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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Caretaker

Doon Arbus

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To purchase The Caretaker

Title: The Caretaker
Author: Doon Arbus
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020
Length: 168 pages
Availability: The Caretaker - US
The Caretaker - UK
The Caretaker - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : an intriguing premise and highly polished prose, but doesn't do quite enough with either

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 13/7/2020 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Taking cues from tales by Kafka and Robert Walser, Arbus pulls off an unnerving feat of contemporary postmodernism." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dr. Charles Alexander Morgan was a millionaire ("self-made, un-made, and made again") and a collector, the author of Stuff: A Meditation on the Charisma of Things, who died in 1988, at age sixty-six. His home was opened to the public as the Morgan Foundation in the fall of 1989, displaying his eclectic collection of ... stuff (which does, however, include some very fine stuff -- a Dürer, for example), and the live-in caretaker we are introduced to when the novel opens is still the man first hired for the job back then, a quarter of a century ago. Already as a student, the future caretaker had come across Morgan's: "seminal volume, Stuff", and been completely swept away by it; it became: "in a sense, his bible; it accompanied him everywhere". When he heard of Morgan's death, he immediately contacted Morgan's widow, offering his services -- and got the job he's now held for more than two decades.
       The Morgan Foundation is not exactly the most popular destination in town. People do come -- including visitors who confuse this Morgan with the rather more famous collector, J.P., whose Library is uptown from this location -- but it's generally a small group the caretaker shepherds through the strange collection on the tours he leads.
       This near-daily routine is described, with its slight variations, as well as some of the more memorable (or disturbing) incidents from along the way -- notably, the shattering of one major piece, an episode that haunts the caretaker and which, as becomes clear, he can't entirely let go of. Behind the scenes, or the closed doors, the rest of the time, the house and the collection are almost entirely solely the caretaker's haunt. A Board oversees the institution, but neither they nor Morgan's increasingly incapacitated widow interfere much with the resident caretaker, and he is largely left to his own devices and whims.
       The caretaker had, in youth and at school, shown considerable promise, but proved particulary restive, unable or unwilling to pursue any particular path to its conclusion or, indeed, stay in any particular place. When he approached the foundation for the position he seemed an unlikely candidate, with a resumé that: "detailed a downward trajectory from success toward failure, from achievement toward renunciation, a process of divestiture that bore a disconcerting resemblance to flight". But he realizes -- and convinces the foundation -- that he, a (if not the) true devotee of Morgan and his stuff-y philosophy-cum-ideology, is the man for the job, and that the job is just the thing for him. He certainly settles into the position easily and lastingly enough.
       Some outside influences do affect the caretaker and the institution. For one, there are those rumors about some improper behavior by Morgan, a stain on his reputation. And there's the "capital improvement project" that the Board is pushing -- the presumably very remunerative construction of an office tower rising above the three-story red brick building, ultimately leaving it: "encased in glass at the base of the modern tower", the artifact-repository itself then practically reduced to a display-case object.
       It makes for an entertaining premise, and the unusual personalities at the heart of the novel -- Morgan (even if all that is left of him is basically his legacy) and the caretaker -- are certainly intriguing. Arbus does present some fine descriptions and revealing scenes involving the caretaker, including him leading visitors through the collection (and offering them rather more than they might have expected), but much here also feels underdeveloped, from Morgan's 'stuff'-philosophy and collection itself to much about the caretaker, the bits of specificity strewn in making what's left out all the more noticeable. A highly polished prose, with its tight precision, also constrains the story, and ultimately the novel doesn't quite succeed in either its character-portrait of the caretaker or its presentation of the Morgan-world; either more detail or a softer brush would have been called for.
       There is quirky appeal here, and considerable enjoyment to be found in some of the well-pitched scenes and description, but The Caretaker is not an entirely satisfying fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 September 2020

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The Caretaker: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author and journalist Doon Arbus was born in 1945

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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