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.

Update: an excavated fragment

Today’s brief post is a departure from the usual literary criticism/book review I’ve found myself writing this year. I realise I had stopped posting the occasional ‘random’ piece, to use a term favoured by my students, and which I’d usually gleaned from old notebooks.

I recently read on Jonathan Gibbs’s excellent Tiny Camels blog a post he called an ‘excavated fragment’. While searching for something among the files on his computer he came across a piece called ‘Sex and Death’, dated 2003. He had no idea what it was intended for. I liked his conclusion:

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.

In a similar spirit, then, here’s a piece – sort of a found poem, I suppose – that I came across in an old notebook that I keep by what I believe is called in the US my nightstand. It’s dated Feb. 2013.

I have no recollection of writing it, but quite like the notion of a dialogue with one’s computer. There’s the strangled syntax and dismaying jargon of the disembodied. It was written before I’d read reviews of a recent Spike Jonze film in which the protagonist falls in love with the Siri-type operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) of his computer. This excavated fragment of mine (maybe I should call it a ‘random gleaning’) appears to represent a more fractious relationship. Here it is.

Update

An update is available to your software.

                Continue?

[What happens if I don’t?]

The update will resolve some contradictions

in the social system

and reduce battery usage.

                [Continue]

Here are 2 pp of T&C.

                [Accept]

Well done. Your social system will update

within 24 hours.

Your software is updating

and will take 3 minutes.

You will need to restart.

Restart now?

[What happens if I don’t? Had I stopped?]

You will be held responsible

for all the contradictions in your system.

                [Restart]

Anything else today?

                [Return]

Cees Nooteboom, The Foxes Come at Night. A review.

Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke: Maclehose Press, Quercus, London 2013; first published 2009

Work on the house continues, and we’ve had to travel extensively with work and for social commitments lately, so this will be a hastily-written piece.

I’ve admired the reviews of Jonathan Gibbs for some time, and his debut novel, Randall, was published last month by Galley Beggar Press and was well received. He’s quoted as saying, among the puffs for this book in the preliminary pages, that Nooteboom’s short novels ‘are exquisite toys for the broken-hearted’ – a phrase so impressive the publishers also stuck it on the front cover – ‘erudite tales that revolve around themes of loss and despair but are nevertheless playful.’ Critics have also described the Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn as hilariously funny; both are views I find it hard to share.

These are bleak little sketches about memory, yes, and lost love, but playful they’re surely not. That’s not to say that they aren’t sometimes witty and amusing, but mostly I found them moodily reflective, sad and nostalgic, with that tang of wistful ennui and anomie that’s so prevalent in the bleak fiction that traces its origins in the works of Hamsun and Kafka, continued through Beckett and most commonly found in continental European writers: Bernhard, Sebald, Krasznahorkai…

I bought this slim volume of eight stories in a curious bookshop at the foot of some medieval steps in Exeter; called Book Cycle, it claims to be Britain’s only ‘free bookshop’. You can select up to three books a day and pay what you think is fair. It’s a charity which distributes books in Africa.

I took my purchase to a pub on the Quays overlooking the swan-haunted river. As I ate lunch in bright sunshine I read the opening story, ‘Gondolas’. It’s typical of the collection: a middle-aged narrator, an Amsterdam art journalist, retraces his time in Venice forty years earlier. He finds the very pier where a passer-by took a photo of him and his much younger, teenage American girlfriend – a hippy with home-made tattoos and a penchant for astrology and the occult – the narrator dismissively calls this ‘childish babble’. The melancholy narrative is as much about the man himself now, however, as it is about the woman:

What that snapshot really conveyed, he reflected, more as a statement of fact than out of a sense of tragedy or self-pity, was that it was time he started thinking about his own exit.

 

Nooteboom in 2011: Wikimedia Commons

Nooteboom in 2011: Wikimedia Commons

Memory, mutability and mortality and related feelings of mourning or despair then are the central themes in these stories, usually sparked off by a picture: they are I suppose examples of a kind of ecphrasis, they are about observed life and its usually impenetrable significance, and our efforts to make sense of what are possibly meaningless events, but those events create absences for us which are troublesome when we recollect what they once represented. The idea of our ‘making our exit’ underpins most of the stories, while ‘trying to feel her absence’, as the narrator does here, running his fingers over the stones on the Venetian pier. The slow meditative voice and haunted tone are complemented by a tendency towards aphorism and poetic philosophising; usually this works well, but sometimes it can seem pretentious:

He was aware that every thought entering the mind under these circumstances would be a cliché, but these riddles had never been solved. By reality and perfection I mean the same thing…Death was a natural given, but it was accompanied by such abysmal sorrow at times that you were almost ready to descend into the abyss yourself, and thereby surrender to the perfect reality of the riddle.

That ‘abyss’ – the mystery at the heart of each individual’s life, and our inability to truly know each other – leads the narrators to ponder, and usually reject, the possibility of making sense of our stories. In ‘Paula’ and ‘Paula II’, for example, the first story about a group of bohemian gamblers is told from the point of view of Paula’s temporary lover; the second, strangely, is from her perspective in a sort of limbo beyond the grave. And it’s clear he knew almost nothing about her.

The ‘arsenal’ of memories begins in ‘Gondolas’, as in many of the stories, in the Mediterranean – the island of Hydra. The narrator doesn’t, on reflection, seem to have much liked this young woman with her banal taste in ‘sorcery’, her kitsch artistic sense (his own is more portentous: Piero della Francesca is mentioned) and dabbling in puerile versions of Buddhism. But his own sombre feelings are clearly very important: ‘Love was the need for love, that much at least he had understood.’

She left that summer to resume her life in the USA and he went on to become important in the world of art journalism. They corresponded, however, and when years later she told him she was very ill he went to visit her in California. The trip was not a success. Now that she’s died he has come on a kind of pilgrimage to the place where he first accosted her and began their affair. At the story’s end when he casts her letters into the water, it’s more with a sense of ridding himself of the memory of this unedifying part of his erotic-artistic life, than as a Keatsian elegy to a doomed lost love.

010Other stories are little more than vignettes or snapshots of revealing moments in a person’s life. A mismatched couple go to a cafe in Menorca (where they live) and see a man walk out on his wife after they quarrel and get fried by a lightning bolt in a thunderstorm. The symbolism in this story is a little heavy-handed.

‘Heinz’ is the longest story, and is another sparked off by contemplation of a picture. This is perhaps the most interesting in the collection: the alcoholic Dutch honorary vice consul on the Ligurian coast is richly drawn. It’s another story about the incipherability of a person’s life, yet we feel impelled to try to find out about it. The epigraph by Ivy Compton-Burnett is revealing of Nooteboom’s intentions:

We will not pretend that something has happened when nothing has.

The narrative is again melancholy and elegiac, muted and detached. The theme of drama is expounded upon here and elsewhere in the collection:

Drama in novels or films exists thanks to the denial of duration since it can be compressed into a few evenings of reading or an hour or two of viewing. Things happen in the real world which you can call dramas, and yet, if you want to turn them into art you have no choice but to converge and compress…Our chaos makes for stories lacking in form and clarity.

The stories are about more than nostalgia, then: they’re about the attempt to create art out of the apparently meaningless events we have witnessed and participated in. By narrating these events we perhaps mute the pain. Even though the narrator self-deprecatingly warns his reader not to expect the ‘unities’ or drama in this story; it is artless, with ‘no culmination, no dénouement’. Instead it’s about the incapacity of language to convey meaning or reality; we employ images, as films do, but we can’t shake the wish to

Take [y]our paltry little secrets with you when you depart this life and close the door behind you.

I suppose the stories sound, summarised like this, rather bleak and depressing – they’re not. The language is hypnotic and engaging, and the playfulness mentioned by Gibbs is apparent, now I think of it, in the Beckettian sense of feeling impelled to go on with the telling of the story even when it is hopeless to try to make anything meaningful out of it. Or so the narrators believe; as readers we are required to mistrust this pessimism, see the play beneath the stone surface. Thus in ‘Paula II’ the eponymous woman narrator (who is dead, she died in a hotel fire) observes her erstwhile lover’s ascetic, Zen monastic existence and remarks:

for someone still among the living you make a rather dead impression, as though you have taken an advance on your mortality.