Jonathan Gibbs, ‘Randall, or the Painted Grape’

It’s a couple of months now since I read Randall, so it’s faded slightly from my memory – but I recall enjoying it immensely. I’ll begin by paraphrasing the outline of plot on the book’s inside cover – a handsome affair, by the way, that makes these Galley Beggar Press titles a pleasure to handle and read.

It’s a counterfactual history of the Young British Artists group of the last decade of the twentieth century and the first of this one. Damien Hirst was run over, ‘apparently when drunk’, by a train. His place is taken by our eponymous anti-hero, the genius provocateur conceptual artist who amuses and bemuses the press, public and his friends.

He’s usually drunk or high, and loves causing chaos: he’s Withnail, but talented. The narrative rattles along, with chapters alternating between the notional present, when our narrator, Vincent, a loadsamoney city broker, first meets him in 1989 when he’s an art student at Goldsmith’s, and they become unlikely friends. In the opening chapter Vincent is in New York City to meet Randall’s widow, Vincent’s ex-girlfriend Justine (characteristic of Randall to steal his best friend’s partner). The parallel stories then unfold, and we realise that the narrative of Randall’s early years is taken from the biography Vincent has been writing but has no intention of publishing. His is arguably as important a body of creative art as his hero’s.

The initial revelation comes in a dust-filled, abandoned studio Randall had secretly used in New York, filled with (putatively) brilliant traditionally-painted scenes of pornographic, priapic liaisons involving Randall and most of his friends and patrons. Justine has summoned Vincent, as co-executor of Randall’s estate, to help decide whether to exhibit these oils and risk ruining his reputation as an avant-garde enemy of traditional painting methods, or store them for posterity.

The plot writhes as much as the friends and lovers whom Randall tries and tests. I found some of the narrative a little hard to swallow: why would the art-terrorist bohemian misfit Randall befriend this philistine Thatcherite broker who is proud of his ambition to become a millionaire trader by the time he’s 26? The answer is typical of Randall’s acerbic cynicism: Vincent is his banker: he knows how to make them both very rich. Both of them are pretty unpleasant.

But of course one doesn’t have to like the characters in a novel to enjoy it. And it’s very well written. Essentially simple and lucid in style – the register isn’t artfully literary – the narrative is entertaining and animated: I finished it in three rapid sessions. Let’s try to give a flavour of its compelling language and objectionably boorish protagonist.

Randall is a conundrum: anti-social to the point he seems on some kind of psychological spectrum, he is nevertheless surrounded most of the time by acolytes, sycophants and rivals. Vincent is the character who interested me more, in some ways, than Randall. He’s a stodgy, loyal Boswell to his friend’s anarchic Dr Johnson, Gatsby’s Nick.

For example, Vincent dutifully records all of his hero’s ‘Randallisms’: crudely cynical bon mots like “Conceptual art – art you don’t have to see to get”, or what Vincent himself describes as ‘the more famous “Modern art – art you don’t have to like to buy”’.

Randall is never happier than when he can make ‘art’ as part of his project to dépater the bourgeoisie, hence the series that makes his name, his ‘Sunshines’ fashioned from used toilet paper (the pattern comes from where the sun shines from: out of his arse). Randall is cruder, more scatological than those figures he resembles most from the past: apart from Johnson there’s Blake, the mystic eccentric who saw angels in the trees, and Swift. Mozart.

With his predilection for pretentious names for his shows, which ‘are as much about exhibitionism as art’, Randall both sends up the ignorantly wealthy who buy his works, and exploits their desire to be hip and admired for their edgy taste. Even Vincent begins to get this; he begins to see the world from Randall’s perspective:

The trading floor began to look to me like a massive art installation, and one on a far grander scale than anything Randall or the others had ever even considered. The gallery, with its patches of whispered conversation and furtive body language, and the gradual presence of more important, better connected people, leading to the continual second-guessing of every new arrival, felt like a strange, underwater trading floor.

 

This is the novel’s theme: Mammon and art as symbiotic, mutually exploitative. One of the most interesting exchanges between Randall and his dutiful biographer begins with Vincent ingenuously relating his pleasure that the artist still wants to share his works-in-progress with him when he’d become famous: ‘I still had a use for him beyond the financial’, he believes:

When I gave him a hint of this, he characteristically twisted it around the other way: ‘I only asked you to look after my money so that I could be sure I had you close by, surely you know that, Vincent?’

And, with a hand on my shoulder, his friendly-aggressive-ironical shake. ‘I need you near me, Vincent. I never know what I think about anything till I’ve heard you ask me what it’s supposed to mean’.

Randall likes this accidental aperçu:

He saw me laugh, as much at his conceitedness as at the phrase itself, and grinned. ‘Go on then, Vincent. Write it down.’

And I got out my notebook and pen, and he repeated the words, leaning over me.

 

As the notebooks fill and Randall enjoys annotating and amending the sub-Wildean aphorisms, the whole thing, Vincent suggests, ‘wavered between the ironical and the genuine.’ Near the novel’s end Vincent realises

[Randall] needs someone dumb and philistine to use as a measure of his own brilliance. Or maybe not. Maybe it was Randall’s particular genius to make friends with someone like me.

Earlier, at the Venice Biennale, when Randall had asked Vincent’s opinion of his installation, Vincent fumed:

It made me want to laugh, with rage, to have him ask me that…I wondered what I was doing there at all, if he really wanted my opinion, or if I was still the chump, the doofus, the aesthetic crash test dummy…I make myself ridiculous.

 

In other words, this is a novel about the relationship between art and life: which imitates which? Does the biographer create his subject, the novelist his character – or vice versa? What exactly is creative art, anyway, in a postmodern world where the signifier, like the author, is dead, and a glass of water has become an oak tree because its artist-creator has said it is.

These aesthetic philosophical posers underpin the narrative; they give it gravitas. This is a highly intelligent deconstruction of the world of art – and fiction – a dissection of the destructiveness of creation, the creativity of destruction. As such it’s viciously and abrasively funny but also deadly serious.

The front cover has a quotation from a scene in which Randall perpetrated one of his most egregiously offensive art-attacks, shooting yellow paint balls at a boatload of revellers:

People were sobbing and cowering. A man’s voice, plummy and shrill, was repeating ‘It’s just paint! It’s just paint!’ over and over.

 

If I understand anything about this novel’s take on art (and I accept I probably don’t), it’s that Randall was a genuine genius who was compelled, in a world in which art has no merit or value, only a price-tag determined by the artist’s fatuous celebrity, to conceal his true genius and play the naked emperor, the joker, the satirist, the showman. He hides his real work in a secret studio, a tomb full of lewd treasures that are his final testament.

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