... shrewd, enigmatic...What makes The Caretaker so immensely pleasurable to read is the artistic talent Arbus shares with her mother. They both possess an unusual species of attention, a manner of looking marked by a bemused, impartial curiosity. They insist on letting subjects—and objects—speak for themselves ... Everything is chronicled with such minute precision that they begin to feel alive ... The scrupulous, almost photographic exactitude of these lists, together with their meticulous attention to detail, sacralizes the objects in question, giving them their own kind of perilous agency ... In someone else’s hands, such an approach might come across as ponderous, but Arbus’s writing is uniformly tight and focused, rendered with a light, amusing touch. The Jamesian quality of her prose extends to the book’s pleasantly gothic atmosphere, reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw. Architecture is a character. Windows are often rain-splattered. The weather is perpetually gray ... The experience of reading The Caretaker feels like a visit to the Morgan Foundation might feel, or like flipping through a book of Edward Gorey drawings on a dreary afternoon. One basks pleasantly in the melancholy ... an enigmatic and necessary book, especially for those conflicted about the physical detritus accumulated over the course of a life.
The Caretaker succeeds as a kind of critical fable, bridging her particular perspective with a generalized sense of alienation and material dissatisfaction ... There’s a ringing prescience to the book’s philosophy that feels precisely contemporary. Curation is an obligation that’s crept up on us. Isolation and ceaseless data have made caretakers of us all, shut-in keepers of playlists and timelines, quarantined arrangers of meaningless objects. As such, The Caretaker acts as an analogue telling of our virtual predicament ... If this pederasty plot element seems to come out of left field, it’s because it does. And unless I’m misreading something, it basically returns to left field, not fully resolved by the book’s end ... a book steeped in its own noticing and fondling of objects and their particularities, and the dark associations that arise from considering these objects.
In reading the early portions of this book, my guess was that the caretaker, a Bartleby who had finally found something he would rather, was going to be absorbed into the museum ... not necessarily healthily, not necessarily uncomfortably, perhaps even literally ... Sadly, by the time this glorious catalogue brings joy to the page, the order, however offbeat, that it represents is fracturing, undermined by the combination of the machinations of a changed board with no time for it (the widow has sunk into dementia) and, partly in response, by the actions of the caretaker. His struggle to champion what has possessed him transports both the caretaker and this story to a place where I was no longer sure quite what it was that I was reading ... Almost from its very beginning The Caretaker had strayed far beyond the alternate reality necessary to any novel. But before it arrives at its enigmatic yet oddly poignant conclusion, Arbus takes the narrative into a realm where hallucination, perhaps, a trace of the supernatural, just maybe, and obsession, undoubtedly, are the only keys to the riddle that she, no mean trickster, has conjured up. And it is made even more disorienting by Arbus’s distinctive voice, calm, wry, deadpan amid absurdity, and yet capable of lyricism at unexpected moments.
Arbus brilliantly describes the caretaker’s distorted sense of the museum as a living, breathing organism and flirts just enough with gothic tropes to dramatize his existential dilemma. Taking cues from tales by Kafka and Robert Walser, Arbus pulls off an unnerving feat of contemporary postmodernism.
The story unfolds slowly, without much incident ... All of this unfurls in long sentences laden with unilluminating details and trailing unnecessary clauses. Possibly this is deliberate: Arbus may be making a point about the accretion of meaning through the accumulation of apparently meaningless fragments, and she may be drawing a parallel to the museum itself and its collections. But while it’s easy to imagine some other writer—Dickens, Melville, Isak Dinesen, Nicholson Baker—spinning this premise into thrilling fiction, Arbus’ caretaker and his museum never assemble the details into a moving story ... A depressed protagonist prevents the novel from achieving depth by keeping fellow characters and readers at a distance.