Following the death of a renowned and eccentric collector―the author of "Stuff", a seminal philosophical work on the art of accumulation―the fate of the privately endowed museum he cherished falls to a peripatetic stranger who had been his fervent admirer.
... 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.
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.