reveal how the catalogue viewers interact with their pasts in the present moment, similar to Wolfgang. Powell artfully weaves together the stories of the J. Crew models, Wolfgang, and various viewers and investors of the J. Crew catalogue. These characters, who earlier were understood mostly as portraits, become fleshed out people desperately wanting to live in the fictional world that Wolfgang has created in his photographs.
Each section of the novel is separated by an “Intermezzo,” which includes a brief quote in the voice of the Holy Ghost. These Intermezzos connect faith to art and create pauses for the reader to reflect on the passing of time between the catalogues. Much of this novel is focused on time. The lapsing of time, yearning for a time gone, dreaming of a time to come, and trying to recreate time in a photograph while making the models in their J. Crew clothing seem timeless.
Ultimately, Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J. Crew Catalogues is about the impact of photography on memory and how imagination collides with reality. Characters remember their own youth when looking at a photograph in the J. Crew catalogue and it spirals their thoughts into disappointment, yearning, and sometimes physical reactions and romance. Despite the artificiality of modeling for J. Crew, these models are able to blend daydreams and truth to create authentic art that beckons sensory reactions from its viewers and from Powell’s readers.
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Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018), which won the 2019 Illinois Woman’s Press Association Professional Communications Contest and the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Award. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, including Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others.