Over the course of four novellas, Ken Janjigian's Trapped Doors gives the reader an insightful view into the lives of four struggling artists. We see them as they claw their way out of their respective cages to emerge sometimes better, sometimes worse, but nonetheless changed men. These characters are similar in that no character is particularly seeking profound artistic stardom—some even chase an existence that removes them from their art of choice—but the common thread that runs through the lives of Janjigian's main characters—Henry Fields, Stoker Caudwell, Jay Kard, and Dixson Naturian—is their susceptibility to heartache and penchant for personal rediscovery.
These characters are either struggling in San Francisco when we meet them or on their way there from small East Coast cities and towns. These are road warriors, searching for salvation on the golden West Coast, enduring the pressures of the road, of being out "there" and alone—spiritually, physically, or metaphorically. Some return home, others just continue in their search for one.
Janjigian's artists in Trapped Doors seemingly endure or, in some cases, choose suffering that ultimately brings enlightenment and an epiphany by the end of each chapter. This is more than four stories about four struggling artists, though. We meet these artists as human beings, and learn about the people their lives impact—wives, lovers, and strangers. The writing throughout is realistic, profoundly expressive, and remarkably erudite. Janjigian is well versed in art and art history, which lends authenticity and authority to his characters.
The novel begins with Henry Fields, who, like many of the characters throughout this novel, sees himself through the lives and works of dead artists. It's difficult to determine whether art or family is more important to Henry. His latest work is a collection of poetry that centers on the sordid, trying relationships of poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine—no doubt stand-ins for Henry's own difficult relationship with his wife. Verlaine left his young, pregnant wife to run away with Rimbaud, a teenager at the time, and live the bohemian life in London.
A similar lack of responsibility can be seen in Henry's decisions. His quest to become a prolific writer finds him falling from one dead-end job to another, essentially stalling his marriage. In his latest job as a cabbie, he introduces us to interesting characters. His clients turn out to be almost all women, including one he lusts after and one with whom he falls in love...again. The realistic journey of Henry throughout this section of the novel is more spiritual than physical. It brings Henry face to face with his reality and his relationship with the world around him.
The characters in Trapped Doors share a love for the bohemian lifestyle and for controversial art, as represented through references to DADA, the art of European symbolists and writers referenced from the Beat Generation. Appropriately, their lifestyles follow the same paths as those of famed and often revered artists from the past. This frame of mind is further reinforced when we meet Stoker Caudwell, a college student in Massachusetts whose grades are slipping as he is relentlessly brainwashed by angry Marxists and Neo-Beatnik professors. His longing for love and open-mindedness results in a cross-country trip with his girlfriend that turns his life upside down, but gives him the experience of a lifetime.
When Lyra, his lover, suggests they just pack up and go, hitting the road in the truest bohemian sense, he is skeptical at first, but dives in mainly at her expense—he is broke, she has credit. It is a modern bohemian getaway. What Stoker doesn't know is that he is expected not only to act bohemian, but to live the bohemian lifestyle. On their first stop in West Virginia, Stoker discovers Lyra in bed with their host. While he is urged to understand it was nothing but a natural thing, he is unable to live with it. This is when the true adventure starts for Stoker.
He runs away from this bohemian lifestyle into a completely different world in San Francisco, behind the bar in a gay club, where he gets beaten up by drag queens dressed as Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland. He then becomes a thief. When that doesn't work out, he finally decides to do some more traveling, simply heading north.
Like the European Symbolists who rejected the commonly held belief that art should serve social progress, these characters discover themselves through their art. The artists in Trapped Doors position themselves as free, godlike figures whose life and work could point the way to an ideal future or existence. Their controversial art demands attention similar to that given to the Beat Generation of writers. The Beat writers are well known for controversial work that both stood for and advocated non-conformity in society and art. In particular, Kerouac's On the Road, which is often referenced in this book, heralded the beginning of Beat popularity and serves as a major guidepost for understanding Janjigian's artists.
Jay Kard, in the third novella, "The Living Novel," is one more non-conformist. He is methodical, all man, and full of "testosterone daydreams." Yet, he describes himself through characters in books and films. Jay tells us that he feels like Gogol in Diary of a Madman and that he has a lot in common with Michael Douglas' character in The Wonderboys. He loves Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas, and advises, "Read Joseph Mitchell's Joe Gould's Secret...to know who I am." I wonder if he knows who he is. This character is as queerly put together and constructed as the rest, teetering on having strange compulsive behaviors and compulsions, including adultery and shoplifting.
To twist things even more strangely, his adulterous behavior is endorsed by his wife, Daisy, who suffered a stroke that affected her deeply. Though he is often left to do what he wants, in the end, Jay's deep, enduring love and adoration for his understanding wife comes through triumphantly. Originally from New Jersey, Jay went to Rome after graduating college in order to write his Roman novel. He met Daisy there. After coming back to the States, he ended up with her in San Francisco, where the story in this novel takes place. In the end, we are left with the image of the two of them at home throwing darts at a map. Where it lands is where they travel to next. Could it be just coincidence that it's Jay's hometown in New Jersey?
Janjigian takes chances. He puts his characters in difficult situations and lets us watch to see if they sink or float. While many of his characters' struggles turn into hard and painful lessons, the author demonstrates a keen ability to entertain the reader with very funny scenes, rather than burdening us with downtrodden, "woe is me" monologue after monologue. Oftentimes, the reader is surprised by the outcome, as in the final novella about Dixson Naturian.
While Dixson is the only Armenian character in his novel, there's nothing outwardly Armenian about him, other than the brief history he shares with us about his family back home in New Hampshire and Providence and perhaps his adoration for Arshile Gorky. He even tells us that "I'm quite an oxymoron for an Armenian," as he describes himself in great detail, distancing himself from common physical characteristics often possessed by Armenians.
Like the other three characters, we meet Dixson as he prepares for his quest: "I packed up my Chevy Chevette with my art supplies, some clothes, a few books and $2000.00." He heads west to join his college friend, Xeno, who is planning on starting his own literary magazine and wants to use Dixson’s artwork in the magazine. Dixson reads John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces and references Nietzche's Beyond Good and Evil, a great mix for an artist and soul searcher.
In California, love consumes him, and Dixson falls for and has sex with Xeno's live-in girlfriend, Hannah, which affects the friends' relationship to the extent that Xeno comes to Dixson's apartment and punches him in the face. With Dixson's relationship with Xeno, Hannah, and San Francisco over, he returns to his grandfather in Providence.
It becomes apparent that Dixson is not only searching for the way to express his artistic vision, but also looking for true love, which he finds, coincidentally at an art exhibit in Providence, where he is reluctantly showing some of his work. This love-at-first-sight ending, which in some cases might seem completely formulaic or unconvincing, was unexpected and consequently fresh here.
As I saw the love unfold, I assumed that the woman would magically turn out to be a nice, wholesome Armenian girl. They would run off into the sunset together, raise a large, happy full-blooded Armenian family, have lots of grandkids, and do all the other stuff that some Armenians dream about. Dixson, however, ends up falling in love with a beautiful woman named Sangiella. She's from Spain, and the story closes with Dixson back to journeying--heading to Spain to ask the woman he loves to marry him.
Janjigian demands his reader's attention. There is so much going on in each of these four novellas that they are fun to read and challenging at the same time. I would argue that he goes over the top in some scenes, some dialogue might go on too long without a break, and some characters have too much to say, even overpowering the main characters in terms of their importance to the story as a whole. But I'm torn as to whether or not it is for these unlikely reasons that I like this novel. There is no formula here. There is no obvious plot flow. This is energy, emotion, and soul. When a writer is in this zone, he or she very well may go over the top, run dialogue too long, or allow some characters a chance at the limelight because, after all, this is art. And in art, there are no rules...at least there aren't in Trapped Doors.