Lost in Manhattan ambition and together growing apart

The Benefactor offers a glimpse of the high striders in Manhattan’s art and fashion worlds.

THE BENEFACTOR
Sebastian Hampson
Text Publishing

By PETER STUPPLES

Henry Calder is a former editor of Her, a high-end glossy magazine published in New York devoted to fashion and the arts, with more eye-catching ads than content.

Henry is ambitious, driven, materially successful. He got his break into the magazine through connections made at college. One of his fraternity buddies and a man with connections, Timothy Fogel, with his "irrepressible, hungry charm", becomes a brilliant society photographer, whom Henry appoints creative director at Her. Henry is taken up by Martha Beaucanon, originally from Charleston, South Carolina, but now in New York working as a fundraiser for the International Rescue Committee. They marry.

The novel focuses on Henry’s attempts to write a memoir of his life as an upmarket magazine editor and his life with the stars of the celeb world, but these attempts are constantly interrupted by his reconstruction of his life with Martha - how they start off  seemingly in tandem with their hopes and desires and then arc away from each other when her ambition to be a real person, making real changes in the world, conflicts with the more glitzy life that Henry craves.

The first half of the novel, mainly told from Henry’s point of view, sets the narrative frame and seems intent on showing off the author’s, and Henry’s, knowledge of the best restaurants in Manhattan, the impeccable taste of the get rich and get powerful editor — with his youthful dream of becoming a designer/architect easily suppressed by the lure of life in the fast lane.

The novel then begins to intensify the narrative, to move in close on Henry’s relationship with Martha, and suddenly takes on an unexpected seriousness. The reader is treated to deeper layers of characterisation that lie beneath the glitz, from showing off to showing up the unequal spaces of male and female power, the unequal expectations of Henry and Martha in their life together, that says a lot about gender relations and partners who grow away from the social circumstances that brought them together. The writer sometimes takes over Henry to interpolate ideas,  so Henry voices opinions about art that seem too detached from Henry’s own careful following of "immaculate" taste.

The name dropping, scattered within the narrative on almost every page, at first seems irritating until the reader ‘‘gets it’’; it’s the problem of the Manhattan set Henry likes to move in, but marks them out as a tribe. The god of their village is Top Brand. We are encouraged to loathe them. Does Henry "get it?" Finding out is worthwhile as Sebastian Hampson keeps his focus, pares down the action and the feelings to a close study of Henry and Martha. The episodes that keep filling in the squares of the backstory gradually reveal the inadequacy of Henry and the growing disillusionment of Martha. At the same time the reader is treated to a glimpse of the high striders in Manhattan’s art and fashion world from the 1980s to the present that make googling them an interactive pleasure. To be enjoyed with sparkling wine and Beluga caviar.

- Peter Stupples teaches at the Dunedin School of Art.

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