In Sirens & Muses, a confident and captivating debut novel from Antonia Angress, characters take turns being sirens and muses — sometimes embodying both at once. They tempt each other, desire each other, inspire each other, question themselves, their art, their relationships with one another. Collaborating on art becomes a sensuous act. Art becomes the way characters connect but also hurt each other. Tension seeps into their brushstrokes. Angress paints a world suffused with flawed and distinct characters often undone by their own ambition, insecurity, and the capitalist trappings of the art world. Art and the making of it carries so many emotional, political, and symbolic layers, and Sirens & Muses makes those underpinnings beneath the surface of art its main source of character and relationship development to great effect.
Set in 2011 — on the campus of an elite arts college called Wrynn for the first half and then in New York City for the second — Sirens & Muses is backdropped by the Occupy movement, themes of capitalism and political art permeating the narrative. The art world becomes a mystifying place where business and art are inseparable and often contradictory forces. As three of the four main characters come of age and come into their artistic visions and styles (and the fourth reevaluates his life and motivations and inspirations in a classic Artist’s Midlife Crisis), they’re significantly impacted by the outside world, by class, by other’s perceptions of who they are and who they should be, by the agonizing quest to make art that is not only meaningful but profitable.
The novel is told in four alternating perspectives: Louisa, Karina, Preston, and Robert. Louisa Arceneaux, a student at Wrynn from Louisiana, stretches her own canvases and skips meals to save money as, even with her scholarship, the expensive world of Wrynn remains inaccessible to her. This is not at all the situation for her roommate Karina Piontek, daughter of art collectors and a big name on campus because of her family’s status and also because of a much-gossiped-about moment in her recent past. Louisa is drawn to Karina, and the two begin a fraught, undefinable relationship that blurs lines between art and desire. But Karina’s also tangled up with Preston Utley, an anti-capitalist edgelord who focuses more on his surreal digital art blog than on his Wrynn coursework. The love triangle between Louisa, Karina, and Preston is fraught and frenetic, all three such different artists who, again, operate as sirens and muses for each other in turns (Angress is a maestro of chaotic characters and the novel does indeed fit very neatly into the “disaster bisexual canon” of literature that she coined a couple weeks ago). The fourth perspective comes from Robert Berger, a professor at Wrynn who built his career on political art but newly contends with the ways in which he might not be as radical or boundary-pushing as he once thought.
Angress makes art romantic and sexy, but she does not romanticize it. The mess of the art world and of an exclusive college like Wrynn is on full display and provides much of the novel’s tension, affecting characters on individual and interpersonal levels. Karina doesn’t even think about her plethora of art supplies, her pre-stretched canvasses, they are givens for someone who grew up surrounded by an art collection. Louisa, meanwhile, is not allowed to merely make art at Wrynn. She has to constantly think of money, of her supplies. The classroom setting at Wrynn is cutthroat and full of pretension and presumption.
The depth and detail Angress brings to descriptions not just of the art itself but the art-making are breathtaking. The brushstrokes used to paint each character are precise but dynamic. The simultaneous sexual relationship and artistic relationship between Karina and Louisa brims with desire and tension. It’s incredibly hot. And queerness is woven into the novel gorgeously, Karina and Louisa’s queer identities distinct and intricate, their feelings for one another complicated moreso by the fact of Wrynn’s competitive environment pitting them against each other than by anything having to do with queerness. The eroticism of a roommate romance but also of two artists entangling amid their art is irresistible, and Angress writes fucking with the same level of lovely yet simple detail as she does the art-making:
At first they only booked up in Louisa’s studio, late at night when the building was empty and silent, but after a few days they began having sex in their room, as well. It was surreal, Louisa thought sometimes: there were her posters on the wall, and there was her green plastic shower caddy, and there was her towel on its hook, and here was Karina’s pale pink nipple in her mouth, and here were Karina’s fingers moving insider her, and here was Karina’s tongue on her neck, and here—
Even the rote process of Preston creating posts for his tumblr is rendered somehow elegant, the passion each of these artists have for their work leaping off the page, buoyed by language that feels specific to each. The technical and emotional aspects of their art receive equal attention. I found myself particularly surprised by how invested I was in Preston’s arc, even when he gives into some of his worst tendencies — tendencies that play into one of his worst fears of being too much like his father. Louisa, Karina, Preston, and Robert’s dreams, desires, and fears are all fully felt in their art and their actions but also in their relationships to their art. Robert’s crisis of feeling like a sell-out could easily feel reductive or cliche, but Angress makes him, like the others, more complex than meets the eye.
Here are four imperfect characters who sometimes make terrible choices and yet who you can’t help rooting for as they figure out who they are as people and as artists. Louisa often does not say what she really means or ask for what she wants, self-sabotaging along the way. She internalizes too much from workshop, stymied by her classmates’ suggestions that she paints too many landscapes. But home is an indelible part of who she is, and so why shouldn’t place play into her work so profoundly? The artist workshop setting can be so stratified and counterproductive to actual creativity and self-exploration, and Sirens & Muses explores that well. Karina, meanwhile, is charming but full of herself, success coming easily with loads of help from her family’s status. She can be cold and distant with both Louisa and Preston, but she also struggles with mental health. Much of the conflict between Louisa, Preston, and Karina hinges on the differences between them but also their refusal to actually talk about or acknowledge any of it, instead giving in to jealousy and resentment.
A less interesting approach to the book would have been to make it entirely a campus novel. Instead, Sirens & Muses begins as a campus novel and then expands into an NYC art world novel. Both worlds of Wrynn and NYC are full of possibility but also harm. The artists are exploited by both — sometimes violently, as is the case with an assault Karina experiences. The big art competition built to for much of the beginning of the book would, in a lesser novel, be an endpoint or near-endpoint. But instead, Angress places it midpoint and uses it as an opportunity to blow everything up, sowing a twist that sends the characters scattered in new directions.
The art (and art-making) descriptions and rich sentence-level textures of Sirens & Muses make it a propulsive and immersive read, but the novel’s most compelling work is its relationship work. There’s that central thorny triangle between young lovers, but Angress writes some of the other relationships embedded in the novel with equal care and detail. Louisa has a close relationship with her artist mother and ailing grandfather back home and a meaningful relationship with home itself. Preston’s childhood friend back home also adds to our understanding of Preston and how he moves through the world. Karina is intensely lonely, her lack of meaningful relationships for much of the book contextualizing her choices. And there are fascinating moments that emerge when Robert begins work as a private instructor for a promising young boy whose high-strung rich lesbian moms want to nurture his artistic abilities, deepening Robert’s identity crisis about his art and career but also allowing him to reconnect with work.
Sirens & Muses is structurally ambitious and wonderfully crafted. It checks a lot of boxes for me personally: I love an alternative perspectives novel, and I love novels with hot queer sex, and I love a chaotic art school tale as a former chaotic attendee of an art school. But I was impressed by the book’s ability to surprise me at several turns. The closer you look at these stories of these four interconnected artists, the more overlapping, touching, and parallel lines you’ll see. It’s like a painting you don’t want to look away from.