Contradiction Days

An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood

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Book Description

For readers of Rachel Cusk and Maggie Nelson, the rapturous memoir of a soon-to-be-mother whose obsession with the reclusive painter Agnes Martin threatens to upend her life

Five months pregnant and struggling with a creative block, JoAnna Novak becomes obsessed with the enigmatic abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin. She is drawn to the contradictions in Martin’s life as well as her art—the soft and exacting brushstrokes she employs for grid-like compositions that are both rigid and dreamy. But what most calls to JoAnna is Martin’s dedication to her work in the face of paranoid schizophrenia.

Uneasy with the changes her pregnant body is undergoing, JoAnna relapses into damaging old habits and thought patterns. When she confides in her doctor that she’s struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, he tells her she must stop being so selfish, given she has a baby on the way, and start taking antidepressants. Appalled by his patronizing tone and disregard of her mental health history, JoAnna instead turns to Martin for guidance, adopting the artist’s doctrine of joyful solitude and isolation.

JoAnna heads to Taos, where Martin lived for decades, and gives herself three weeks to model her hermetic existence: phone off, email off, no talking to her husband, no touching the dog. Out of a deep, solitary engagement with a remarkable artist’s body of work emerges an entirely new way for JoAnna to relate to the contradictions of her own body and face up to the joys and challenges of impending motherhood.

About the Author

Praise For This Book

Literary Hub, A Most Anticipated Book of the Year
The Millions, A Most Anticipated Book of the Year

"Messy, filled with rage and unabashedly sexy . . . In a society that promotes images of blissful motherhood, Novak’s book is an exhilarating, freeing read, evoking the work of Kate Zambreno and Maggie Nelson, writing through and of the body. She writes powerfully about her own experience and the pristine, nearly divine beauty of Martin’s work. This book should be read by anyone interested in women’s experience of making art." —Jessica Ferri, The Washington Post

"[Novak's] consideration of painter Agnes Martin, who had paranoid schizophrenia, leads her to think carefully about women’s bodies versus women’s bodies of work—and what it takes for an artist to continue creating while gestating. The book’s lyrical structure suits its emotive material." —Bethanne Patrick, Los Angeles Times

"It’s beautiful. I admire the writing, but also the courage it takes to really go there in one’s own writing—to write about oneself and not make it pretty . . . I loved it. I read it three times, and it disturbed me every single time." —Ottessa Moshfegh, Vogue

"A lyric, searching account of compulsion, dedication, and artistic solitude . . . Novak’s writing is enchanting." —Jamie Hood, Vulture

"Novak is a superb writer, and at the heart of Contradiction Days is a compelling portrait of the artist as a pregnant woman whose body and identity are in flux." —Sophia Stewart, Hyperallergic

"Mesmerizing and exquisitely rendered." —Nicole Graev Lipson, The Millions

"Many women will relate to Novak’s discomfort with her pregnant body and fears about the ways motherhood will change her as a person . . . A courageous and moving memoir." —Publishers Weekly

"Novak’s rhythmic prose is stunningly creative, clearly drawing on her poetic background . . . The story pulses with honesty and vulnerability, spiraling to a satisfying ending." —Kirkus Reviews

"A book about art-making and life-making; just as honest about the contradictions as it is about wonder. JoAnna Novak dexterously writes her world." —Justin Torres, author of We the Animals

"Contradiction Days is a memoir that unfolds like a thriller, a taut, explosive self-examination from an artist trying to simultaneously forget and remember her body. There is sun-bright truth heating every page. As a writer, as a mother, I inhaled this quest for a knowledge that doesn't consume, but reveals." —Lindsay Hunter, author of Eat Only When You're Hungry

"JoAnna Novak uses obsession as her guide to write sharply and beautifully about different aspects of survival—if she gives herself the right rules in the right place, can she finally get it right? Contradiction Days is fierce in its ambition and vivid in its execution." —Chelsea Hodson, author of Tonight I'm Someone Else

"What more could one want from a memoir? JoAnna Novak shies away from nothing in the portrayal of her struggle towards elusive self certainty and maternal commitment. I have not read a more honest account of the intellectual, physical, and psychological insecurities that both threaten and sustain us. A brave and thought-provoking book about the will to live and the will to create." —Kathleen Finneran, author of The Tender Land: A Family Love Story

"Anyone who's ever thought about—or lived at the intersection of—art, obsession, and embodiment will take solace in and inspiration from Contradiction Days. With Agnes Martin as both her source and temple, Novak charts the fear, euphoria, and madness of both art- and life-making. Contradiction Days is an exquisite ode to the inseparable pain and bliss of creation." —Cyrus Dunham, author of A Year Without a Name

"Contradiction Days is that startling and rebellious work we see too rarely—a portrait of the female artist, pregnant with a baby and ambition, with rage and desire, who remains preoccupied by questions of philosophy, aesthetics, and abstraction, as her body grows. Novak's writing in these pages is as sublime, precise and arresting as the Agnes Martin paintings that transfix her." —Danzy Senna, author of New People